Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Sailor from Gibraltar (A Review)

One of my fondest memories from college is sitting in my fav bohemian café near the music school and reading Marguerite Duras's 1952 novel The Sailor from Gibraltar. It was February in one of those dim, decaying cities on the Erie where most of the industry has moved overseas, leaving only a few colleges and hospitals, as well as the retail sector, to provide employment. Under the gray skies, dirty snow, and dingy pseudo-Modernist buildings, the town had a sadly Communist-era Eastern European feel. I was often reminded of Mati Unt's Things in the Night, a 1990 Estonian novel set partially amid the endless Soviet-built concrete apartment blocks of Tallinn. Unfortunately, an act of terrorism destroys Tallinn's power supply on New Year's Day, leaving the residential district seemingly deserted beneath suffocating layers of snow. That is kind of how you feel in the upstate New York's "rust belt" during the winter too.

But Duras's pleasantly meandering story provided a nice respite. The plot is deceptively simple: a bored, angry, frustrated Frenchman on vacation in Italy with his vapid mistress ends up running off with a wealthy widow who spends her days roaming the world in her yacht, forever looking for her "sailor from Gibraltar." There really isn't any conflict per se. The novel is essentially a travel narrative in which the characters are secondary to beautifully evocative prose that paints vivid portraits of beaches and dances along the Italian coast, the bejeweled waters of the Mediterranean, the crowded streets of China, and the post-colonial exoticism of North Africa. I think The Sailor from Gibraltar is best summed up as the antithesis to Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky, the darkly hypnotic tale, first published in 1949, of insipid American tourists lost in the stark and monotonous dunes of the Sahara. Interestingly, both novels draw from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but whereas Bowles and Conrad both focus on death and madness, Duras treats the journey into the alien unknown as merely one more episode in a leisurely, never-ending adventure. Although people meet, fall in love, form friendships, and then leave each other, The Sailor from Gibraltar never takes itself too seriously. It simply floats along from port to port, skillfully recalling the casual glamour of the mid-century, that era before plastic flip-flops and dopey t-shirts. It is both the ultimate beach read and a real literary treat.

So if ever you find yourself trapped in the winters of upstate New York, seeing out your window nothing but some grayscale panorama, this is the perfect book for you. My only complaint is that cover Open Letter Press has designed – it looks way too much like the new edition of Catch-22 and does nothing to suggest the novel's airy beauty. The colors are just too bold and heavy. But publishing aesthetics aside, The Sailor from Gibraltar comes highly recommended. (I recently suggested Neil Gaiman's American Gods as a fun vacation read on another blog. Now I'm kicking myself. How could I have forgotten The Sailor from Gibraltar?)


Mrs. C said...

Um...Where didst thou school, child? I only ask as I spend virtually every winter ensnared in the grip of the winds off Erie...

should you be wary of posting such, perhaps you'd shoot me a flail-mail; it's

Mrs. C said...

I just replied to your reply at your reply in my 'blog. This place feels so talky so often, then throws up these weird walls that separate talker from talker, y' know?

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