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Book Review : 3 Fascinating, Eccentric Tales Before a Grim Murder

October 16, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

L'Amante Anglaise by Marguerite Duras translated by Barbara Bray (Pantheon: $10.95, hardback, $6.95 paper; 122 pages)

A novelist and screenwriter, Marguerite Duras has produced a psychological study bridging both forms. Last year, "L'Amante Anglaise" appeared in Los Angeles as a play; its complexities considerably clarified by the actors' sensitive interpretations and post-performance comments. Virtually identical to that script, the book is challenging even for admirers of Duras' elliptical style--far closer to "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" than to her recently published novel "The Lover."

The title is a triple French homonym; the phrase "la menthe anglaise" (English mint) sounding identical to "l'amante en glaise" (a female lover made of clay or sand.) The third variation in spelling changes the meaning to the feminine form of "the English Lover." These three interpretations are scattered throughout the text as guideposts to the speakers' repressed thoughts.

In Love With Plants

Claire Lannes, the confessed murderer of her cousin Marie-Therese, grows English mint for its purgative qualities. Oppressed and miserable inside her house, she spends virtually all her waking hours alone in her garden, and has written to various newspapers for instructions on growing the English mint in the alien soil of rural France. In that limited sense, she's an Anglophile: " L'amante anglaise "; though the object of her love is not a person but a plant.

The victim, Marie-Therese Bousquet, is the deaf-mute cousin of Claire Lannes, employed for 20 years as housekeeper for Claire and her husband, Pierre. She is described as earthy and "ox-like," exceptionally fond of her employers and grateful to them for giving her a home. In a letter Claire sends to a gardening journal for advice, she writes l'amante en glaise instead of la menthe anglaise, a subconscious error indicating her true opinion of the cousin, whom she sees as a lump of clay.

The novel opens as a writer researching a book about the case interviews Robert Lamy, the owner of the village cafe frequented by Pierre and Claire Lannes. The reader is invited to put himself in Lamy's place and re-imagine the circumstances leading up to the murder and Claire's confession in the bar. The cafe owner's account is the outsider's, providing the first of three layers of experience, each more revealing than the one preceding it.

At first, Lamy supplies only the superficial facts surrounding the brutal killing, but as the questions grow more probing, his recollections expand. We learn that Pierre Lamy fancied himself a boulevardier , despite the fact that he lived in a small country town. Notorious for his love affairs, he worried that advancing age would soon curtail his activities.

According to Lamy, Pierre's wife Claire was completely indifferent to his amours. The village consensus was that Claire walked the narrow line separating insanity from eccentricity. When in the cafe, she was either silent or abnormally loquacious. Robert Lamy and Pierre Lannes would take no notice of her babble or her silence. The housekeeper Marie-Therese couldn't speak; Pierre hardly bothered. Claire Lannes lived entirely within her own troubled mind.

Blurting Out Her Guilt

The second speaker is Pierre Lannes, 57, a moderately prosperous civil servant, married for 24 years to the confessed murderess. Pierre tells the interviewer he never suspected his wife until she blurted out her guilt in the cafe. Until that moment, he had believed Marie-Therese to be visiting her ailing father. "The first thing I thought of was the house--what a mess everything would get into while she was away."

When Pierre asked his wife when Marie-Therese would be returning, Claire replied that she had written and told her not to come back. Still thinking only of his own comfort, Pierre decided to put his wife into a nursing home while he attempted to persuade his maid to reconsider. He not only admits that he's happy to have an excuse to be rid of Claire, but adds that he had been longing for just such an opportunity.

Marie-Therese had "kept an eye" on Claire; a new maid couldn't be expected to take on that job. As Pierre talks, Claire begins to acquire substance. We learn that she had been passionately in love with a young policeman when Pierre met her, and when the romance ended, had attempted suicide.

Pierre Makes His Plans

After Pierre's affairs with other women began, Claire withdrew into her secret world. Her indifference proved convenient to her husband, who never seriously considered divorce. The arrangement suited him perfectly. He was utterly free to do exactly as he pleased, while a mute-efficient maid cooked and cleaned for him and his wife remained as undemanding as a piece of furniture.

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