Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2014

The Sailor from Gibraltar, by Marguerite Duras, translated by Barbara Bray

6055537The Sailor from Gibraltar is a marvellous dreamy book – reading it is like drifting away from all that’s mundane and real.

The University of Rochester’s Open Letter Press is a non-profit literary translation press, dedicated to opening cultural borders.  I’ve never heard of most of their author list, but I like the idea of expanding my horizons and when they recently had an offer to good to ignore, of course I succumbed.  I bought the first 25 of their titles to be published for only $200.  (Yes, that’s less than $10 a book:) .  I have already read and reviewed one of them (Gasoline by Quim Monzo, translated  by Mary Ann Newman) and now I’m discovering Marguerite Duras.

Duras is listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, but the recommended title is The Ravishing of Lol Stein (1964).  The one in the Fist 25 Collection is The Sailor from Gibraltar, an earlier book from 1952 and before she adopted a more experimental style.  It’s probably not very original to say so, but it reminds me of Camus’s L’Etranger (The Stranger/The Outsider, published in 1942) because it also features a disaffected, disengaged young man drifting into a surreal kind of existence.

The story begins in Italy, where he is on holiday from his dreary job with his girlfriend, Jacqueline.   He gets a sudden impulse to go to Florence, but once there, he succumbs to an invitation from the van driver who gave them a lift, to visit Rocca on the coast.  Once again, the impulse is urgent, and Jacqueline goes along with it even though she’s been enjoying the tourist delights of Florence while he – to her frustration – has been wasting his days in cafés drinking coffee and crème de menthe.

What she doesn’t know is, that after all the years they’ve lived together, her hopes of marriage are about to be trashed because he’s decided that he’s going to dump her at the same time as he abandons his job.  He has fallen in love with the story of a rich American woman called Anna who sails around the world looking for a sailor from Gibraltar – and it is a short step to falling for the woman herself when he actually meets her.

The story becomes more surreal as the yacht sets sail.  Does the sailor from Gibraltar with whom Anna had an affair years ago really exist?  The stories say that he is a fugitive because he is a murderer, but the story of the murder seems fantastic.  All the ports in the Mediterranean know that she is desperate to find him and will believe any story about where he is.  In response to stories that people bring her about him, the yacht sails around in search of him, from France to Africa.

The feelings that she has for this ethereal sailor impinge on any relationship that she might form with anyone else.  Eventually the pair fall in love, but it’s always conditional, because her quest is enduring, and if it’s ever successful, the sailor from Gibraltar will claim her.

It’s not the plot that keeps the reader engaged in this story, it’s the sun-filled days, the endless glasses of champagne, and the idleness of it all.  The conversations are all inconclusive, nothing really matters, there are none of the mundane problems of everyday life.  Reading it is like taking a break from all the pressures of modern life.

I must read more of Marguerite Duras!

PS Love the book cover design: a perfect marriage of colour and image; it’s by Milan Bozic.

Author: Marguerite Duras
Title: The Sailor from Gibraltar
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray
Publisher: Open Letter Press, 2008
ISBN: 9781934824047
Source: Personal library.


Direct from Open Letter Press




  1. I’ve read the lover by her and have her wartime notebooks on my shelf she is a wonderful writer I really like the lover this one sounds great must check next I’m in London to see if I can find it


    • Oh, I’m a fan too now. But she wrote so many books – it’s hard to know where to start!


  2. I love the sound of this one, Lisa. Just the idea of escaping life and spending a few hours in the sun-drenched atmosphere of the yacht. Duras is on my list of authors to read.


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