The art of Marguerite Duras
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
Marguerite Duras won the Goncourt prize in 1984 for her novel L’Amant (The Lover), a compressed, stylistically brilliant autobiographical account of a love affair between a fifteen-year-old girl and a twenty-seven-year-old Chinese man she meets on a ferry on the Mekong river in Indochina. The author described the book as a “photograph album”. Although the narrator writes early on, “the story of my life doesn’t exist”, this is clearly a tease as Duras cannibalized her life for her fiction, reworking episodes repeatedly, obsessively – a process that reached its apotheosis in L’Amant. Her life is all too present in her work.
She was born Marguerite Donnadieu a hundred years ago, on April 4, 1914, in Saigon (and died in 1996). She took the pen name Duras from the wine region where her father once owned a house. Her parents, both teachers, had answered a government call for citizens to pursue a career in French Indochina, but her father soon fell ill and returned to France where he died when she was a young child, leaving her mother, still in Indochina, to bring up three children on her meagre teaching salary, an unsmiling presence in the “photograph album”. Duras herself only visited her mother country once during her childhood, but returned there to finish her studies.
It’s tricky to get a proper handle on Duras’s oeuvre as she worked in more than one medium and in the 1970s turned increasingly to film. According to David Coward, writing in the TLS (May 21, 1999), there are “sixty-three works of fiction, twenty films, twenty-five or so plays and theatrical adaptations”. By my reckoning she published twenty-odd novels, the other works of fiction being novellas and short récits. Added to which, writes Coward, there have been “thirty-three monographs since 1970” (and counting). Coward goes on to say “Duras has cornered the world PhD market in French studies”. She is the “voice of French Literature in our hero-hungry fin de siècle”. This was in 1999; it could be said that voice now belongs to Michel Houellebecq. Just as there is an adjective houellebecquien, people have talked of situations or moods being “durassien”.
Duras’s return France in the 1930s to complete her education led to marriage to Robert Antelme. The couple became active in the Resistance and Robert was deported to Ravensbrück, from where he returned weighing 37 kg. The marriage didn’t last much beyond the war (they lost a child early on) but Robert’s story was the source for the powerful La Douleur (1985). According to Duras’s biographer Laure Adler, Antelme was indignant when the novel appeared, feeling that his experience should have remained a matter private to him (although he did write about it himself). The book is also a clear-eyed and unsparing account of wartime collaboration and its consequences for the perpetrators, while General de Gaulle is particularly unflatteringly depicted as someone who despises “le peuple”. Duras had a close friendship with her contemporary and de Gaulle’s onetime political rival François Mitterrand (who attended her Goncourt prize lunch) but how much did she know, one wonders, about Mitterrand’s wartime tergiversations? Her decision to join the Communist Party towards the end of the war appears to have been motivated by the hope of thereby getting news about the imprisoned Robert. She resigned her membership in 1950 and went on to describe Communism as a disaster. But she did sign manifestos against the war in Algeria, spoke up for feminism and gleefully joined the students in ‘68.
Recurring themes in her work – desire, infidelity and betrayal, alcohol, transgression, prostitution, thwarted ambition, sorrow (“geindre”, to moan or whimper, is a verb that occurs frequently) chime with what Duras professes in Les Lieux de Marguerite Duras, an in-depth and beautifully illustrated interview with Michelle Porte published by Minuit in 1977: “On n’écrit pas du tout au même endroit que les hommes. Et quand les femmes n’écrivent pas dans le lieu du désir, elles n’écrivent pas, elles sont dans le plagiat” (“ . . . when women don’t write about desire, . . . they’ve entered the realm of plagiarism”). Discuss!
Also in that book she captions a photo of herself (looking like something out of Bugsy Malone) with her brother (above) “my brother Joseph from Un Barrage contre le Pacifique. He died very young during the war, for lack of medicines”. Un Barrage contre le Pacifique (1950, The Sea Wall), Duras’s third novel and set in Indochina, is unquestionably her masterpiece, and Joseph a very vivid presence in it, a boorish but physically attractive twenty-year-old womanizer who is both protective towards his sixteen-year-old sister Suzanne and seeks to exploit financially the fact that she is being relentlessly pursued by a rich but unprepossessing young colonial Frenchman. The siblings live with their widowed, bankrupt and depressed mother, who has given up on her doomed agricultural projects and financially ruinous attempts to build a sea wall (which was her mother’s experience). Duras explores relations between the Vietnamese and the French colonizers, of whom the family were not representative in that they went native, learning Vietnamese and swimming in the rivers. Duras’s own mother, on whom the mother in the novel is clearly modelled, apparently disapproved of the book.
While it would be easy to think of the mother figure in Duras’s fiction as harsh, unloving, worn down by suffering and broken dreams, there is a moment in L’Amant de la Chine du Nord (1991, The North China Lover) when the mother exhorts her children to observe nature, to listen to the sounds of the night (they are living on the edge of the jungle); she tells them about injustice, war and death and reminds them that they are children of Indochina rather than mere colonialist intruders. (And her second novel, La Vie tranquille, published in 1944, is dedicated to her mother.) Did her younger brother utter the wonderful line “La lune elle réveille les oiseaux” (the moon wakes the birds up) as the little brother does in L’Amant de la Chine du Nord?
This novel is an interesting case, being a reworking of L’Amant and prompted by the appearance of the film of the earlier book she had worked on with the director Jean-Jacques Annaud. She disapproved of Annaud’s interpretation and disowned the project. The book was in a sense a rejection of the film, and was dedicated to Thanh, her Chinese lover of many decades before, whose death she had recently heard about.
Duras had a highly productive middle period producing some of her best work in the years 1958–64: Moderato Cantabile, a novella about a near-affair between the wife of a factory owner and one of his employees, set in a seaside town in northern France, which is a minor masterpiece; the wonderful Dix Heures et demie du soir en été, set in Spain (10.30 on a Summer night), the film script Hiroshima mon amour (1960); and L’Après-midi de Monsieur Andesmas, which evokes vividly the scrubby sun-scorched hinterland behind Saint-Tropez. Others would no doubt cite Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein (1964, The Ravishing of Lol Stein).
Then there is the (rarely performed) work for the theatre, in four volumes, including versions of Henry James’s The Aspern Papers and Strindberg’s Dance of Death, and the numerous film scripts.
Hiroshima mon Amour (above) was of course made into a film by Alain Resnais, who died earlier this year aged ninety-one. Resnais is probably best known for the cinematically very beautiful Last Year at Marienbad, but personally I much prefer Hiroshima mon amour. Starring Emmanuelle Riva (“seductive rather than beautiful”, as Duras rightly says) and Eiji Okada, it portrays a brief affair between a young French woman who has come to Hiroshima to appear in a “film for peace” and a young Japanese architect; both are married, she with children. We see a sanitized, almost stylized city, recovering from its trauma; the woman has her own trauma to deal with: the brutal death of her German soldier lover when she was eighteen in the last months of the war and living in the Loire town of Nevers, and subsequent rejection by her mother and pharmacist father. It is a masterpiece.
On May 13 Gallimard will be publishing Volumes 3 and 4 of Duras’s Oeuvres complètes in their prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. Volumes 1 to 4 will be reviewed in a future issue of the TLS.