Marguerite Duras spent her early years in prewar French Indochina. After a series of relatively conventional novels, she came to express dissatisfaction with writing as a medium that continued to serve the contemporary world. No one, she said, read anymore, including herself, although she said that writing was a personal necessity, a compulsion that threw her into a highly charged relationship with words. Yet perhaps the result was obsolete. Instead, Duras proposed the “multiple work of art,” material that might find expression equally in the form of an opera, a film, a play, a dance, a novel. India Song (1976) served as an example, appearing simultaneously in film and play form and soon after published by Gallimard as a novel.
In company with such other modernist writers as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jacques Sternberg, Marguerite Duras had earlier turned to cinema as a new medium to explore. Significantly, each collaborated with the French director Alain Resnais; the Resnais-Duras venture was the memorable Hiroshima mon amour (1959).
In their film, one may identify elements common to subsequent motion pictures and novels by Duras. Characters are unidentified by name. A woman transgresses social boundaries to experience erotic love with an Asian man. Memory, one’s avenue to the past, figures centrally in both dialogue and images.
Repressed or intruding involuntarily, memory patterns Duras’ shifting narrative fabric. Who is remembering? Who agrees so that the reader-viewer may measure contradictory information? A moment of the past—a photograph, a town once frequented—tantalizes by promising to unlock a secret of personal history and frustrates by its distance, its refusal to yield.
In films she has directed (Destroy She Said, 1969; Woman of the Ganges, 1972; and India Song are examples), Duras structures her work by playing picture against sound. A segment of dialogue runs counter to what the audience sees; two people will be shown talking while the audience hears voices of another couple. It is often unclear whether what is seen and what is heard are taking place in a common time frame. Voices may be past, the picture present. Or the image may frequently reoccur, sometimes identical, sometimes subtly changed so that the audience repositions its place in time. Such static, minimalist images find Duras’ prose equivalent in carefully described moments from the past.
Calling up such recollected moments (it was the French philosopher Henri Bergson who had likened memory to successive still frames of motion-picture film), Duras carefully details the backgrounds of her composition while leaving other areas vague. Then she will qualify, shift, and reposition her view or her understanding of what there is to be witnessed. The audience’s stability is undermined with doubt, by new information, by a different thought. Such strategies are evocative more of modern painting, sculpture, and serial music than of traditional narrative. Called upon constantly to share the task, the reader undertakes a joint venture in the creation of an ever-tentative reality. Language misleads as it clarifies.
Working with so demanding and so elusive an aesthetic, it is a wonder Marguerite Duras has continued to operate with sufficient commercial appeal. The Lover (published in France in 1984 as L’Amant) met unexpected public response in the summer of 1984: Nearly seven hundred thousand copies were sold in France by the year’s end, and Duras won the prestigious Goncourt Prize. In addition, The Lover received the Ritz Paris Hemingway Award, the world’s largest prize for a novel. The explanation may be found in another shift in her aesthetic tactics. With The Lover, Duras mutes modernist strategies without betraying their spirit. What had sometimes in her fiction been frustrating puzzles appear here as poetic evocation. For a general reader attuned to her style, The Lover is...
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- Critical Essays