Marguerite Duras (dew-RAH) was born Marguerite Donnadieu on April 4, 1914, in Gia Dinh, near Saigon, French Indochina (now Vietnam), the youngest of three children. Her two brothers, Pierre and Paulo, shared much of the deprivation and adventure of her childhood. The family’s fortunes changed radically after the death of their father, Henri Donnadieu, a professor of mathematics, in 1918. After her father’s death, her mother, Marie LeGrand, kept the family in French Indochina, moving in 1924 to Sadeck and then to Vinhlong, where she taught at a school for Asian children. That same year she bought property on the Mekong River, hoping to run a profitable farm, but the land flooded after every planting season, wiping out all of the family’s work.
These childhood years in French Indochina contributed to themes and characters that recur in Duras’s works. The rain forests, for example, take on symbolic, terrifying, and seductive power in Détruire, dit-elle (1969; Destroy, She Said, 1970). As a child, Duras ran and played in the rain forests, hunting for birds and small game to bring back to her family to eat. Her freedom in the forest is consistently linked to the fear of the creatures in it as well as the necessity to return to the farm. The flooding of the farm apparently had a significant effect on Duras because floods and engulfings recur in her works.
Duras’s brothers also appear in her novels, most notably in L’Amant (1984; The Lover, 1985). Her novels recall how her brother Pierre, her mother’s favored child, tormented her and her other brother, Paolo. Duras’s close relationship with Paolo, the younger of the brothers, appears overtly in The Lover. Despite being the youngest child in the family, Duras tried to protect the slightly retarded Paolo from Pierre. Another experience reflected in her works is her mental breakdown at the age of twelve, which led to her fascination with insanity. The breakdown of the female protagonist in her screenplay Hiroshima mon amour (1959) reflects this integration of mental stability with the character’s development. Duras’s own assessment of life and work appears in a letter: “True writers have no life at all. . . . My books are truer than myself.”
Duras credits her becoming a writer to the appearance of Elizabeth Striedter, an administrator’s wife, in her family’s small town in 1922, when Duras was eight years old. Striedter was accompanied to town by rumors that her young lover had killed himself when she left him. In interviews, Duras has acknowledged her fascination with Striedter’s dark power.
When Duras was seventeen or eighteen (Duras provides conflicting information and other sources do not agree), she and her family returned to France. She studied law and political science in Paris while her family returned to Indochina. In 1939, she married Robert Antelme; they were both active in the French Resistance during World War II.
The war years shaped Duras’s later life and work. She lost a child at birth, as do several of her fictional characters. Her brother Paulo died in Saigon; a brother’s death is a part of the narrator’s crisis in The Lover. Duras also met Dionys Mascolo, her second husband and the father of her son, Jean, during her work with the French Resistance. In 1943, her first novel, Les Impudents (the immodest ones), was published, at which time she took the name Duras. In 1944, the same year her second novel, La Vie tranquille (the quiet life), was published, Antelme was arrested by the Germans and deported to Dachau, a German concentration camp. After the liberation,...
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Mascolo and François Mitterrand (later the French prime minister) secured the release of Antelme, who was skeletal and desperately ill. His experience and Duras’s role in nursing him back to health indelibly imprinted human cruelty and human hope in the face of such barbarism on her psyche.
From her first publication until she worked on Moderato cantabile (1958; English translation, 1960), Duras described her writing process as similar to “the way people go to the office, every day, peacefully. . . . With Moderato, it wasn’t as calm. And then after May, 1968, with Détruire, it wasn’t like that at all anymore.” Duras wrote Destroy, She Said in a matter of days, making her “really frightened for the first time.” Duras often noted her feeling of being out of control within the writing process itself.
Duras became a controversial figure in France in the 1960’s. She welcomed controversy with such acts as dropping her membership in the Communist Party and speaking about a woman who murdered her child. Duras often was interviewed on French television programs and wrote frequently for French magazines, contributing to the debate on social issues and literature. Suffering from asthma and the effects of alcoholism, Duras was hospitalized three times between 1980 and 1985. The longest and most serious of her hospital stays occurred in 1988, when she was being treated for asthma and went into a coma for five months. After she regained consciousness, she remained in the hospital for an additional three months. She received a tracheotomy, which involved placing a permanent breathing passage in her throat.
Duras identified three main fixtures around which she organized her life: love, alcohol, and writing. Her productiveness as a writer and filmmaker accompanied a life that was often filled with excessive desire and drink. She died of throat cancer at the age of eighty-one and was buried in Cimitiere du Montparnasse in Paris under a tombstone marked only “M.D.”