Marguerite Duras Duras, Marguerite (Feminism in Literature) - Essay

Introduction

(Feminism in Literature)

Duras was one of France's most important and most prolific writers in the twentieth century. During her long writing career, she produced a large number of texts in a wide variety of genres. She is best known for her prize-winning autobiographical novel L'amant (1984) and the screenplay for Alan Resnais's 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Duras was born Marguerite Donnadieu on April 4, 1914, in a small town near Saigon, French Indochina (now Vietnam). Her parents, Henri Donnadieu and Marie Legrand Donnadieu, were teachers, originally from the northern part of France. Although her father's death in 1918 and her mother's purchase of worthless land from the corrupt colonial government left the family in financial distress, Duras nonetheless was able to attend the Lycée de Saigon where she studied both French and Vietnamese. In 1931, she left Indochina to study at the Sorbonne, where she completed a degree in law and political science four years later. From 1935 to 1941 Duras worked as a secretary for the Colonial Ministry, where she met the author Robert Antelme. They married in 1939; both were active members of the Communist Party. During World War II, Antelme was imprisoned for a year in a German concentration camp while Duras worked with the French Resistance and began writing fiction. She published her first novel, Les impudents, in 1943. When Antelme was released after the war, Duras nursed him back to health although the couple had already agreed to divorce. She later married Dionys Mascolo, a philosopher and fellow Communist, with whom she had a son, Jean. In 1950, Duras and a number of other French intellectuals were expelled from the Communist Party. In 1984, while recovering from alcoholism in a treatment center, she produced L'amant, her most celebrated and most commercially successful effort. Her lifelong battle with alcoholism led to serious health problems which resulted in her death on March 3, 1996.

MAJOR WORKS

Duras's writing career spanned more than four decades during which she produced more than seventy novels, plays, screenplays, and adaptations. Her experiences in life often surfaced in her fiction: her novel Un Barrage contre le Pacifique (1950; The Sea Wall) contains one of many representations of her mother's struggle against the corrupt colonial government in Indochina; La Douleur (1985; The War) includes a narrator who nurses her husband back to health after his release from a prisoner-of-war camp; and both Hiroshima mon amour and Moderato Cantabile (1958), among others, feature characters plagued by the alcoholism that destroyed Duras's own health. Many of her early works are based on her experiences in French Indochina and reflect her fascination with colonial culture and her concern with issues of social justice. Her novels from the 1950s, such as Le marin de Gibraltar (1952; The Sailor from Gibraltar) and Les petits chevaux de Tarquinia (1953; The Little Horses of Tarquinia), are less linear and more ironic, and feature fewer, more individual, characters. The works she produced in the 1960s, including Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein (1964; The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein) and Le vice-consul (1966; The Vice-Consul), employ minimalist techniques and are often referred to as antinovels. The eclectic group of texts she wrote during the 1980s is characterized by isolation and the self-destruction associated with the inability to love. These works include La maladie de la mort (1982; The Malady of Death) and Emily L. (1987). Also during this period, Duras produced her most celebrated work at the age of seventy. L'Amant was awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1984, and Barbara Bray's English translation of the work, The Lover, won the 1986 Ritz Paris Hemingway Award. The work recalls Duras's experiences as a child in Indochina and her relationships with her domineering mother, her lazy and philandering older brother, and her beloved younger brother.

In addition to her novels and short stories, Duras wrote a number of plays in the late 1950s and 1960s, among them the murder mystery Les viaducs de la Seine-et-Oise (1959; The Viaducts of Seine and Oise) and Des journées entières dans les arbres (1968; Whole Days in the Trees), an adaptation of the title piece from her 1954 short story collection. During this time, Duras established an international reputation as a screenwriter with her first screenplay, Hiroshima mon amour. Her other original screenplays include Nathalie Granger (1972) and Le camion (1977). Most of her other films were adaptations of her plays and novels, such as Moderato cantabile (1964), based on her 1958 novel, and India Song (1974), based on her play of the same name.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Although Duras's work was critically acclaimed, it was considered inaccessible to the general public until the appearance of her enormously popular autobiographical novel L'Amant, which renewed overall interest in her career. While the work won the 1984 Prix Goncourt, Duras believed she should have won the award in 1950 for Un Barrage contre le Pacifique. As a woman and a dissident Communist, she considered herself the victim of both sexism and political discrimination. Her novels from the 1950s, more minimalist than her earlier work, were often categorized by critics as part of the Nouveau Roman school associated with Alain Robbe-Grillet. Duras, however, rejected the label and claimed she had no affiliation with the movement. She did, however, acknowledge an affinity with literary surrealism, which privileged poetry as the highest form of writing. Several critics have noted that Duras often blurred the distinction between prose and poetry in her work, particularly in her later writing.

Duras's position as a feminist is ambiguous. Although she espoused feminist views in interviews and in articles for Sorcières, a French periodical, she was not consistently active in the French feminist movement nor were her representations of women consistently progressive. She has, nonetheless, been embraced by some feminist critics who believe she created a space for the female desiring subject, as opposed to the female object of male desire. However, she has been rejected by other feminist scholars who contend that her work reinforces traditional gender roles and that her advocacy of a specifically feminine writing style is essentialist. Sharon A. Willis acknowledges that Duras's essentialist approach may account for her "antagonistic stance" to some feminist theory. Willis maintains, however, that Duras's "interest for and influence upon overtly feminist literary, critical, and theoretical enterprises is powerful."

Principal Works

(Feminism in Literature)

Les impudents (novel) 1943

La vie tranquille (novel) 1944

Un barrage contre le Pacifique [The Sea Wall] (novel) 1950

Le marin de Gibraltar [The Sailor from Gibraltar] (novel) 1952

Les petits chevaux de Tarquinia [The Little Horses of Tarquinia] (novel) 1953

Des journées entières dans les arbres [Whole Days in the Trees and Other Stories] (short stories) 1954

Le Square [The Square] (novel) 1955

Moderato cantabile (novel) 1958

Hiroshima mon amour (screenplay) 1959

Les viaducs de la Seine-et-Oise [The Viaducts of Seine and Oise] (play) 1959

Dix heures et demie du soir en été [Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night] (novel) 1960

Une aussi longue absence [with Gérard Jarlot] (screenplay) 1961

L'après-midi de Monsieur Andesmas [The Afternoon of Monsieur Andesmas] (novel) 1962

Moderato cantabile (screenplay) 1964

Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein [The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein] (novel) 1964

Théâtre I: Les eaux et forêts; Le square; La musica [The Rivers in the Forests; The Square] (plays) 1965

La musica (screenplay) 1966

Le vice-consul [The Vice-Consul] (novel) 1966

L'amante anglaise (novel) 1967

L'amante anglaise (play) 1968

Théâtre II: Suzanna Andler; Des journées entières dans les arbres; "Yes," peut-être; Le shaga; Un homme est venu me voir [Suzanna Andler; Whole Days in the Trees] (plays) 1968

Détruire, dit-elle [Destroy, She Said] (novel) 1969

Abahn Sabana David (novel) 1970

L'amour (novel) 1971

Jaune le soleil (screenplay) 1971

Nathalie Granger (screenplay) 1972

India Song (screenplay) 1973

Les parleuses [WomantoWoman] (interviews) 1974

Baxter, Vera Baxter (screenplay) 1976

Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (screenplay) 1976

Des journées entières dans les arbres (screenplay) 1976

Le camion (screenplay) 1977

L'eden cinéma (play) 1977

Le navire night (screenplay) 1978

Aurélia Steiner, dite Aurélia Melbourne (screenplay) 1979

Aurélia Steiner, dite Aurélia Vancouver (screenplay) 1979

Césarée (screenplay) 1979

Les mains négatives (screenplay) 1979

L'homme assis dans le couloir [The Seated Man in the

Passage] (novel) 1980

Agatha (novel) 1981

Agatha ou les lectures illimitées (screenplay) 1981

L'homme Atlantique (screenplay) 1981

Outside (essays) 1981

Dialogue de Rome (screenplay) 1982

L'homme Atlantique (novel) 1982

La maladie de la mort [The Malady of Death] (novel) 1982

L'amant [The Lover] (novel) 1984

La douleur [The War: A Memoir] (novel) 1985

Les enfants (screenplay) 1985

Les yeux bleux, cheveux noirs [Blue Eyes, Black Hair] (novel) 1986

Emily L. (novel) 1987

Le vie materielle [Practicalities: Marguerite Duras

Speaks to Jérôme Beaujour] (conversations) 1987

La pluie d'été [Summer Rain] (novel) 1990

L'Amant de la Chine du nord [The North China Lover] (novel) 1991

Le monde exterieur (essays) 1993

C'est tout [That's All] (essays) 1995

La Mer écrite (essays) 1996

Primary Sources

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Duras, Marguerite, and Alice A. Jardine. “Marguerite Duras,” translated by Katherine Ann Jensen. In Shifting Scenes: Interviews on Women, Writing, and Politics in Post-68 France, edited by Alice A. Jardine and Anne M. Menke, pp. 71-8. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

In the following interview, Duras discusses her ideas on writing as a woman and on misogyny in both France and America.

[Jardine]: Question 1: What does it mean to you to write at the end of the twentieth century?

[Duras:]—Writing … I’ve never asked myself to be aware of what time period I was living in. I have asked myself this question in relation to my child and his future activities, or in wondering what would become of the working class—you see, in relation to political considerations or issues. But not as concerns writing. I believe writing is beyond all … contingency.

Question 2: Is it valid/of value to write as a woman, and is it part of your writing today?

—I have several opinions about that, several things to say. Perhaps I should give a personal example. I don’t have any major problems anymore in terms of the reception of my books, but the way men in society respond to me hasn’t changed.

—That hasn’t changed at all?

—No, each time I see critics who are … Misogyny is still at the forefront.

—Only in France or …

—I haven’t read the foreign papers. The Lover, you know, has been translated in twenty-nine countries. There have been thousands and millions of copies sold. I don’t think that in America there’s been as much [misogyny] … because a lot of women write articles [on my work]. I don’t think there’s been any misogyny, strictly speaking, aimed at me in America.

—I have the same impression.

—No, actually, there is someone at the New York Times who doesn’t like me at all, because I was once rather nasty to him. It was after a showing of India Song. The auditorium was full, I remember that, and at the end the students were really pleased and gave me a big ovation. The audience was asked to speak; I was there to answer. So this guy got up, you know, from the Times, very classic, old. He began, “Madame Duras, I really got bored with your …”

—He said that?! in public?

—Yes, it was a public thing. So I said: “Listen, I’m really sorry, but it’s hardly my fault. There must be something wrong with you.” He just looked at me. (Usually this works well.) “Please excuse me, but I can’t do anything for you.” It was really terrible. Since then, people tell me, “I can’t invite you anymore because he’ll never forgive you.” It doesn’t matter to me. I’m very happy.

—I have the impression that misogyny, in the most classic sense of the term, exists in France much more than in the United States. Even if it’s on the tip of American men’s tongues or the tip of their pens, they stop themselves now because there’s been so much … They swallow their words because they know what will happen afterward if they don’t; whereas here in France, it seems to me that they get away with it. No one says anything. And that’s why, for me, to write as a woman in France begins to have a very different meaning….

—But I have safety valves. That is, from time to time, I write articles about critical theory, and that scares the critics.

—I can imagine.

—But … it scares women too. It has to do with écriture féminine. There are a lot of women who align themselves with men. Recently, a guy did a whole page in a journal about me to say that I don’t exist, that I’m … I don’t remember what. So in that instance, I said that he was the victim of great pain at the thought of my existence. And I can’t do anything about that.

—It’s not worth the energy.

—No. It’s not a question of energy. It’s just that in France, if you don’t pay attention, you can get eaten up.

—As a woman or as a writer generally?

—As a woman writer. There are two potential attacks: those from homosexuals and those from heteros.

—And they’re different?

—At first, no; but in the end they each think that they do such different things, although it’s not true at all. They do the same things. It’s about jealousy, envy … a desire to supplant women. It’s a strange phenomenon. I write quite a lot about homosexuality … because I live with a man who’s homosexual … as everyone knows … but I write outside all polemic. You see, Blue Eyes, Black Hair is outside any polemic. Homosexuals are often not interested in their experiences, they think they’ve said everything there is to say. That’s a limitation. They’re not interested in knowing what a woman can get from that experience. What interests them is knowing what people think about homosexuality, whether you’re for or against it, that’s all.

—You have been describing men’s reactions to your work as a woman writer. I too have been intrigued by the question of how men respond to woman and women. My latest book, Men in Feminism,1 coed-ited with Paul Smith, is a collection of articles addressing the complicated relationship men have to feminism, and women have to feminist men. My book Gynesis2 intervenes in this debate by examining how the metaphor of woman operates in several key French texts by men from the last twenty-odd years, for example, those by Blanchot, Deleuze, Derrida, and Lacan.

—You know, even before those writers, there was Beauvoir. She didn’t change women’s way of thinking. Nor did Sartre, for that matter. He didn’t change anything at all. Is Gynesis coming out in France?

—Yes. One of the interesting problems that has come up with my translator is how to find an expression for the term “man writer.” In the United States, you see, we’re trying to deuniversalize: we say woman writer. We try to give terms genders. But in French, it doesn’t work at all. If my translator uses “man writer,” everyone will say it’s horrible.

—It’s too late.

—Yes, it’s too late. But I can’t just put the gender of the writer in the footnotes either. When I say “writer,” I mean “man writer” because that’s how the universal returns.

—Because “writer” historically means male, is that it?

—Yes, the universal.

—But even when they were making distinctions between men and women writers twenty-five years ago, in newspaper headlines, there were no women writers or men writers. There were “novels by women,” “novels by men,” and books by women or books by men. But that was always a minor distinction, always in a footnote.

...

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Trista Selous (Essay Date 1988)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Selous, Trista. “Order, Chaos and Subversive Details.” In The Other Woman: Feminism and Femininity in the Work of Marguerite Duras, pp. 233-52. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

In the following essay, Selous claims that Duras’s writing provides a space for the feminine desiring subject as opposed to the stereotypical representation of woman as the object of male desire.

Although Duras’s novels are works of fiction, in both the structural place they give to women, and the way in which they portray ‘what women want’, they resemble the writings of theorists using the Lacanian theoretical framework to...

(The entire section is 9480 words.)

Lisa F. Signori (Essay Date 2001)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Signori, Lisa F. Introduction to The Feminization of Surrealism: The Road to Surreal Silence in Selected Works of Marguerite Duras, pp. 1-24. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.

In the following essay, Signori explores Duras's transformation of surrealist poetics into a feminist literary practice.

Mais comment réunir le tout d'un écrivain?: livres, articles de revues, commentaires, critiques, interviews, interventions de toutes sortes dans les journaux ou ailleurs … bref, tout ce qui, de près ou de loin, fait texte—prétexte à ma propre recherche. A tout cela, à tous...

(The entire section is 10408 words.)

The Malady of Death

(Feminism in Literature)

SHARON A. WILLIS (ESSAY DATE 1989)

SOURCE: Willis, Sharon A. "Staging Sexual Difference: Reading, Recitation, and Repetition in Duras' Malady of Death. "In Feminine Focus: The New Women Playwrights, edited by Enoch Brater, pp. 109-25. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

In the following essay, Willis examines Duras's treatment of sexual difference as a site of resistance within her novel Malady of Death.

Duras is hardly a "new" woman playwright. She first published in 1943; her accelerated output in recent years has roughly coincided with her first widespread...

(The entire section is 7073 words.)

Hiroshima mon amour

(Feminism in Literature)

DEBORAH LESKO BAKER (ESSAY DATE 1998)

SOURCE: Baker, Deborah Lesko. "Memory, Love, and Inaccessibility in Hiroshima mon amour. "In Marguerite Duras Lives On, edited by Janine Ricouart, pp. 27-37. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1998.

In the following essay, Baker reviews Duras's representation of forbidden love in her screenplay Hiroshima mon amour and its relationship to the Tristan story.

The classic French film, Hiroshima mon amour (dir. Alain Resnais, 1959), explores several critical obsessions that traverse the life and literary career...

(The entire section is 4066 words.)

Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)

Bibliography

Harvey, Robert Hèléne Volat. Marguerite Duras: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997, 273 p.

Reference guide to Duras's life and works.

Biographies

Adler, Laure. Marguerite Duras: A Life, translated by Anne-Marie Glasheen. London: Victor Gollancz, 1998, 424 p.

Biography that seeks to circumvent Duras's deliberate attempts to hide the facts associated with certain areas of her life.

Vircondelet, Alain. Duras: A Biography. Translated by Thomas...

(The entire section is 743 words.)