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.
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.
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.
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."