Duras, Marguerite (Pseudonym of Marguerite Donnadieu) 1914–
Mlle Duras, born in French Indochina near present-day Saigon, is a French novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. One critic has written that certain traits recur in the principal plays, novels, and scenarios: "the skillful evocation of place and atmosphere, the deft substitution of external violence, a murder, or fatal accident, for psychological motivation, syncopated dialogue for explicatory narrative." Although her work resembles that of the "New Novelists" in that it does without plot, action, and psychological explanation, she has rejected that label. The incantatory nature of the dialogue around which her best fiction is built, her strong visual sense, and her singular approach to time as "the vital protagonist, the dramatic catalyst and crucible," make her novels particularly well suited to film treatment. Many critics consider her filmscript "Hiroshima mon amour" her finest work. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
Marguerite Duras' play, The Lovers of Viorne (L'arnante anglaise)…, is a complete negation of traditional drama, an extreme example of the anti-play, which makes no concessions whatever to entertainment or to the average staying power of audiences. Both titles, the French as well as the English, are perversely misleading, because there are no lovers at Viorne and no Englishwoman in love. The action is even more inward than in classical tragedy. There are only two characters, but they do not appear on the stage at the same time; they merely occupy the same chair in turn and talk. If the playgoer can sit through this experience, and in a curious way enjoy it, he has clearly passed some kind of test. I am glad to say that I stood the strain…. But … Marguerite Duras has a weird something, even though she has been partly affected by the present rarefied Parisian atmosphere, where structuralists speak only to semiologists and semiologists commune darkly with the synchronic Idea. (p. 58)
John Weightman, in Encounter (© 1971 by Encounter Ltd.), September, 1971.
[Marguerite Duras'] novels have been classified, not without a certain amount of arbitrariness, as falling into two categories: American and aliterary. The first includes such titles as Les Impudents (1943), La Vie tranquille (1944), Un Barrage contre le Pacifique (1950), and Le Marin de Gibraltar. These were, on balance, passable combinations of adventure, brutality, drunkenness, sexual aggressiveness hiding deep frustrations, and artificial gaiety obscuring poorly the most desolate sadness, loneliness, and boredom. The second incorporates Les Petits chevaux de Tarquinia (1953), the four short stories included in Des Journées entières dans les arbres (1954), the already mentioned Le Square and Moderato cantabile, Dix heures et demie du soir en été (1960), Le Vice-Consul (1966), and several other publications. With them Marguerite Duras moved towards a form which relinquishes the usual supports of fiction writing: the time-space pattern, the development of an action, or the presentation of characters. The author began to flirt with the anti-novel, but her present position in the aliterary or anti-literary school, whose members, incidentally, deny its formal existence, could be the subject of considerable debate. Whereas most of her works since 1953 seem to fall within the general pattern established by such writers as Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Samuel Beckett, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and others—plotless stories from which motivation, that stock prop of the traditional novel, is patently absent; nameless hero-narrators; banalities expressed by disarming clichés; disregard for psychological verisimilitude; obsessive and contradictory fragments of thoughts and souvenirs; meticulous, precise, and detailed presentation of objects—it is doubtful that she has more than an indirect association with the new school. Her stories can, after all, be summarized, and she always manages to evoke a humane atmosphere, to suggest a human situation, to seize and seal the authentic impasses of heroes and heroines dissatisfied with their condition.
But American or aliterary, drinking occupies a special place in the precarious existence of her novel's characters. To a greater or lesser degree, Chianti, Bitter Campari, manzanilla, champagne, cognac, and above all whisky constitute the vital ingredients of most Durasian personages. (p. 488)
The word already is used frequently by the characters of Le Marin de Gibraltar. It matters little whether the action has been completed, is in the process of being completed, or is simply contemplated and has not even begun yet: the personages and the reader experience a feeling of monotony, of repetition, of lassitude. There is a lack of enthusiasm, of excitement, for what the hero does appears to have been done by others, so many times before, and by himself on who knows how many previous occasions. In addition, wherever he goes he fails to see real differences, for towns are similar, and people resemble each other in spite of arbitrary frontiers. Likewise, the second glass of wine tastes the same as the first, and the tenth would also, were it not for the state of intoxication of the drinker. (p. 489)
In Le Marin de Gibraltar, as in previous and subsequent works, then, Marguerite Duras points to a world which is not entirely unlivable, as it is, for example, in the corpsed universe of Ionesco or Beckett. To begin with, it is our world, and she appears to think that we should not abdicate entirely until we have made a certain number of gestures and have pronounced a certain number of words, for if we did not make those gestures and did not pronounce those words, one wonders what else we could do outside of seeking death by the most expeditious means. Thus Madame Duras' heroes and heroines walk, eat, and drink, above all drink, make love occasionally (when the partners are new to each other and before alcohol begins to interfere with their potency), go to sleep and wake up and start again, all the time painfully aware that victories are gained with the greatest efforts, remain short-lived and always end in some form of death, physical or spiritual or both. (pp. 491-92)
If we place Moderato cantabile in the context of Marguerite Duras' previous short stories, we cannot escape the fact that, for most of her characters, reincarnation remained utopian. Becoming someone else, finding identification with another, are not simple operations like that of forging a passport. Liquor may indeed give the illusion of assuming another personality, but the flimsiness and sketchiness of Anne and Chauvin do not point to the strong will required for the process of complete metempsychosis. (p. 493)
The liaison between Anne and Chauvin proves only that an alienation from society is possible for a short time and that the strictures and restrictions of bourgeois respectability can be avoided without permanent danger by those alcoholics who repent and return within the orderly mechanism of accepted decorum. Just as the child learns eventually the meaning of moderato cantabile, so do hero and heroine discover the temporary effect of drinking and the futility of stubbornness, of contradiction, of revolt, as evidenced in their final separation. However, their capitulation and consent are in no way inconsistent with the short-lived adventure and imitation of the others. The latter played a major role, for they rekindled in the protagonists an awareness of the existence of other dimensions, other values, other rules: extralegal, violent, fiercely relentless, and almost within reach. This newly acquired cognizance is sufficient to make them go on, to survive. Thus it may be said that, as in the case of the characters of Le Marin de Gibraltar, liquor plays an important, if only partly salutory, role. In both stories it lends places an elusive, poetic atmosphere; and it bestows upon people a kind of purity and eternity in another, a different and forbidden world.
Marguerite Duras, always preoccupied by the essentially human problems of communication, of solitude, of boredom, of desire and love tempered and frustrated by social deliberations, presents us frequently with heroes and heroines who, with the aid of liquor, manage to rebel somewhat, to become partially and temporarily reincarnated, and to consent later to the mediocrity of life, later, when the glossiness of revolt has been erased by the passage of time. (pp. 494-95)
Alfred Cismaru, "Salvation Through Drinking in Marguerite Duras' Short Stories," in Modern Fiction Studies (© 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, Lafayette, Indiana), Winter 1973–74, pp. 487-95.
As a member of the school of New Novelists in France, Marguerite Duras has attained prominence through the ability to create a sense of dramatic intensity in her fiction which few others have been able to achieve. In Moderato Cantabile (1958) Duras tells the compelling story of a thirst for passion in a modern world where the routine of everyday existence dooms one to a life of tedium and boredom. (p. 79)
While the characters and situation of the work are indeed conducive to the intense dramatic build-up achieved, the technique that Duras employs is perhaps most worthy of close examination. The elements of technique are rapid juxtaposition of images and phrases and the use of cinematic techniques. The effectiveness of these is demonstrated early in the book where the peaceful sounds of the child's sonatina, blending and alternating with the sound of a motorboat out at sea and the sound of the waves breaking on the shore, are violently disrupted: "In the street downstairs a woman screamed, a long, drawn-out scream so shrill it overwhelmed the sound of the sea." And then: "The sound of the sea moved in again"…. Such rapid juxtaposition provides the reader with a panoramic sense of the area—a strict sense of where everything is in space. (p. 80)
What Duras does with sounds here—juxtaposing and superimposing to provide the reader with all the auditory phenomena bombarding the characters—she does equally well with images in a cinematic fashion…. In this way Duras sets up a contrapuntal effect…. The tedious ritual of the piano lesson and the calm murmur of the sea provide an effective contrast to the long drawn-out scream. Such narrative style pervades the work…. Duras is careful to present a complete cinematic picture which shows characters who would gladly escape the confines of space and time but are unable to do so. (pp. 80-1)
Though many experimental novelists (such as Robbe-Grillet and Beckett) distort or destroy conventional time, Duras uses it to her advantage. Anne's daily walks with her son, her trips with him to his weekly piano lesson, even her trips to the cafe at a specific time each day illustrate her enslavement to boring routine. She is trapped by time in a tedious existence from which even the promise of passion cannot release her. (p. 83)
While Duras' way of telling the tale reveals a knowledge of modern media and modern concepts, the substance of her tale also betrays a world view which is particularly modern. The motives for the murder which takes place in the story are never given, and are, in fact, almost completely imagined. The notion that absolute knowledge about observable physical reality is impossible for us to possess seems to lie beneath this creative process…. In the world Duras pictures here, everything is relative to one's frame of reference, even down to the most insignificant details. (pp. 85-6)
Duras' characters confront the same kind of meaninglessness that Beckett's characters face: life is a vast void that they endeavor to fill in the best way they can. (p. 86)
The only avenue for escape [from tedium] seems to be involvement in some momentous event…. Duras' ability to convey such obsessive living in the moment, to create the pulsating rhythm of suspense, and to bring together cinematically two or more scenes makes her worthy of the modern reader's consideration. (p. 87)
Victoria L. Weiss, "Form and Meaning in Marguerite Duras' 'Moderato Cantabile'," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1974), Vol. XVI, No. 1, 1974, pp. 79-87.
It is appropriate that Duras—one of the pioneers of the new novel, the new wave cinema, and, up to a point, the new theater—subtitles [India Song] "texte/théâtre/film." Duras has steadily pursued innovations which may sometimes baffle the uninitiated, but which are really quite consistent and coherent and which present a unified view of life and art that makes Marguerite Duras both an author and, in the parlance of film scholarship, an auteur. The various parts of her oeuvre (texts, novels, scenarios) interlock with precision; and to appreciate much of the Duras output, India Song included, familiarity with the other works will help considerably. (p. 75)
Duras, who also wrote Destroy, She Said, here is pushing writing to its limits and, in a sense, deliberately destroying it by substituting its audio-visual equivalents. (p. 76)
Edwin Jahiel, in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 1, Winter, 1975.
Uppermost [in Les parleuses] is the problem of "fear" which manifests itself in all of [Duras'] works, particularly with the discovery of the void within the human being, the realization that all people are alone, that bonds or links between people are illusory.
Duras also discusses the problems of insanity—with which she has been preoccupied for a number of years—suicide and death in general. "C'est un monde en ruine," she confesses when describing the inner core of her many works. The reader cannot escape Duras's all-consuming realm; he cannot find refuge in the make-believe but must face the reality of a maskless domain. (p. 510)
B. L. Knapp, in Books Abroad (copyright 1975 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 49, No. 3, Summer, 1975.