Marguerite Duras 1914–1996
(Born Marguerite Donnadieu) French novelist, playwright, scriptwriter, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry provides an overview of Duras's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 6, 11, 20, 34, 40, and 68.
Hailed as one of France's most original and controversial contemporary writers, Duras utilizes fiction, drama, and film to explore the nature of love and the existential conflicts of the individual. While her early novels were considered realistic and stylistically conventional, Duras's later experiments with form, repetition, allusive dialogue, and fragmentation led many critics to label her as one of the French nouveaux romanciers, or New Novelists. Juxtaposing biographical and fictitious elements within shifting time frames and questioning the reliability of memory, Duras challenged the boundaries between fact and fiction. Two of her works of autobiographical fiction, L'amant (1984; The Lover) and L'amant de la Chine du Nord (1991; The North China Lover) attracted a large international audience. Duras has also been singled out as one of the best experimental filmmakers of the twentieth century, particularly for her screenplay for the film Hiroshima, mon amour (1960).
Duras was born Marguerite Donnadieu on April 4, 1914, near Saigon, Vietnam, then known as French Indochina. She was one of three children; her father, who died when she was four, was a mathematics professor. Her mother unwittingly bought a worthless piece of farm land which was annually flooded by the Pacific Ocean. Despite the family's poverty Duras was able to study Vietnamese and French in the prestigious Lycee de Saigon. At the age of seventeen Duras left Cambodia for France and eventually earned a licence in law and political science at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. She worked as a secretary for the Ministry of Colonial Affairs until 1941 and during World War II served as a member of the Resistance, working with François Mitterrand. In 1946 she divorced her first husband, Robert Antelme, whom she had married in 1939. She later married Dionys Mascolo, with whom she had a son, Jean. She published her first novel, Les Impudents, in 1943 and went on to publish more than 70 novels, plays, screenplays, and adaptations in her lifetime. In her later life she lived with a young homosexual writer, Yann Andrea Steiner. In 1984, while recovering from alcoholism in a treatment center, Duras wrote The Lover, for which she won the Prix Goncourt in 1984. In poor health as a result of her life-long problem with alcoholism, she died on March 3, 1996, in Paris.
Duras's work has spanned many genres and styles, but it has remained constant in its emotional intensity and its themes of love, solitude, desire, and despair. Commentators on Duras's work often divide her literary career into four periods. The novels from her first period have been described as her most realistic and conventional. Her most significant novel from this period, Un barrage contre le Pacifique (1950; The Sea Wall), is set in Indochina and reflects both the author's interest in East Asian culture and in issues of social injustice and oppression. Like many of her acclaimed novels, the book is loosely based on an incident which occurred in Duras's childhood. The works from Duras's second period are marked by a shift from linear plots and abrupt, obscure dialogue to a more personal and ironic idiom. The primary works from this period—Le marin de Gibraltar (1952; The Sailor from Gibraltar) and Les petits chevaux de Tarquinia (1953; The Little Horses of Tarquinia)—are considered more concentrated than Duras's previous novels because they focus on fewer characters, events, and relationships. The Sailor from Gibraltar concerns a woman who travels on her yacht throughout the Mediterranean in search of her former lover. Duras suggests that the protagonist's persistence gives meaning to her otherwise empty life. The Little...
(The entire section is 30,077 words.)