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 Horses of Tarquinia similarly reflects Duras's increasing interest in individual characters and their varying moods and emotions. Duras's next literary cycle includes works often described as antinovels, in which she employs minimalist techniques to accent particular experiences or emotions. Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein (1964; The Ravishing of Lol Stein), for instance, describes a woman's descent into madness after being rejected by her fiance. Considered an antinovel because of its stark narrative, unreliablenarrator, and fragmentary contrast and insights, The Ravishing of Lol Stein has also been described as an investigation into human consciousness. The Vice-Consul, considered the last of Duras's antinovels, simultaneously focuses on a young Oriental girl who is abandoned by her mother after becoming pregnant and a government official who becomes involved in the glamorous diplomatic life of Calcutta, India. Her fourth and most eclectic literary period is evidenced in such novels as La maladie de la mort (1982; The Malady of Death), The Lover, and The North China Lover. The Malady of Death is a minimalist account of an asexual man who pays a prostitute to live with him for a week and addresses his overwhelming sense of isolation and inability to love. Emily L. (1987), another novel from this period, also addresses how one's inability to love can lead to self-destruction. Often considered a revised version of The Sea Wall, The Lover explores more completely Duras's childhood experiences in French Indochina and her debilitating relationships with her overbearing mother and indolent brothers. While The Lover is recognizably autobiographical, Duras focuses on the recollection of events and their emotional significance rather than on the events themselves, thus creating a complex structure that conveys the illusions of simplicity. In 1985, Duras published La douleur (1985; The War: A Memoir), a collection of six narratives believed to have been written during World War II and forgotten for forty years. In the title story, Duras recounts her experiences with the French Liberation Movement during the war. She also describes the mental agony she endured while waiting for her husband, Robert Antelme, to return from a German concentration camp. The North China Lover, which began as a screenplay for Jean-Jacques Annaud's adaptation of her novel The Lover, tells the same story as the novel but in a very different style and tone. In addition, Duras provides cinematic directions—how a scene could be shot, what kind of actress should play a role—creating a work that is part novel, part screenplay. The publication of The North China Lover is in large part due to the disagreements between Duras and Annaud over the script for The Lover.
Critical commentary on Duras's work has focused on several major themes. These include the relationship between love and self-destruction, the metaphysics of boredom and inactivity, and the pain of solitude and despair. As Germaine Brée has observed: "The very title of [The Sea Wall] suggests a dogged, unequal battle against a superhuman force. This was to remain one of Duras's basic themes: barrage against the immense solitude of human beings, barrage against the pain of all involvements, barrage against despair." Scholars have also noted Duras's movement away from the realism of her early novels to the minimalist techniques and focus on emotional experience of her later works. Considered one of her most abstract and impressionistic works, The Vice-Consul, notes Alfred Cismaru, contains "standard [antinovel] devices: unfinished sentences, subconversations, hidden allusions … [and] mysterious and unexplained situations." At the time of its publication, many critics argued that The Lover was Duras's most effective synthesis of her themes and minimalist style. With the publication of The North China Lover, however, many critics argued that the latter was the better of the two closely related novels. In The North China Lover, Duras writes in the third person, a technique which she uses to distance her characters from the reader, instead of switching between first and third person as she did in The Lover. While the second novel is more explicit and shocking, critics believe it is more humane, lyrical, and compelling.