Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1289
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.
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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 journees entieres dans les arbres [Whole Days in the Trees and Other Stories] (short stories) 1954
Le square [The Square] (novel) 1955
Moderato cantabile [Moderato canatabile] (novel) 1958
Les viaducs de la Seine-et-Oise [The Viaducts of Seine and Oise] (play) 1959
Dix heures et demie du soir en ete [Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night] (novel) 1960
Hiroshima, mon amour [Hiroshima, mon amour] (screenplay) 1960
Une aussi longue absence [with Gerard Jarlot] (screenplay) 1961
L'apres-midi de Monsieur Andesmas [The Afternoon of Monsieur Andesmas] (novel) 1962
La ravissement de Lol V. Stein [The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein] (novel) 1964
Theatre I: Les eaux et forets; Le square; La musica [The Rivers in the Forests; The Square] (plays) 1965
Le vice-consul [The Vice-Consul] (novel) 1966
∗La musica (screenplay) 1966
L'amante anglaise [L'amante anglaise] (novel) 1967
L'amante anglaise (play) 1968
Theatre II: Suzanna Andler; Des journees entieres dans les arbres; "Yes," peut-etre; Le shaga; Un homme est venu me voir [Suzana Andler; Days in the Trees] (plays) 1968
Detruire, 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
∗La femme du George (screenplay) 1973
∗India Song (screenplay) 1974
Les parleuses [Woman to Woman] (interviews) 1974
∗Baxter, Vera Baxter (screenplay) 1976
∗Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta desert (screenplay) 1976
∗Des journees entieres dans les arbres (screenplay) 1976
∗Le camion (screenplay) 1977
L'eden cinema (play) 1977
∗La navire night (screenplay) 1978
∗Aurelia Steiner, dite Aurelia Melbourne (screenplay) 1979
∗Aurelia Steiner, dite Aurelia Vancouver (screenplay) 1979
∗Cesaree (screenplay) 1979
∗Les mains negatives (screenplay) 1979
L'homme assis dans le couloir [The Seated Man in the Passage] (novel) 1980
Agatha (novel) 1981
∗Agatha ou les lectures illimitees (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
∗Les enfants (screenplay) 1984
La douleur [The War: A Memoir] (novel) 1985
Le vie materielle [Practicalities: Marguerite Duras Speaks to Jerome Beaujour] (recorded conversations) 1986
Les yeux bleux, cheveux noirs [Blue Eyes, Black Hair] (novel) 1986
Emily L. [Emily L.] (novel) 1987
La Pluie D'Ete [Summer Rain] (novel) 1990
L'Amant de la Chine du Nord [The North China Lover] (novel) 1991
Le Monde Exterieur (essays) 1994
That's All (essays) 1996
∗Duras also directed these films.
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SOURCE: "Risking an Opinion," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4536, March 9 & 15, 1990, p. 248.
[In the following review, Josipovici claims that Practicalities is surprisingly boring and uninformative given the high quality of Duras' fiction.]
Throughout the autumn and winter of 1986 Marguerite Duras talked to Jérôme Beaujour about anything that took her fancy. The conversations were transcribed, then edited by Duras into a series of distinct pieces ranging from one to ten pages. Beaujour is a mere ghostly presence, someone who is being talked at rather than an active questioner. "At most the book represents what I think sometimes, some days, about some things", Duras writes. In French the book was called La Vie materielle, but for some reason Barbara Bray has removed the Marxist echo and given English readers the meaningless title, Practicalities.
This is particularly unfortunate because the personality and life that come through are the antithesis of practical. We learn here about Duras's recurrent alcoholism; about the horrors of her periodic efforts at drying out; about her improbable love affair at sixty with an unstable young homosexual (which has been examined from his point of view in Yann Andrea's M.D.); about her house in the country and her flat at the seaside; about her past, her views on men, women, life, love and writing. It does not add up to much, and the personality that comes through is neither interesting nor appealing.
Duras's recent burst of memoir-writing and autobiographical fiction has raised once again the question of the relation of a writer's life to her work. In this case we have the curious phenomenon of someone who cannot write a dull sentence and yet whose comments outside fiction range from the embarrassing to the banal. The puzzle is compounded by the fact that so much of her fiction, it turns out, is autobiographical in inspiration, from her early novel about her mother, Barrage contre le Pacifique, to her recent novel about her infatuation with Yann, Yeux bleux, cheveux noirs. Yet the point here is that for the reader it could not matter less whether these were "true" or "invented". Duras's novels create their own mood and space from the first sentence. No one else writes in the least like her; she fits into no category or school. The only thing to be said about her work is that it has the stamp of complete authenticity when it comes off, and can be excruciatingly mannered when it does not. This is because she is always prepared to take risks. And because, despite the vagaries of her private life, she continues to produce novels (and films) at an amazing rate.
Practicalities does not reveal where her best works get their power from, nor why her recent work has been so uneven. Instead it reveals a rather pathetic yet also rather smug and opinionated woman. Too much of it consists of sentences like: "I've noticed that writers who are superb at making love are much more rarely great writers than those who are scared and not so good at it." And: "There's one thing I'm good at, and that's looking at the sea." Our culture is hungry for personalities and opinions. It usually gets what it deserves.
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SOURCE: "Duras and Her Thoughts of Love," in The New York Times, March 26, 1990, pp. C11, C16.
[In the essay below, which is based on an interview with Duras, Riding discusses the autobiographical nature of her writing.]
To describe Marguerite Duras as a little old lady, even though she is all three things today, is to ignore the flirtatious twinkle in her eye that perhaps helps explain why, at the age of 75, she keeps on writing and thinking about sex and love.
She reveals herself only slowly, though. Photographs make her seem severe, even intimidating, while in person her small body, ravaged by alcohol, cigarettes and a few natural illnesses, looks as crumpled and shapeless as a mistreated doll.
Yet, as one sits close enough to hear her thin voice and its accompanying silences, her eyes can be seen sparkling with mischief as she throws out words and phrases, like lassos to tease and then capture her listener.
"I write about love, yes, but not about tenderness," she said, as if to do so were a literary sin as unpardonable as sentimentality. "I don't like tender people. I myself am very harsh. When I love someone, I desire them. But tenderness supposes the exclusion of desire."
So sexual love it is in her books, usually young love, love plucked from her past or her imagination, love that may or may not be consummated, love wrapped in her own memories of war, of death, of poverty, even of happiness, love that must be besieged by desire to be real.
Her main raw material is of course herself, an extraordinary life cut like cord into sections and variously displayed in her books as elegant bows or tight knots. "Even when my books are completely invented, even when I think they have come from elsewhere," she explained, "they are always personal."
Ranging from her childhood of hardship in Indochina and her war years in Paris to her fight against alcoholism and her autumnal love for her young homosexual companion, her life is therefore an open book, its episodes told and retold, yet transformed each time by language that can be terse or erotic, painful or violent.
To look at her works, be it Hiroshima Mon Amour, her best-known screenplay, or The Lover, her most successful novel, is always to learn more about her, to be drawn—much as cinemagoers might be to famous actors—to see what she has done next. To French readers, the question is simply, do you or do you not like Duras?
Few of her several dozen books, plays or screenplays could be considered more personal than Practicalities, to be published this month in English by Grove Weidenfeld. In this case it is not even a novel, but a collection of opinions and reflections, a sort of interview in which questions are omitted and answers are edited.
First published in France in 1987 as La Vie Matérielle, the 143-page book is described as "Marguerite Duras speaks to Jérome Beaujour," a friend of her son who is "like another son to me." But, with no sign of Mr. Beaujour in its pages, Practicalities is simply Duras the author talking about Duras the life.
Some themes are familiar, like her belief that in cinema and theater, art forms in which she has had notable success, the word is supreme. "Acting doesn't bring anything to a text," she writes. "On the contrary, it detracts from it—lessens its immediacy and depth, weakens its muscles and dilutes its blood."
She writes about writing as "a matter of deciphering something already there, something you've already done in the sleep of your life, in its organic rumination, unbeknown to you." And she plays games: "Writing isn't just telling stories…. It's the telling of a story, and the absence of the story. It's telling a story through its absence."
She talks about writing in much the same way. "I don't know where I'm going when I start to write," she said in a recent interview. "You shouldn't have a subject. You have to go into the forest; you shouldn't be afraid, and it comes, all alone; stories of love, of foolishness, they come on their own, as if you were walking like a blind man before they arrived."
When she writes about the women in her novels, she seems to be describing herself. "They all see quite clearly and lucidly," she said. "But they're imprudent, improvident. They all ruin their own lives. They're very timid; they're afraid of streets and public places; they don't expect to be happy."
Miss Duras admitted she, too, was now afraid of going out. She owns a country house and a place by the sea, but when she is in Paris she rarely leaves her apartment in St.-Germaindes-Prés. "Until The Lover, I was never on television, but afterward everyone recognized me," she recalled. "'That's her from the TV,' they'd say, and it was hell. I was scared, physically scared."
A former member of the French Communist Party who still describes herself as a Marxist, Miss Duras said she had other reasons for fear. "All this talk of German reunification worries me," she said. "It worries everyone who lived through the last war. I'm afraid that German youth has not been taught the truth about their own country."
Her memories of the war remain strong, both her years in a Resistance group headed by Francois Mitterrand, now France's President, and her weeks waiting for her husband to return from Dachau concentration camp, described so movingly in her book The War, Her dislike for Gen. Charles de Gaulle dates from that time. "He never pronounced the word 'Jew' after the war," she said, "Many people think I am Jewish and that always pleases me."
Sex, too, is naturally present in her new book, not least in a chapter called "The Train From Bordeaux," when she remembers an erotic encounter during an overnight train ride to Paris when she was 16 years old. "The man and I were the only two still awake," she recalled or imagined. "And that was how it started, suddenly, at exactly the same moment, and with a single look."
A conversation with Miss Duras in fact in many ways resembles Practicalities. In her book she returns time and again to her fight against alcoholism. almost obsessively trying to fathom her own addiction. "Alcohol is a substitute for pleasure though it doesn't replace it," she writes, "Alcohol doesn't console, it doesn't fill up anyone's psychological gaps, all it replaces is the lack of God."
In a final chapter called "The People of the Night," she describes the deliriums that accompanied her last, alcoholic crisis and the loving way her companion, Yann Andrea, helped her through it. And as he brought her a glass of pomegranate juice one recent afternoon, the conversation also turned naturally to alcoholism.
"Three times I have stopped and three times I have started again," Miss Duras said. "You know, a few days ago I was given a prize at the Austrian Embassy and when I arrived, the first thing I saw was the Champagne. Yann immediately looked at me sternly and I didn't have any, but I'm still an alcoholic."
"Do you drink?" she asked, as if looking for understanding. "When you drink, you can do without everyone. It's horrible. Out of love for me, Yann also began to drink. What are your weaknesses? Do you take drugs?
Her questions serve as her lassos, reaching out to her interviewer—Where were you born? Where have you lived? Have you read Marx?—in order to pull him toward her, to disarm him perhaps, certainly to disrupt the relationship between interrogator and interrogated. Satisfied, she then awaits the next question.
At the moment she is not writing, she said. She finished her most recent book, La Pluie d'Eté, last November and it was published in French last month. Before that, she completed the screenplay for The Lover and, to be directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, whose films include "The Name of the Rose" and "The Bear," shooting will begin here this summer.
"I must go back to my books," she said, nodding toward her study where for decades she has written her novels, plays and screenplays in long-hand. "But at the moment I'm buried in taxes, bills, contracts, requests and letters. Still, at least I've started to read newspapers again."
Asked if she read other authors, she pulled a face of embarrassment. "I've read things, classics and so on," she said, "But we didn't have books when I was young. My inspiration has been what I've lived, the terrible misery my mother knew, the rice plantations in Indochina. But yes, I've done my homework."
The subject of her health, though, seems more relevant to-day, since she emerged only last June from nine months in the hospital. "The first time, 20 years ago, it was for cirrhosis of the liver; nine years ago it was for alcoholism; this time it was for cigarettes," she said, "but happily it wasn't cancer."
And her health now?
"It's O.K.," she said with a smile. "I've got a good head."
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SOURCE: "The Life of Marguerite Duras," in The New York Times Magazine, October 20, 1991, pp. 44-6, 52-3, 60-1.
[In the following essay, which is based on an interview with Duras, Garis discusses how the author's views and life experiences have impacted her writing.]
Novelist, playwright, film maker, Communist, outrageous social commentator, Marguerite Duras has awed and maddened the French public for more than 40 years. Considering her impoverished childhood in Vietnam, her participation in the French Resistance, her Communism and ultimate disaffection with the Party, her two marriages and many liaisons, the near-fatal cure she underwent for alcoholism in 1982, and, especially, her miraculous recovery from a five-month coma induced by complications from emphysema in 1988, it is reasonable to suggest that Marguerite Duras is a force of nature.
Her 48th work, The Lover, published in 1984 when she was 70, was a best seller not only in France and throughout Europe, but in the United States as well. According to the French publisher Jerome Lindon, whose Les Editions de Minuit brought out The Lover, it is one of the few contemporary French books to have an international impact. He knows of at least 29 foreign editions, including 3 in separate Chinese dialects. It won France's most prestigious literary award, the Prix Goncourt.
Set in prewar Indochina, where Duras spent her childhood, The Lover is a despairing, sensuous novel about an affair between a 15-year-old French girl and a 27-year-old Chinese man. The consuming infatuation and brutal shifts of power between the lovers echo many issues of modern colonialism. Although Duras's work is avidly followed by a coterie of intellectuals, and her 1960 film script of Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour has become a cult classic, it wasn't until The Lover that she reached a mass audience. Duras stated publicly that it was completely autobiographical—an assertion that made her a media star.
Now, at 77, she has again captured center stage by publishing L'Amant de la Chine du Nord (The North Chinese Lover), a book the newspaper Le Point calls "stunning and diabolical." With the audacity for which she is famous, this book is an end run around the film director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who has shot his version of The Lover, scheduled for European release in January. Until she and Annaud argued, Duras was the screenwriter, eventually Gérard Brach, whose credits include the screenplays for "The Name of the Rose" and "The Bear," adapted the novel with Annaud. (Annaud will not speak to the press about the film.) Meanwhile, Duras recast her best seller into a new version, which is a fuller telling of the original, including many new shocking details, and—always mischievous—camera angles and directions for the soundtrack. Duras says her new book is more true than The Lover.
Truth, in the Durasian universe, is a slippery entity. After The Lover, Duras said, in Le Nouvel Observateur, that the story of her life did not exist. Only the novel of a life was real, not historical facts. "It's in the imaginative memory of time that it is rendered into life."
Between The Lover and The North Chinese Lover, Duras has written and directed her 18th film and published a collection of essays, three novels and "The War," a vivid account of waiting for her husband, Robert Antelme, to return from Dachau during the Liberation, then nursing him back to health from near starvation.
Keeping in mind her special relationship to truth, I visited her in her apartment in Paris to talk about her work and her long life. At that time she had almost completed The North Chinese Lover. Monique Gonthier, a bilingual French journalist, accompanied me for linguistic emergencies.
In the dark, cramped hallway of their apartment stand a tiny woman bent with age and a handsome, middle-aged man—Marguerite Duras and her companion of 11 years, Yann Andréa. She wears a plaid skirt and green stockings, he wears leather pants and has a mustache; together they evince images of whimsy, intellect and danger.
We walk into a small, dusty room filled with strange objects: a broken candleholder that is a model of the Eiffel Tower, a box of old postcards, little tins of tea next to a piece of curled red ribbon. There are piles and piles of paperback books and a round table in the middle of the room where Duras seats herself in front of some blank pages and three pens.
Her head is so large that her cheeks spread out toward her narrow shoulders. She must be less than five feet tall. She wears many rings and bracelets.
"Let me tell you something," she says. Her voice is gruff, energetic and frank. "I am finishing a book. I am going to pick up the story of The Lover without any literature in it. The fault I have found with The Lover was its literariness, which comes very easily to me because it's my style. But you won't understand that."
"Even I am struggling to understand," says Yann, smiling. "Another version of The Lover without the style of The Lover? It's the same story."
"Not exactly. Another novel. It is between the little girl and the Chinese."
"Why go over the material again?" I ask.
"Because there is a film maker who is one of the greatest in the world, whose name is Jean-Jacques Annaud, who took on The Lover. He told a story that I didn't recognize, so I said: 'Now you're going home, it's finished. I don't want to work with you anymore.' I was a little nasty."
The film is being made in English with two unknowns playing the leads: an English girl and a man from Hong Kong. Duras waves her hand in dismissal when I ask her if she will watch the shooting. "It doesn't interest me," she says, But, of course, she has her new book, which more or less throws down the gauntlet to Annaud.
As Yann plays with a piece of ribbon like the one on the table, twisting it through his fingers, she looks at me expectantly, and I begin by asking about early literary influences. She denies having any. "My mother was a farmer," she says bluntly. "She had no idea what literature was all about."
"Did you know you were a writer when you were young?"
"I never doubted. I wrote when I was 10. Very bad poems. Many children start out writing like that, with the most difficult form."
The form of a typical Duras novel is minimal, with no character description, and much dialogue, often unattributed and without quotation marks. The novel is not driven by narrative, but by a detached psychological probing, which, with its complexity and contradictory emotions, has its own urgency.
I ask her why she has said in interviews she feels suffocated by the classical novel, especially Balzac.
Balzac describes everything, everything. It's exhaustive. It's an inventory. His books are indigestible. There's no place for the reader."
Yann says gently: "There is pleasure too, in reading Balzac. You're very reassured."
"If you read it at 14," Duras barks back. "Balzac was my earliest nourishment. But I am a part of my own time, you have to be a part of your own time. One can no longer write as Balzac does. And Balzac could never have written 'Lol Stein.'"
The Ravishing of Lol Stein (1964) is one of Duras's seminal works. Nineteen-year-old Lol Stein is engaged to Michael Richardson. They go to a ball in S. Tahla, an imagined town on the north French coast, similar to Trouville, where Duras owns a house. Anne-Marie Stretter, a glamorous older woman, arrives and steals away Michael Richardson. Lol Stein goes mad. Ten years later she is back in S. Tahla as a married woman. She walks incessantly, seldom talking. One day she follows a man who has a clandestine meeting with a woman from Lol Stein's youth. Later, the three of them meet socially, and eventually Lol Stein lies in a field outside a hotel in which the man and woman are making love. She occasionally sees her woman friend, naked, cross in front of the window, oblivious of being watched. The man, however, knows, which heightens Lol Stein's pleasure. An odd, obsessive longing she had felt to follow Michael Richardson and Anne-Marie Stretter when they left the dance is now fulfilled by this act of voyeurism.
I ask her what sort of state she was in when she wrote Lol Stein, and she tells me a curious story.
"With Lol Stein, I screamed. I was by the sea, in a house in Trouville. I was in the living room, and at a little distance was my lover. I heard a cry. I leaped up. I went to see the young man. I said, 'What's the matter?' He said: 'What are you talking about? I'm the one who should ask why you screamed.' I'd cried out, without even … it's funny."
"Have you ever known someone like Lol Stein?"
She picks up the papers before her, stands them upright and taps the edges to align them. She is so small that her face disappears behind the pages. I hear a deep sigh.
"One day I took care of a madwoman. I went to a psychiatric hospital and asked for a young woman who had attracted me. She was very beautiful, very elegant. I took her out in the car. She didn't say anything. We simply went to a cafe. She ate and ate and ate—like a clochard, crudely, with her hands. At her core she was very sick. I wanted to see it physically. I saw it in her. The gaze. That's Lol Stein.
"I've been thinking about this character for 10 years. I have an image. Not another book. Maybe a film. She is on the beach at Trouville. She is in a rickshaw. There's no roof, she's exposed. She is very made up, like a whore. She's wearing dirty dresses, and it's as if she grew old in an asylum. And you know where she's going? She's going to the dance."
"Terrific!" says Yann. "You have to do it! Write it!" She turns to him with a distant look in her eyes and a faint smile. Silence prevails.
Marguerite Duras was born in Giadinh, near Saigon, in 1914. Her father, Henri Donnadieu, was a professor of mathematics at a school in what was then French Indochina. He died in 1918, leaving Marguerite, two brothers and her mother practically destitute.
Until she went to the Sorbonne in France in 1932, Duras lived like an Asian child an spoke fluent Vietnamese.
In 1924 her family moved to Sadec, then to Vinhlong, villages on the Mekong River. In Vinhlong a new French governor arrived from Laos with his wife, a pale beauty named Elizabeth Striedter. It was rumored that the wife had a young lover in Laos who killed himself when she went away. The news of this suicide had a searing effect on the imagination of Duras, for whom the woman came to represent a dark, mythic feminine power. She was the model for Anne-Marie Stretter (who reappears in The North Chinese Lover). "Many times I have said to myself," Duras told the critic Michelle Porte, "that I am a writer because of her."
There was another event in Vinhlong that changed Duras forever. Her mother, the daughter of poor French farmers, had saved for 20 years to buy arable land in Indochina. At last she purchased a farm from the French colonial government, not realizing that without a bribe she would be cheated. With the help of her children, she built a bungalow and planted rice. But as soon as the rainy season started, the sea rose to the house, flooding the fields, ruining the crops. Every penny of her savings was lost. She fought against the sea for years, building dikes that washed away, until finally her health was broken. Marguerite, herself, at age 12, had an emotional crisis serious enough to be called madness. After that, for the rest of her life, she was preoccupied by insanity and convinced that the world was fundamentally unjust.
Her childhood was also full of a wild freedom. With no supervision she played in the rain forest and hunted for birds and small game that, in her extreme poverty, she brought home to eat.
In a 1974 booklength interview with Xaviere Gauthier, Duras said: "I have a bedazzled memory … of the night in the forest when we'd walk barefoot, barefoot while everywhere it was teeming with snakes!… I wasn't afraid at 12, and then, as an adult, I've said to myself, 'But how did we get out alive?' We would go to see the monkeys, and there were black panthers too. I saw a black panther fly by a hundred meters away. Nothing in the world is more ferocious than that."
Thinking about that panther, I ask her: "There seems to be a chronic underlying panic in your books. Did that come from your childhood?"
"Who can say? It's true that it exists. Endemic, as they say."
During another long silence I gaze at a strange tableau on a table. A mirror with dried flowers drooping from the top is propped against the wall. In its reflection is a poster of "Destroy She Said," her first independent movie. Leaning against the mirror is another, smaller mirror.
"There was a sexual fear, fear of men, because I didn't have a father. I wasn't raped, but I sensed rape, like all little girls. And then afterwards I had a Chinese lover. That was love."
Yann serves us grenadine. I remember French friends telling me, with eyebrows raised, that between them is un vrai amour, even though he is a homosexual.
"Do you think most people live with continual fear?"
"Only the stupid are not afraid."
Fear, despair, alienation are themes that seized her in her childhood; later Duras became fascinated with crimes of passion. In the 1958 novel Moderato Cantabile—Duras's first major success—a crime is committed: lying on the woman he has just killed, a man sobs: "Darling, My darling." Two witnesses, a man and a woman, later drink together and reconstruct in repetitious and incantatory dialogue a passion so intense that its climax was murder. This mix of eroticism and death runs through her work like a river that feeds everything it passes. Certainly one of its sources was the French governor's wife, but an even stronger one was a savage conflict within her family circle.
Duras passionately loved Paulo, the younger of her two older brothers (both of whom are now dead). Paulo was slightly retarded and was deathly afraid of Pierre, the older brother, who tormented and physically battered Paulo. One of the most jarring revelations in "The North Chinese Lover" is that Duras had sex with Paulo. In the book he begins to crawl into her bed when they were both very young, precipitating terrifying rages from Pierre. That intimacy eventually leads to consummation, just before the family leaves Vietnam. This new slant on her childhood might explain why she hated Pierre so much that she wanted to kill him.
"I should have," she cries today. "There was only one solution. That was murder. And one didn't adopt that solution. And it went on throughout my whole childhood. Hate grows. It's like a fire that doesn't go out. When he was 17 and I was 13, during a nap one day I got a knife to kill him."
"For everything, for the sake of killing him. So he wouldn't beat the little one anymore. I can't talk about the little one because I'm going to cry."
"Why didn't you kill the older one?"
"He woke up. He laughed." She imitates horrible laughter. It's a bizarre moment. "He got hold of the knife. He flung it away. I picked it up. He called my mother. He told her. They laughed uproariously. And I cried, I cried."
"What did your mother do?"
"She was very hard on me. She didn't love us, the little one and me. I've never seen anything like it in my life, my mother's preference for my older brother. She was proud of me because I did well in school. My little brother wasn't altogether normal, and that's why my older brother persecuted him. And as for me, I was going mad with pain because above all I loved my little brother. I wanted to kill myself when he died."
Self-destruction for love is a particularly Durasian obsession. "You destroy me. You're so good for me," repeats the woman in "Hiroshima Mon Amour" to her lover. I ask her today why sex and death are always entwined for her.
"It's difficult to articulate. It's erotic." She takes a deep breath. "I had a lover with whom I drank a lot of alcohol." She pauses, staring straight at me. Her face is expressionless, her dark eyes are absolutely still. "I'm acquainted with it, the desire to be killed. I know it exists."
In Practicalities, a 1987 book of essays, Duras writes about a violent affair. "We took a room by the river. We made love again. We couldn't speak to one another any more. We drank. He struck me … in cold blood. We couldn't be near one another now without fear and trembling…. We were both faced with the same strange desire." It was after that experience that she wrote Moderato Cantabile.
Is Duras's attitude toward eroticism an anomaly, or is it particularly French? Jennifer Wicke, an associate professor of comparative literature at New York University, told me that while the English may write about a languid conversation in front of a fire, the French are entirely different.
"Duras's writing is always at an extremity, and that is quite French," she said. "I see her as carrying on the tradition of l'amour fou, the crazed love. It's a bleak world view, the opposite of a lyrical text. It proposes a tragic end, because desire can't be sustained. It will either turn into obsession and, thus, ultimately destroy its object, or it will see itself be deflated by the very cruel contingencies of history, or death."
Duras is associated with the Nouveau Roman (literally "new novel"), a movement born in the 50's, whose members include Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Michel Butor and Claude Simon. The Nouveau Roman rejects the classical novel as an inappropriate medium to express the chaotic, morally ambiguous postwar world. Although Duras shares many of the movement's stylistic hallmarks—the free flow of time and the use of silence—she is the least obsessed with literary principles, and the most inspired by her own inimitable sensibility.
Peter Brooks, the Tripp Professor of Humanities at Yale University, commented to me that the other Nouveau Roman writers got more attention than Duras when the movement began because there was "something more technicolor about their technique. Their theorizing and their break with the traditional novel were overt and total. But Duras is the one from that whole generation who really is going to last."
Duras looks at Yann, and he takes her hand. During our conversation he has been shuffling around, walking in and out of the room, one hand on his hip, flipping his hair back with a toss of his head—a movement that must be, in other circumstances, flirtatious. I ask how they like to spend their time.
"The thing we like most in life is to be in a car together," she says, "to go in bistros, cafes, and make stories from what we see."
"Do you ask a lot of questions?"
"All the time. People talk to us. I go out every day in the car." Then she adds: "I had chronic bronchitis. You can hear my voice very well, even so. I still have vocal cords. I was in a coma for five months."
In October 1988, Duras fell into a coma from which she miraculously awoke intact. She now has a tracheostomy and wears a necklace of wire with a silver button in the middle. At times she adjusts it, which seems to alter the force of her voice.
The most difficult storm Duras weathered was her cure from alcohol in 1982. Yann wrote a harrowing account, which has not yet been translated into English, called simply "M.D." She tells me Yann's book is "magnificent."
"I drank because I was an alcoholic. I was a real one—like a writer. I'm a real writer, I was a real alcoholic. I drank red wine to fall asleep. Afterwards, Cognac in the night. Every hour a glass of wine and in the morning Cognac after coffee, and afterwards I wrote. What is astonishing when I look back is how I managed to write."
Her small, bejeweled hands lie on the table before her, one resting on the blank paper.
The next day we talk about criminals. Duras has never shunned conflict—as a Resistance fighter, as a Communist or as a woman who speaks out in defense of murderers if she imagines the killer is an anti-establishment figure.
"I became great friends with Georges Figon," she tells me. "He had stolen diamonds and he had killed people. And afterwards he had kidnapped people, with ransom. He was a dear friend. I got him a television interview. He was amazingly intelligent. I even went away for the weekend with him."
"A romantic weekend?" Monique immediately asks.
"No. We never slept with each other. Never. And he never tried to sleep with me."
What is the allure of a criminal for her?
"It exerts a fascination for me—all the people who abandon the golden rule of good conduct. Criminals are heroes for me."
In 1985 Duras wrote an article about Christine Villemin, who was accused of murdering her child. Although conceding Villemin's guilt under the law, she justified the murder as a natural result of social injustice. The article caused a furor.
Duras's pronouncements in the press have given her a notorious reputation. In 1988 she was interviewed on television for some four hours. Duras alternately spoke and stared speechlessly into the camera. Very little of it was comprehensible to the general public. It was just before her coma.
During my interview I was disconcerted by her habit of jumping disconnectedly from subject to subject, and it wasn't until I was back in America and spent many weeks studying the transcript of the interview (which Nancy K. Kline, of Barnard College, translated for this article) that I gradually understood the connections she was making. In New York I spoke to Tom Bishop, chairman of the French department at New York University, a Beckett scholar and a friend of Duras's for 25 years. It had occurred to me that she had sustained brain damage in the coma.
"She was always like this," he declared. "I don't think she was ever any different. I would doubt that it's the coma." He described the scattershot exchanges of ordinary friendship, which often went something like this:
Bishop: "Let's have lunch."
Duras: "I never have lunch."
Duras: "Where would you want to have lunch if we had lunch?"
Bishop: "I was thinking of the Rue de Dragon."
Duras: "Well, O.K., fine, let's do that."
"I think she's a fabulous writer who should just write and not talk about what she's thinking," Bishop said. Like her talk, her work doesn't make "a lot of sense," but it does "something else. It allows me to have an insight into the human psyche that I have found unique. I have learned things about humanity through her that others don't teach me."
A good example of meaning in ambiguity is Duras's work in the cinema, where she is almost as important to 20th-century experimental film as she is to literature. Annette Michelson, a professor of cinema studies at New York University, told me that one of Duras's most important contributions is her realization that "the cinema is made of relations." "And when you change the relations between sound and image," she says, "you have something new."
In India Song (1975), the actress Delphine Seyrig and various men walk through a room furnished only with a grand piano. They dance, lie down, sleep, weep, while off-screen voices comment on the unbearable heat, a man shrieks and sobs, a woman chants in Cambodian and jazz melodies pulse. Sounds never emanate from the actors. And yet the audience feels despair, longing, sensuality, the presence of death, colonialism, the impossibility of human communication—awelter of specific impulses that elude verbal definition.
Of course, a writer who concerns herself with disjunction and alienation is difficult to pin down in conversation. She used to say that as a film maker she wanted to "murder the writer," and recently she said she wants to "kill the image." I wonder how it is possible to make a film without image.
She answers: "With words. To kill the writer that I was."
All right. Suddenly she picks up the pen that has been in front of her for two days and begins to write on the paper. "I'm thinking of something." She looks up. "Sensitivity depends on intelligence. It's completely connected. There's an innocence also. Luckily." She puts down the pen. I record it as it happened. I do not fully understand.
To ground us a little, I introduce the subject of politics. Her hatred of de Gaulle springs to the surface.
"When de Gaulle arrived in France, I became an anti-Gaullist instantly. I saw through his power game. I saw he was an arriviste, with a special gift for language. And at just that moment they opened the camps, and my husband had been deported. I never got over it, the Jews, Auschwitz. When I die, I'll think about that, and about who's forgotten it."
"De Gaulle never said a word on the Jews and the camps," Yann adds quietly. "If de Gaulle had not been as big as he was," Duras says angrily, "no one would have noticed him. Because he was taller than everyone, he was boss. But why this arrogance? As far as I'm concerned, he's a deserter. He's horrible, horrible."
In The War, Duras describes her days in the Resistance, working with François Mitterrand, keeping records of deportees, trying to coax information from Germans stationed in Paris. It was Mitterrand who went to Germany with Dionys Mascolo, the man who would be her second husband and the father of her son, Jean. They rescued Antelme from Dachau in the first days after the German surrender. Antelme, nearly unconscious, was consigned to a quarantined section for hopeless cases. Mitterrand and Mascolo smuggled him out.
"Mitterrand is wonderful. I worked with him in the Resistance. I protected him in the street. We never met in a house or a cafe. We liked each other so much we could certainly have slept with each other, but it was impossible. You can't do that on bicycles!" She laughs.
"Are you still a Communist?"
"I'm a Communist. There's something in me that's incurable."
"But you left the Party."
"The Party is not Communism." Her mouth hardens into a straight line across her wide face.
"Has there been any true Communist government over the years?"
"Not one. There was one Communist year: 1917."
"Do you hope to see that sort of Communism return to the world?"
"I don't know. I don't want to know. I am a Communist within myself. I no longer have hope in the world."
Yann begins to laugh. "And the other?" he asks. "Do you have hope for the next world?"
She is not amused by his question. "Zero. Zero."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2818
SOURCE: An interview with 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, Columbia University Press, 1991, pp. 71-8.
[In the following interview, Duras remarks on feminism and how the response to her work has differed in France and the United States.]
[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 écritureféminine. 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, coedited with Paul Smith, is a collection of articles addressing the complicated relationship men have to feminism, and women have to feminist men. My book Gynesis 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.
It's odd, in French you can get woman out of the universal, but not man (you can say woman writer [femme écrivain] but not man writer [homme écrivain]).
Question 3: Many women writing today find themselves, for the first time in history, at the center of such institutions as the university or psychoanalysis. In your opinion, will this new placement of women help them to enter the twentieth-century canon, and if so will they be at the heart of this corpus or (still) in the footnotes?
I think that the women who can get beyond the feeling of having to correct history will save a lot of time.
I think that the women who are correcting history, who are trying to correct the injustice of which they're victims, of which they always were and still are victims—because nothing's changed, we have to really get that: in men's heads everything's still the same….
You really think so?
I'm sure, yes. The women who are trying to correct man's nature, or what has become his nature—call it whatever you want—they're wasting their time.
What you're saying is really depressing.
I think that if a woman is free, alone, she will go ahead that way, without barriers; that is how I think she'll create fruitful work.
Yes. I don't care about men. I've given up on them, personally. It's not a question of age, it's a question of intellectuality, if you like, of one's mental attitude. I've given up on trying to … to put them on a logical track. Completely given up.
It's true that in the United States, after so many years, especially in the university, after so much effort to change what and how we read, what and how we interpret, etc., the new generations may be feeling a sort of exhaustion and boredom with that struggle.
That's what I think.
Yes, but it's really complicated … this desire not to be always criticizing, always in negation.
Yes, it's an impasse.
I have always believed in the importance of this struggle, but I recognize more and more why young women can say that the struggle isn't for them.
I'm certainly not leading it.
But you did lead it at a certain period, didn't you?
No. Maybe you're thinking about a woman from the women's movement who interviewed me. I don't remember anymore. I said there was a women's writing, didn't I?
I don't think so anymore. From the position I have today, a definitive one, the most important writer from the standpoint of a women's writing is Woolf. It's not Beauvoir.
Yes, but for me, there's more of a schizophrenia to it, because when I think of my intellectual, institutional, political life, Beauvoir is the one who plays the part of the phantasmatic mother … I must do everything, read everything, see everything … but in my desire for writing, it's Woolf. They go together.
Yes, exactly. It's not all of Woolf. A Room of One's Own is the Bible.
And in my imagination, Marguerite Duras, you are there with Woolf.
Yes, well, still. You know, when I was young, I was very free. I was part of the Resistance during the Algerian War. I took a lot of risks, I risked … even with Algeria, I ran the risk of being imprisoned. Maybe it's in that sense that I'm still free.
That is, because you've already taken risks.
Because I haven't written on women. Or very little. I see women as having pulled themselves through. That is, they've taken the biggest step. They're on the other side now. All the successful books today are by women, the important films are by women. The difference is fabulous.
So perhaps, according to you, we have to turn away somewhat from the reactive struggle and move instead toward creativity.
Yes, that's what I think.
Do you think this is going to happen by itself? I'd like to believe it, but I'm not sure.
I believe that a book like The Lover—which was a slap in the face for everyone, for men—is a great leap forward for women, which is much more important. For a woman to claim international attention makes men sick. It just makes them sick.
I didn't see it like that from the United States.
That's how it was. I don't know how it was for Americans because I got an important American prize … and six Americans voted for me. You see, there were 700 voters, then 500, then 300, and finally 70 and then less—you know at different stages of the competition. In the end, there were nine voters. The six Americans all voted for me. The three Frenchmen (France has never had a prize in America) all voted against me.
Some papers, and probably they were right … said that they didn't want a writer from the Left to have the first American prize. But that's not it. It's because I was a woman writer. Of course, we must recognize that those three people were on the Right, I think that women on the Left are less alienated; whereas on the Right, so many women with government responsibilities are just followers. It's striking how visible that is.
Question 4: Today we are seeing women produce literary, philosophical, and psychoanalytical theory of recognized importance, and parallel to this, we are seeing a new fluidity in the borderlines among disciplines and genres of writing. Will this parallelism lead only to women being welcomed alongside men, or to a definitive blurring of these categories?
I don't know, it's dangerous. Because men's criteria have been tested a long time, and men manipulate them astutely and diplomatically. Men aren't politicians, they're diplomats, and that's a degree lower.
Question 5: Given the problematic and the politics of the categories of the canon, and given the questions we've been dealing with here, do you think your oeuvre will be included in the twentieth-century canon, and if so, how will it be presented? In your opinion, what will be the content of the canon?
This is an indiscreet question….
No it isn't. I don't know what it will be, I don't know, how can I say this, who will be deciding. The only thing that reassures me is that, now, I've become a little bit of an international phenomenon—even a pretty big one. And what France won't do, other countries will. So I'm safe. But those are the terms that I have to use. I'm not safe in France. I'm still very threatened.
You think so really?
Yes, I'm sure, I know, I'm sure.
For me though, coming from the outside, that's incredible, incomprehensible even.
But they never attacked Simone de Beauvoir.
What do you mean?
They never attack Simone de Beauvoir. They never attack Sarraute. But in my case, I've been involved in men's things. First, I was involved in politics. I was in the Communist Party. I did things that are considered in bad taste for a woman. That's the line England took for a long time. In England, they said that Marguerite Duras could never be a novelist because she was too political. Now, my literary oeuvre, my literary work has never gotten mixed up with politics. It never moves to rhetoric. Never. Even something like The Sea Wall remains a story. And that's what has saved me. There's not a term, not a trace of dialectic in my fiction. Well, there might be some in The Square, perhaps, a kind of theory of needs from Marx that was figured in the little girl, the maid who did everything, who was good for everything, but that was the only time, I think.
But still, your book Les Parleuses has come out from Nebraska Press with a great deal of success.
How was that translated?
Woman to Woman.
Isn't that a little outmoded now, Les Parleuses?
Not in the United States. Here maybe. No, not even here; people recognize that there are really beautiful things in it.
The speaking women, that is?
Yes, the image of two women engaged in speaking to each other.
You know, when I gave that title to my publisher, he was afraid it would have a negative effect. But I said I wanted it because others would say that women just gossip.
Question 6: And a last question just for you: we are asking you these questions about the future destiny of the work of contemporary women, when, in fact, your work seems to have been canonized already. Actually, you are one of the few people who has been able not only to see her work emerge from an unfair obscurity into the limelight but who has seen it attain worldwide recognition. How has becoming a celebrity influenced a vision that was intentionally critical and other?
You know, The Lover came late in my life. And even its fame wasn't something new for me. I had already had two things make it on the worldwide scene, and so I was used to that phenomenon—of something operating totally independently of you. It happens like an epiphenomenon, it takes place in inaccessible regions. You can't know why a book works, when it works that well. First, it was Hiroshima, mon amour, which was seen all over the world. And then I had Moderato cantabile, which must have had the same effect as The Lover, for it was translated everywhere. Such a small book that was a worldwide hit, it's strange. Well, I was no young girl in the face of those events. As for the end of your question, "a vision that was intentionally critical and other"—that doesn't have anything to do with it. I understand the implication in your question that being famous somehow intimidates, inhibits. No, no, on the contrary….
But there's a mythology that says that being famous is a defeat in mass culture.
Yes, I know that…. That reminds me of what Robbe-Grillet told me one day. He said, "When you and I have sold 500,000 copies, that will mean we don't have anything else to say." Well, so I don't have anything else to say—and he has another book.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 896
SOURCE: "A Man, a Woman and a Voyeur," in The New York Times Book Review, February 23, 1992, p. 12.
[Below, Danto reviews Duras' novella The Man Sitting in the Corridor and compares it to her earlier novel The Ravishing of Lol Stein.]
In The Ravishing of Lol Stein, a 1964 novel with which Marguerite Duras began to skirt the celebrity she would encounter exponentially 20 years later with The Lover, the protagonist is a woman whose resilientmemory of lost love festers into a form of insanity. The narrative moves from before, when Lol Stein is young and borne by love, to after, when she is older, spent by residual grief and mad. In the last state, Lol Stein returns to roam the scene of her youthful tryst, a village in Normandy, where she sees a man with a woman who resembles her onetime rival. Later Lol Stein lies in a field from which she can see the couple making love and experiences a vague voyeuristic pleasure that supplants her nostalgia for a severed past.
In many ways, this early novel served as a blueprint for episodes in Ms. Duras's subsequent stories, in which love shifts, like mercury, in and out of once true hearts suddenly reoriented. And while Ms. Duras's intermingled themes of desire and disappointment perennially resurface, what disappears in successive works is detail and description, like so much excess carved away to yield an increasingly lean, essential plot.
Ms. Duras's 1980 novella The Man Sitting in the Corridor, whose superb English translation by Barbara Bray is only now appearing, was such an exercise in the author's progressive distillation of her prose. Here it is so spare that at most several sentences (and once a mere 15 words) occupy an entire page. Thus unencumbered, the rare bits of writing gain resonance, like a lone voice echoing through a tunnel. Moreover, by writing less—and thereby suggesting more—Ms. Duras invests her information with a power unavailable to more copious, if still evocative, forms of literary expression. More than in her other fiction, however, the style of The Man Sitting in the Corridor suits its similarly thrifty scenario of a protracted sexual exchange between a man and a woman, as told by a voyeur.
In the context of Ms. Duras's oeuvre, which continually recasts, in variously altered guises, intermittently abandoned persons and plots, The Man Sitting in the Corridor can be considered a close-up of the scene of Lol Stein's vicarious encounter. And, like a camera lens that magnifies fine details at the expense of a contextual blur, the novella focuses on the deconstructed inventory of its erotic action, stripped of situational clues and elaboration. There is no history attached to these people, who have no names. There is only the present, and a cast that includes the narrator's "I," as well as "he" and "she," along with references to the male sexual organ—indeed an essential character—as "it," Nor are we anywhere specific, but in a generic landscape of sun, sea and clouds, with somewhere a house that has a corridor.
As a film maker, Ms. Duras is also acquainted with close-ups that magnify to unrecognition, rendering even beautiful images unexpectedly grotesque. The same distortion occurs in this brief text, where the closely chronicled denouement of passion is possibly fatal pain. We watch this process, voyeurs ourselves, by way of a witness whose faithful, frame-by-frame narrative unfolds page by page, so that even when nothing "happens," something is going on. Indeed, a third of the way through the book we're told, "The man would go on waiting." Until then the surveyed couple remain inert: he seated in some corridor, she sprawled outside within his (and our) vision.
But despite their inertia, or perhaps because of it, a slow, pre-erotic tension fills the air between them. Thus Ms. Duras's meticulously chosen words, which do little more than deploy two people in proximity, mimic the still form of foreplay for what these people will ultimately do—so that when the woman cries out and the man moves toward her, there is a sense of relief, but also of disappointment. Perhaps the most erotic moment of this interlude was one of anticipation.
For soon the woman becomes inanimate in her submission. The man treats her as if she isn't human, and as if he too is "mechanical." It is only when the man says "I love you" that we recognize him as the woman's lover, and it is only when she begs to be beaten that we realize this is the only kind of love she wants: "She says she wants him to hit her, in the face she says, she asks him to, Come on He does, he comes and sits by her and looks at her again. She says she wants him to hit her, hard, as he did her heart just now. She says she'd like to die."
In her own story, Lol Stein never saw the suspect woman destroyed like herself. Perhaps Ms. Duras, who has said in interviews that the character of Lol Stein haunted her for years, wrote The Man Sitting in the Corridor to afford Lol Stein this belated opportunity. On its own, the novella paints the most searing abstract yet of the Duras heroine—a woman who seeks love only to be charred by at like someone who willingly puts her hand into a flame.
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SOURCE: "Marguerite Duras Makes No Sense, Compellingly," in Chicago Tribune, May 27, 1992, p. 3.
[In the following review, Grossman states that despite its unusual and sparse style, somber mood, and difficult subject matter, Summer Rain is a compelling novel.]
It would be foolish to argue with Marguerite Duras that her novels don't make sense.
The grande dame of contemporary French letters would take the reproach as a compliment. For half a century, Duras has fascinated her fans with books in which she set aside most of the novel's conventional devices: plot, characterization, description and action.
Summer Rain, the most recent of her works to be translated into English, doesn't just leave readers scratching their heads. The characters don't seem to know what's up either.
"You're as beautiful as Hanka Lissovskaya," one character tells his daughter.
"Who's she?" the daughter asks.
Because of that disdain for logic, Duras has often been considered a member of the nouveau roman movement, which introduced mimimalist storytelling to the French reading public. But for novelists like Nathalie Sarraute and Alain Robbe-Grillet, the less-is-more technique was an aesthetic device.
For Duras, it is a philosophy of life. She is convinced that the world is simply absurd.
Considering her biography, it would have been hard to her to come to another conclusion. Duras was born in 1914 in IndoChina, then a French colony. Her father died when she was a child, and her mother saved for years to buy a small farm with which to support Duras and her two brothers. Unfortunately, she was tricked into buying a piece of worthless land that flooded during the rainy season, leaving the family penniless. Duras drew upon the experience for The Lover, the novel for which she is best known in America.
Making her way to France, Duras studied mathematics at the Sorbonne, then served with the Resistance during World War II. Aided by Francois Mitterrand, who went on to become president of France, Duras rescued her husband from a Nazi concentration camp. Then she promptly divorced him.
A distinguished filmmaker, best known for her script for Hiroshima Mon Amour, she has published dozens of books between bouts of depression and a lifelong struggle with alcoholism.
Summer Rain takes place on the other side of the tracks in a large, impersonal suburb of Paris. By some fashion or another, an Italian man and a Russian woman have made their way there and had seven children, supporting their brood on the public dole. Evenings, the parents go off to the shanty town's taverns, leaving the eldest children, Ernesto and Jeanne, to take care of the younger ones.
Ernesto decides he doesn't want to go to school, arguing with perfect logic: "They teach me things I don't know."
Nonetheless, he not only learns to read, but by the time he's 12, he has become a prodigy. Listening outside schoolrooms, he teaches himself virtually the whole body of mankind's knowledge. At the novel's end, he goes off to study mathematics in America, just as Duras once went to France to study that subject. But just before leaving, he and his sister become lovers.
Whatever else can be said of Duras, she doesn't expect her characters to do that which she herself wouldn't. In another book, The North Chinese Lover, she obliquely reported having had an affair with her younger brother.
Only Duras can take such unpalatable material, pass it through the filter of her bleak philosophy and produce novels of such compelling presence that the reader wants to devour them at a single sitting.
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SOURCE: "If Revenge Is Duras' Aim, Then It's Also Her Muse," in Chicago Tribune, January 5, 1993, p. 3.
[In the following review, Munn compares The North China Lover to The Lover and argues that despite their similar subject matter The North China Lover is a more personal and a better-written account.]
In The North China Lover, Marguerite Duras rewrites a story she has told over and over, most notably in her 1984 novel The Lover. She has never told it better than here.
Replete with haunting images of forbidden passion, familial violence, hatred and love, The North China Lover strikes an emotional chord that Duras' other works have sought to destroy. Known for alternating between first-person and third-person narration, Duras deliberately distances readers from her characters. Their emotions appear on the page but are never shared. Yet by maintaining the third-person voice throughout this autobiographical confession, Duras forges a new connection, one that is rewarding and deeply affecting.
The novel began as notes for the screenplay Duras was to write for French director Jean-Jacques Annaud's film adaptation of The Lover, now at area theaters. It developed into a story of its own when she was replaced by another writer after a falling-out with Annaud. Whether or not Duras published this book in retaliation (which seems likely, considering its cinematic quality), what she has created far surpasses Annaud's film and the novel on which it is based.
Duras illuminates the wretched poverty of her family in 1930 French Indochina, the violence they suffered at the hands of her opium-addicted brother and the passion that threatened to consume her at 14 when she embarked on a scandalous affair with a 27-year-old Chinese man. She intensifies the already concentrated sensuality of both the book and film versions of The Lover. She lays bare her incestuous relationship with her younger brother, Paulo—a relationship she only hinted at in The Lover. But the main difference dwells in the explanation behind her affair with "the Chinese," as she refers to her lover.
In both the film and the earlier novel, it is the wealth of the Chinese man that propels her into his arms. She trades her body for money—enough to pay off her brother Pierre's opium debts and to buy them passage back to France on an oceanliner. The possibility that she may love him is only entertained at the end as she watches him watch her sail away.
In The North China Lover, "the child," as Duras refers to herself, seems motivated less by money than by desire. Throughout the narrative, she questions her feelings, testing their true depth. Their relationship, while still based on power, is complicated by the intensity of their emotions. Much more a tragic love story than The Lover, this novel reveals the depth of Duras' love for the Chinese-a love that continues to sustain and influence her work.
Duras further eroticizes that love through the film-like quality of her writing style, which transforms the reader into a voyeur. "She isn't alone in the picture anymore. He is there. Beside her," Duras writes. "He gently rolls onto that skinny, virgin body. And as he slowly covers it with his own body, without touching it yet, the camera might leave the bed; it might veer toward the window, might stop there at the drawn blinds."
This cinematic style lends credence to the belief that Duras wrote The North China Lover as a direct affront to Annaud. Heightening such suspicions are the sporadic footnotes advising on the use of lighting, music and casting "if this book is made into a film."
Whatever her motivation, Duras has written an original and powerful book, with the brutal honesty of a black and white documentary.
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SOURCE: A review of The North China Lover, in Boston Review, January/February, 1993.
[In the following review, Thon contends that The North China Lover is less distant and more humane than the earlier novel The Lover.]
Spare and erotic, The North China Lover is not merely the story of The Lover retold: it is a haunting transformation of Marguerite Duras's original vision, more tender and more terrifying, more devastating because it is more humane.
In pre-war Indochina, a wealthy Chinese man meets an adolescent girl on a ferry and offers her a ride in his limousine. She's poor and white, a child, but they are bound to each other from the start, "shut in together, in the twilight of the car." The lover is "more solid" than he was in the first book, "less timid facing the child." The balance between them has shifted. Though the child still can be cruel, she's too vulnerable to be callous, too immersed in her own desire to pretend she wants the Chinese only for his money.
Crossing one boundary allows the child to cross all others. She loves everyone too much: the man, her beautiful friend Hélène, her brother Paulo. It's dangerous, living this way. Despair and insight come with passion, the child says, and it's true: fears intertwine; one threat exposes another. Thanh, her mother's chauffeur, is the only one to refuse her. "He says inside him he has the fear of killing the men and women with white skins, that he has to beware."
His words echo. All her life the child has been tormented by her older brother, Pierre, afraid of what he'll do to her and Paulo if he finds them together. She imagines being killed by tigers, or a stranger, or a brother—she asks the lover how he would kill her at Long-Hai, and he says, "Like a Chinese. With cruelty on top of killing." These fantasies have a terrible logic. There is a place where desperation and desire collide, where the fear of being destroyed and the fear of being abandoned are one.
For those who live inside this novel, love is forbidden: the love of a grown man for a child, a mother for a brutal son, a sister for a fragile brother. But Duras's people transcend judgment. The mother tells the Chinese man, "You ought to know, Monsieur, that it is sacred even to love a dog. And we have the right—as sacred as life itself—not to have to justify it to anyone."
Originally written as notes for a filmscript, The North China Lover is elliptical, sometimes eerie: the child "dissolves in the moonlight, then reappears." The "I" of the first novel has stepped out of our way, has become an eye instead, lingering on a hand that seems "charmingly crippled," or on the "fabulous, silken flatness of the delta." Again and again, the eye focuses on the skinny body of the child, so we can never forget how young and small she is.
Duras is re-imagining her own work, giving directions. In a footnote, she tells us Hélène has died of tuberculosis. In another she says the actress who plays the child can't be too pretty. "Beauty doesn't act. It doesn't look. It is looked at."
The effect of these details is surprising. They don't distract us. Our awareness of Duras's process only pulls us closer. We are with a woman trying to reveal the experience at the center of her life, participating in her fierce desire to get it right.
Marguerite Duras knows the lover is dead when she begins the second novel. She's learned that the people of Sadec loved him for his kindness and simplicity, that toward the end of his life he was very religious. He's become human and real to her in ways he wasn't when she told her story the first time. In the introduction, she says: "Writing this book made me deliriously happy. The novel kept me a year, enclosed me in that year of love between the Chinese man and the child."
The final section of The North China Lover is a list of suggested shots for the filmmaker that reads like a poem. The story unfurls one last time, and we see everything quickly, in bursts: "The straight monsoon rain and nothing more, that straight rain across the entire frame. Straight, like no place else." The lovers are absent but seem to move in the white space, between the images, between "a day of a different blue" and the surface, the "skin" of the dark river "very close up." Like Duras, we feel a sense of awe and joy, plunged into the world of the child and her Chinese lover again.
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SOURCE: "The Telling Remains," in Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women, Vol. 8, No. 3, Spring, 1993, p. 9.
[In the following review of The North China Lover, Romaine discusses how repeating essentially the same story over again in her work allows Duras to perfect the telling of this tale.]
In the hands of a French male director, Marguerite Duras's The North China Lover could become a voyeuristic film of another Lolita. In fact, it has. Sex in all its variations certainly pervades the novel, sometimes gratuitously. But, unlike many of Duras's previous novels with the same plot and characters, the girl in this novel is not defined only in sexual terms. Duras has other more central themes: memory and fiction itself.
Written first as a film script, this autobiographical work takes place in 1930 Indochina. A poor, half-caste 14-year-old girl has an affair with a wealthy, 27-year-old Chinese man. Her brothers, Pierre and Paulo, know of the affair, while her mother, "killed by life," views her daughter's sexuality almost indifferently. The Chinese lover, who feels the "despair at the happiness of flesh," redeems the family debt, thinking the girl will leave for France.
Happily, Duras subverts convention by demanding in a wry footnote that the film actress not be pretty: "Beauty doesn't act. It doesn't look. It is looked at." And here lies the crux of the novel. Much is made of the girl's "looking," of her need to observe the cold truth of every detail. "She gives him a straight look. A look you could call unabashed. Fresh. Not right, her mother calls it." At 14, poverty and incest have made her neutral, vigilant, unsentimental. She survives by desiring a man "who loves a woman and the woman doesn't love him." Observing her passion much as a writer might, she strips it of prettiness. She does what she does, "just to see." And it is her gaze, not the lover's, that names and defines her experiences.
The girl, as Duras remembers herself, is already writing her own life. The novel, which Duras calls both a book and a film, contains wide spaces between short paragraphs, directions for a camera, and even chapters devoted to single line images—very much in the tradition of the nouveau roman. In fact, the girl's eye clicks like a lens. "The canvas shade against the heat. The blood on the sheets. And the city, always invisible, always external—those things she remembered." Her eye is nonjudgmental, mirroring obsession through simple repetition: "She sees him. She lowers her eyes. She looks at him, too. She sees him. She pulls back." Sometimes tedious, the repetition mostly proves hypnotic, drawing the reader from passion to ennui to the "frightful pain of (the lovers') need…." It is an elemental fable where the main characters are nameless: The Girl or The Child, The Man or The Chinese, The Mother.
Yet why recount this same story in novel after novel? Each retelling brings Duras closer to the truth of a memory that haunts her. We remember so we do not forget. Quite simple. But if I record precisely what I remember, the memory becomes fixed; it is not tied to a memory that will die when I die. For Duras, fiction is memory made (dare I say it?) immortal. She remembers her passion but she also remembers the girl who became a writer at that moment. The girl cries at the end, "talk about everything, the happiness as well as the suffering…. In order for people—anyone who wanted to, she says—to tell it over and over again, for them not to forget the whole of the story, for something very precise to remain."
And what remains? The telling remains. Duras writing year after year, recapturing what has compelled her to write. The significance of the affair (ignore the patriarchal French film!) lies not in sexual passion, but in what it produced: Duras as writer. Her fictional self has transformed the real self whose story "demanded to be written—until she reached that moment of clear memory in the forest of writing."
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SOURCE: "Eternally Unpredictable," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4743, February 25, 1994, p. 24.
[Below, Gunn reviews two of Duras' works, Le Monde Exterieur and Ecrire, as well as Christiane Blot-Labarrer's Marguerite Duras and Leslie Hill's Marguerite Duras, both biographies.]
Who gets closest to Marguerite Duras? Who writes most illuminatingly of her, the author herself or her critics? All four books under review, even that entitled Le Monde extérieur, are trying to get close to Duras, though they do not agree on how best to do so. Does one get closest by becoming intimate, or rather by maintaining some distance? Christiane Blot-Labarrère tries the former approach, Leslie Hill the latter; and, perhaps unsurprisingly, their works argue respectively for Duras the destroyer of boundaries, and Duras the advocate of the impossibility of encounter. While Duras herself goes both inside, in Ecrire, which is concerned in part with her house, and "outside" (Le Monde extérieur is subtitled Outside 2), in an attempt to write about herself as one who claims she cannot write, yet who writes notwithstanding (and prolifically).
The final chapter of Blot-Labarrère's book is called "Duras telle qu'en elle-même", and in it she tries to show what has been her conviction throughout, that Duras is "in herself" most when in her work; or that, since all her work is about herself, Duras is most herself when most inventive. Taking a lead from Duras's statement in her novel L'Amant, that "L'histoire de ma vie n'existe pas", Blot-Labarrère largely eschews a chronological overview of the oeuvre (though interestingly not in the photographs which accompany the text), and works with prominent Duras themes and loci. Childhood, then, if it is the origin of many major Duras preoccupations—the family, incest, ambivalence, the margins, the sea, the outsiders—is most important not as a period of time but as a myth re-created in support of ever-contemporary desires.
As Blot-Labarrère's book progress, with some useful discussion of Jewishness, the colonies, weather and the seasons, it becomes clear that Duras is herself mythic for her critic. And it is perhaps because the intensity of the author's admiration of Duras militates against her essentialist desire to grasp the writer, that she chooses to graft her text, stylistically, so closely on to that of its subject. So she concludes her work with a summons to "franchir les passes et, Navire Night, partir pour une écriture au long cours, sur la mer d'encre noir". We are just a step away, here, from Duras on Duras; but we are also only two steps from the mimicry of Alain Vircondelet's lamentable biography of Duras (1991), in which the biographer dispensed with independent research by invocation of his subject's disregard for chronology; or three steps from the hilarious book parodying Duras, Virginie Q (1988), which is full of such invocations.
Nor is one reassured as to the critic's role, on reading in Le Monde extérieur Duras's tribute to Blot-Labarrère (who has edited this volume, though to a system I cannot begin to fathom), which asserts that "C'est merveilleux que Christiane Blot-Labarrère existe pour raconter l'écriture". Such critical doubling can, at its best, give the reader a taste of the excitement Duras offers. But it does not help in demarcating the line between Duras "in herself" and Duras as the object of what may be called (using Leslie Hill's term) "transferential love"; the line between Duras and Duras parody; or the fine line between Duras at her best and Duras at her worst. Hill also chooses not to explain why good Duras is very good and bad Duras awful, but there is enough in his book to give the reader some indications. With his greater distance, and his willingness to explore her "mythifying—if not, indeed, mystifying" writing, he introduces a Duras who has very self-consciously created a myth around herself. Hill's study of Duras's "image", and of her journalism and television appearances, which he suggests should be viewed less as comments on her work than as part of the work itself, makes a peculiarly appropriate opening. This is particularly so since he never exaggerates his case, and shows that Duras has a 100 per cent commitment to her every utterance, no matter how alarming it may be.
Hill presents a paradoxical Duras, with his key concept of "apocalyptic desire" (and of incest) leading to "epistemological frustration", exhaustion, loss, paucity, blankness, dissolution, sublime excess and impossibility. Hill follows a more or less chronological scheme, and in a broad sweep takes in Duras's films, plays and fiction. At times, it is hard, reading his book, to grasp how the passage from apocalyptic concept to immensely charged text comes about; and Hill's own style, never emulating that of its subject, gives no help here, nor do his quotations, since (and the contrast with Samuel Beckett, the subject of Hill's previous book, is striking here) Duras appears curiously weak in quotation. But the term "apocalyptic desire" allows Hill to account for much that is formally innovative in Duras: in her films, for example, the disjunction between image and word. And, especially in an analysis of Duras's most fascinating works, Hill does give a strong sense of the stakes involved; not least when he takes the risk, with his view of destruction-in-revelation and revelation-in-destruction, of reducing the critic's position to a very fine margin—upon which margin he must then balance.
Given the ambivalent and paradoxical nature of Duras's world, it is perhaps to be expected that, when speaking of Le Monde extérieur, Duras in fact speaks of herself, and in a way which confirms Hill's contention that her journalism should be considered as part of her literary output. From the occasional pieces collected here—magazine articles, prefaces, comments on photographs, film production, lovers, films and on much else besides—certain of her more incendiary articles have been omitted. Yet there is more than enough here to confirm that Duras's views are never predictable, always controversial, sometimes aberrant. From her support for the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, for the American bombing of Tripoli, for Amnesty International and for various artists and painters, to her denunciation of the French right, of drugs, of the Communist Party, of Gorbachev, consistency and objectivity are surely the least of Duras's concerns. She often breaks off from some topical or political question to interject an intensely personal reflection, memory or analogy, so finding herself "in herself" when on the "outside". At one point, she launches a tirade against men, who are "fatigués … malades … suicidaires", only to follow it with: "J'aime les hommes, je n'aime que ça."
It is love for one man in particular—love more than respect or admiration—which marks this collection most boldly, and that man is François Mitterrand. The love, which has its origins in the Resistance (as readers of La Douleur will recall), leads here to many of the most extraordinary judgments, since Mitterrand must, at all costs, be defended; to the point that he is grouped with Robert Badinter and Pierre Mendès France as the only ones worthy of power, because they are the only ones who don't give a damn about power. In Ecrire, which collects transcripts from three short films on or by Duras, the turn inwards to the principal preoccupations appears to have results for the style, which often out-Durases Duras. Never negligent of an opportunity to use the word "ça", Duras writes (of a pilot killed in the Second World War): "ça a vingt ans. L'âge, le chiffre de l'âge s'est arrêté à la mort, ça aura toujours vingt ans, ça que c'est devenu." In transcribing her discourses from the films, Duras gives free rein to the "ça", almost as if she were caricaturing herself.
Nor do the subjects of the two main pieces strike one as anything less than extreme Duras. A British pilot of twenty (to whom the collection is dedicated), shot down and killed in the final days of the war, permits an invocation of his grave, a lament for youth and a venting of abiding hatred of the Germans. Writing, here, as tomb-building and tomb-preservation, evoking hopelessness, heroism and, of course, the loss of the author's own brother; and all these packed into a short narrative which is as full of blanks as it is of the word "ça".
The other main piece evokes Marguerite Duras's house at Neauphle-le-Château, where, among other things, she recalls observing the death of another aviator, this time a common house fly, whose end she narrates at some length. In this house too, most importantly, she feels the real break through in her writing career occurred, and here she is able most fully to experience the states which for her befit the writer (and all of which are reminiscent of Samuel Beckett on the painter, Bram van Velde): complete uncertainty, want of subject before "une immensité vide", impossibility of writing and surprise at writing which emerges none the less. By turns magnificent and infuriating, Duras turns in upon herself, and threatens thus to lose or parody herself. But then she turns half an eye on the "outside", and brings it, and herself in the process, to life again; even if this world has been reduced—or perhaps Duras would say magnified—to the agonies of a young pilot, or, indeed, of a fly.
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SOURCE: Writing Power in Duras' L'Amant de la Chine du nord," in College Literature, Vol. 21, No. 1, February, 1994, pp. 46-62.
[In the essay below, Ramsay considers the autobiographical fiction genre and analyzes the language and structure of Duras' works.]
It has been a matter of theoretical concern that "difference" or the "feminine," like the principle of "carnival" or of the disorderly woman, might remain a simple reversal of values, reversal that ultimately serves to reinforce the power structures in place. The transgression of the law—or of narrative—might simply confirm the power of the law or of the language that it transgresses.
The question of whether writing has the power to enter and recover a "wild country" of "difference" (another kind of power) through reversals or transgressions of traditional frames of reference is necessarily at the heart of any critical reading of the "new autobiographies" (L'Amant, Emily L.) of Marguerite Duras. Nathalie Sarraute's "new autobiographies," too (Enfance, Tu ne t'aimes pas), seek to move toward the unknown (the unsayable) in the self through the prodding, the squeezing inside and the exposing of the meanings of conventional expressions. These works remain self-consciously aware of the compromised nature of the language that serves as their instrument of investigation. Duras attempts to recover the power of the "wild country" through a "chaotic" text that models regression to the brutality of primitive states, a text marked by the cry, gesture, silence, and obsessive repetition of founding scenes of desire. Sarraute is embroiled in a struggle between a unified, polished, surface order of language as it fixes and limits sensations and self and the swarming undersides of these structures, the multiple selves that can be forced for a moment into view in a war of the words. Both writers have undertaken this "impossible" movement between feeling and saying through the medium of a literary excavation without much certainty of success and with a paradoxical sense of powerlessness/new power.
The "new" power sought in the "new" autobiographies resides in just this apparent contradiction, the impossible movement, both in and yet somehow reaching beyond the postmodern bind in which self, desires, sensations, fantasies are a construction by language, discursive formations, always already there. As they transform traditional autobiography, science, and gender, the new autobiographies rewrite the apparently dialectical oppositions (the logic of contradictions) lurking in the very designation of the reversals they effect: feminine for masculine, or powerlessness for power. They write a new "chaotic" character into the circulation between power and resistance to power.
For Michel Foucault, power and knowledge are situated within a social dynamics of control characterized by a movement from subversion to containment. Such a movement is essentially a self-canceling equilibrium process: subversion remains within power. In Duras' work, however, power/language/knowledge are abused and used to forge connections with what is not (in) power. This is, Duras expresses it in Emily L., the unsayable or unreadable "minimal difference, where the meanings are" sensed in the unmaking and remaking of knowledge. In Sarraute, the unsayable is identified with the tiny, affective, tropistic "differences" underlying and deferred in speech yet detectable through the speaking voice. Although they participate in the circulation of power/resistance to power that constructs both the individual and the truth, a circulation that is, for Foucault, at once an effect of power and its mode of domination, the "differences" in the new autobiographies also introduce something new (local, approaching agency). These local, unpredictable, mobile truths move the ordered Foucault system in equilibrium through minute but recursive changes toward the fluctuating non-equilibrium states and the bifurcation points of random change that may create event or new knowledge. The forms of the new autobiographies are close to the models of a new science (chaos theory, Ilya Prigogine's "dissipative systems," catastrophe theory) that contests reductive determinism. They move beyond the Foucault model to the extent that the circulation Foucault envisages leaves no place for change or agency.
It has become a commonplace that pre-oedipal identification is the most obvious route to significations unassimilable to the Patriarchal Law in place. The originality of L'Amant de la Chine du nord, I argue, is that as it experiments with the forms through which the capture of the unconscious or the prelinguistic might indeed be possible (the psychoanalytic domain), it simultaneously struggles with the question of whether the unconscious is indeed structured like a language, as Jacques Lacan claims (the domain of the semiotic). The character of the "beyond" (beyond the prison-house of language or readymade Law, beyond dialectic, beyond deterministic closed systems, beyond conventional notions of power as juridical sovereignty, social contract, or right) that the new texts model is not simply a regression to the pre-oedipal. The "minimal difference" of which Duras speaks must participate in the sphere of language as much as in the pre-linguistic. Its nature—that of the body made word—is contradictory.
Nor does the pre-oedipal or the "minimal difference" simply recover a traditional essence. In her study of Italian feminism, Teresa de lauretis argues that a certain form of essentialism, based on the individual contexts and experiences of women, is not incompatible with constructionism (woman as readymade ideological or linguistic product), despite the mutual exclusion of essentialism and constructionism in current theory. Change, agency, the touching of a beyond might derive, her thesis suggests, from the very specificity and uniqueness of female contexts and experiences and within local inter- and intra-personal hierarchies, differences, and relations of force as much as from global equal rights. Agency might manifest itself in choice and individual style.
For Foucault too, the local and the singular have particular significance: "Power is constructed and functions on the basis of particular power myriad issues, myriad effects of power" (Power/Knowledge). The traditional relation between the global (as cause and dominance) and the local (as effect and submission/reaction) undergoes a radical change. As in the principle of "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" in chaos theory (a principle that emerged from the study of non-mechanical, non-traditional dynamical physical systems), small local dislocations or effects of power, magnified through the system, can initiate major change in global relations. In the Lorenzian hypothesis of "the butterfly effect" in weather systems, for example, the movement of a butterfly's wings in Peking, repeated through the system, might produce a storm in Florida. In the new autobiographies, as in postmodernism and feminism, the dissolution of "Man" and the subsequent lack of any absolute principle or paternal legitimation to give meaning to the self and to the world constitute the starting points for the exploration of the chaotic and generative impulses and the complex, sado-masochistic relations of power concealed within this "void." These relations do not exist in perfect equilibrium or symmetry and are far from predictable—not unlike those of most complex living systems.
Foucault chooses, much as the new autobiographers do, to investigate the network of relations from the bottom, or at the lowest level. But arguing that power is always already there, that one is always inside power, the philosopher limits his enterprise of knowledge to an intellectual modeling of the ways in which the mechanisms and effects of power have been able to operate. The new autobiographers are writing from within similar power relations and discourses but they do not seek to elaborate a distancing archaeology of knowledge or a history of sexuality as Foucault does. Rather, at the limits of their own intimate affective experience, they seek to sound the unsaid or unsayable, the more mobile "chaotic" laws of intimate power, sexuality, and knowledge. Resistance, for Robbe-Grillet, cannot be simply a question of opposition to the Law, of cutting off the King's head, or indeed of casting bright light on his own fantasies of the beautiful captive. In Robbe-Grillet's work, Boris, the regicide, is also the King; as his old head rolls, the "hydra-monster" of theory simply sprouts new heads, Stalin replaces the Czar, and the marine monster who both devours little girls and flees the devouring sea/mother (mer/mère) makes confession of his fantasies—but in a self-conscious linguistic pirouette. In the new interchangeable non-dialectical figures that they create and in the movement that breaks down the limits between inside and outside, language and life, sadism and masochism, there is, however, a recording of the relations of power that may alter them.
The limitation of Foucault's poststructuralist formulation of the question of the relation to power (even in resistance, one is inside power) is highlighted by a number of new forms emerging into the general cultural climate. These appear in art, in the work of Magritte (paintings of landscapes/landscapes painted that are simultaneously inside and outside the room in The Human Condition or The Beautiful Captive) for example. They are present also in the scientific discourses that Foucault himself sees as dominant in contemporary society, in the reversibility of the new topological figures of the Möebius strip or Klein worms where inside and outside are indistinguishable, in Heisenberg's "complementary relations" (matter as both particle and wave), and in the unpredictability and pattern in the dynamical systems of chaos theory. De Lauretis, too, formulates the hope that struggle against repressive or disciplinary power might take place not in the name of juridical sovereignty or right—that is, of the other face of global power—but rather in the search for a new kind of right.
Foucault claims, however, that the play of power and resistance that generates itself at each moment, at specific points, and in every relation (between male and female, adult and child, etc.) allowing the emergence of "subjugated knowledges," including those of the body, nonetheless remains within power. According to the Foucault model, then, Duras' resistance would necessarily function within a sexuality constructed by a productive power exercised in both the repression and the stimulation (by advertising, pornography, etc.) of bodies and desires and in the production of effects at the level of desire and knowledge. Duras' work, however, is an attempt to dramatize such internalized oppressions and to go beyond the effects of the matrix of received sex/text. Her text seeks stubbornly, persistently, passionately, outside the mainstream tradition of rationality, to write her desire in spite of its mixed nature and the problematic gap between text and life. Foucault, who, as Jana Sawicki argues, sees the body as the target and the vehicle of modern disciplinary practices, calls for a displacement in relation to the sexual centering of the problem of power, and argues against the thesis of repression.
In Duras' work, too, of course, the Law may be constitutive of desire. "Difference" is perceptible only through the rhythms, semiotic flow, and breaks of the texts that obscure it. It is the lost, pre-verbal, desiring other side of the repressive and formative social structures in place. But sign-posted in linguistic, thematic, and structural inversions, and in the writer's metatextual observations and the fracturing effect of metalepsis (illicit slippage between levels of the text, between fiction and metacommentary), desire in Duras is a complex, non-linear, non-dialectical product of a pleasure-inducing network of power relations and conflicts and not simply an opposite reaction to repression or disciplinary normalization of the body. It maintains tensions and interactions at all levels of functioning of the text between the pre-oedipal or pre-linguistic (maternal fusion, oceanic beatitude, emotion) and the oedipal (the separation, identification with the father's authority [the Phallus], loss, individuation, and rationality of the symbolic or linguistic).
One new autobiography (also a novel and a film scenario), Duras' 1991 L'Amant de la Chine du nord, illustrates precisely the existence of a power of writing in Duras that cannot be wholly contained as in the Foucault model. In this rewriting of a first autobiographical fiction—a local re-writing of the story of the lover (brother, mother) already present in Un Barrage contre le Pacifique (Gallimard, 1950) and L'Amant (Minuit, 1984)—Duras seeks once again, stubbornly, passionately, to write intense and buried desire from her own hysterical body at once given voice by, and filtered through, a text that seeks new forms of community and economies of power and pleasure. The fictional truth that Duras attempts to produce, as writing gives form to her life and her life takes on the form of art, goes beyond the role that Foucault assigns truth, that of reflecting and sustaining social systems. In this respect, it may engender something new, not embedded in the circulation of power relations in place. Duras has presented L'Amant de la Chine du nord as the most truthful of her autobiographies. At first sight, an aging writer appears to be at pains to retell the stories of institutional colonial power and of the play of power within familial and sexual relations that have already appeared in her earlier texts in order to set the record still straighter.
Rather than simply demonstrating improved recall of real events or greater sincerity, however, the re-writing of L'Amant "without literariness' introduces a number of small and only apparently inconsequential local changes in the stories recounted in the earlier works. These differences magnify through the intertextual "system" of Duras' work, introducing uncertainty and disorder—not unlike the principle of sensitive dependency on initial conditions that creates the butterfly effect in chaos theory. The modification of details and the addition of a number of new scenes also alter previous relations of power within familial relations and between the former and the present works.
One such "new" and very cinematographic or visual scene is situated in early childhood at Vinhlong, one evening after house-washing when the younger brother Paulo has been chased away by Pierre. The mother is braiding the child's hair for the night under the mosquito net in the bed they share to prevent the young girl from sneaking into Paulo's bed. The daughter initiates a dialogue with the mother, accusing her of blind preference for the bullying older brother and neglect of the dominated and slightly retarded younger son. Despite the new diegetic frame, this is, once again, the primal Durassian scene of the family romance, the triangulation or circulation of desire through the mother's unjustified and passionate preference for the violent profligate brother, the daughter's desire to be loved by the mother (and brother) and protective, possessive love for the "little" brother. However, although the scene is still colored by the young girl's accusing and demanding cries of pain, it is marked by an attempt on the part of the (adult?) narrator to speak also from the mother's position. She recalls the mother's protest that she loves all her children, and her admission of the danger posed by Pierre. In this context, Pierre takes on the form of the negative archaic father of the Oedipus myth, a powerful and tyrannical Laios who would kill any son who threatened to replace him.
The daughter's rage at the mother's preference for the older brother is permeated in this scene by a new understanding, an apparent intimacy and an empathetic affective power moving within the mother-daughter relationship. Such minor changes in the writer's still complex and contradictory remembering and re-writing of youthful desire, out of the devastation of age, evoke a more intense identificatory relation with the mother than the scenes of Un Barrage contre le Pacifique or L'Amant. The fluctuations between the child's individuation and separation from the mother and her need for recognition of and by the mother that marked the account of the mother-daughter relation in L'Amant are resolved in this work on the side of a movement toward mutual recognition and a kind of interchangeability. Translating this within a psychoanalytic frame, in L'Amant de la Chine du nord there seems to be an attempt to resolve the conflict between a pre-oedipal stage of unity with the mother and a situation of oedipal conflict in which identification with the mother (as inside, lack of desire, lack of agency and of power) requires renunciation of outside "phallic" desire, excitement, power. Duras is seeking a border territory, margins in which it is possible to renegotiate the apparent opposites of a pre-oedipal, "feminine" space of freedom from linguistic and patriarchal constraints in "maternal waters" (similar to the space outside language posited by object-relations models of analysis) and an oedipal, ready-made, "masculine" language.
Toward the end of the novel, the ambiguities already present in the earlier portraits of the mother in L'Amant as punitive and yet, at some level, complicitous with her young daughter's transgressions of the law (her conversation with the Director of the Pensionnat Lyautey in which she explains her daughter's need to come and go as she pleases) are also given a new focus by the addition to the story of a meeting between lover and mother. The lover comes to the mother's house as envoy for his wealthy father who has been solicited by the older brother for compensation for his sister's "dishonor." He is initially indistinguishable from the Chinese creditors waiting for payment of Pierre's opium debts and perhaps represents a similar dishonor, a client come to pay for the daughter's favors.
The new dialogue between the mother and the Chinese man could be described as "scattershot," a term that Tom Bishop uses to talk about his own disconnected exchanges with Duras, punctuated by silence or repetition, and unconcerned with making clear immediate sense. It succeeds in establishing intimacy between the mother and the lover indirectly, using rhythm, break and repetition, through the shared interest in the young Marguerite and the mother's empathetic understanding of the lover's suffering. The subsequent new scene between mother and daughter also turns around the daughter's emotional involvement with the Chinese man and her probable future abandonment in favor of a traditional Chinese bride. The mother appears to have an intuitive understanding not only of the desire and empowerment inherent in the daughter's transgressions, freedom, and socially marginal status, but also of the daughter's fierce desire for the power (the money) to compensate her mother as defrauded and powerless woman. In this scene, then, it is together that the mother and the daughter ("Elles") took ("ont pris") the money that the too wealthy Chinese father had to offer in an act that reversed self-abasement to make it self-empowerment: "Avec la mère elles ont fait ça: elles ont pris: l'argent" [They did it: she and the mother: they took: the money].
Although Duras' own obsessive relationship with money is indeed "common knowledge," money/power is not modelled here as simply serving the economic circulation of commodities or as something one acquires or possesses. A metatextual or omniscient commentary claims that the North Chinese lover, too, had understood intuitively the true and double nature of the desire elicited by the diamond in the pivotal scene of seduction on the ferry crossing the Mekong: "Le Chinois avait su qu'elle avait voulu la bague pour la donner à la mère autant qu'elle avait voulu sa main sur son corps" [The Chinese man had known that she had wanted the ring to give it to her mother as much as she had wanted his hands on her body].
It would not have been possible for the daughter/narrator to have been present at a meeting between the lover and the mother. This could only have been imagined, or, at best, recounted second-hand. It seems improbable that these additions to the novel of childhood in Duras' mature years have their origin in any single scene lived more than fifty years earlier. They are in apparent contradiction with certain other earlier fictional portraits of the mother's law-enforcing codes and attitudes—scenes, for example, in which the child, suspected of sexual precociousness, is stripped, humiliated, and beaten by a suspicious, desperate mother egged on voyeuristically by the brutal older brother in order to "correct" ("dresser") her daughter's sexual promiscuity and save her social reputation. By emphasizing the complicity between mother and lover in the first dialogue, or mother and daughter in the second, Duras may be rewriting one more time, and with a more positive resolution, the complex scars left by this other recursive scene of the mother's anger and despair, the daughter's physical humiliation, and the brother's sexual voyeurism.
The truth of the scenes of the mother's direct complicity in the daughter's affair and "prostitution" added in L'Amant de la Chine du nord, and the knowledge that these scenes invoke, derive less from a recovery of a factual past event than from its invention, in the present, where the body is, in a movement between past desire remembered in the present and desire created through the act of writing. Duras has said explicitly in a number of interviews that the mother could not have been told of, and could not have accepted, an affair between her adolescent daughter (fifteen and a half in L'Amant, fourteen in L'Amant de la Chine du nord) and a twenty-seven year old Chinese man. In the final lines of the interview with Bernard Pivot for the Apostrophes program televised after the appearance of L'Amant, Duras reiterates this claim that neither her mother nor her brother ever knew of the lover's existence:
Bernard Pivot: "Est-ce qu'elle, elle avait honte de votre liaison avec le Chinois?"
Marguerite Duras: "Elle ne la connaissait pas … ça aurait été pire encore si elle avait appris que sa fille couchait avec un Chinois, pire que le barrage … Elle ne l'a jamais su."
[Bernard Pivot: "Was she ashamed of your affair with the Chinese man?" Marguerite Duras: "She didn't know about it. That would have been even worse if she had learned that her daughter was sleeping with a Chinese, worse than the sea-wall … She never knew."]
There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of this assertion, but it is contradicted in L'Amant de la Chine du nord. The truths of Duras' relationships always turn out to be more local, relational, multiple, contradictory, and shifting than any single or global statement can suggest. Perhaps this is because Duras' text has no power to say anything not known directly and locally, that is, through the body in the dialogic act of writing.
The scenes of reconciliation between mother, daughter, and lover do not eliminate the daughter's rage against the injustice of the mother's exclusive love for a "criminal" son. However, the fiction of a complicity on the part of the mother with a lover himself now identified more strongly with the maternally beloved "little" brother also changes the relations of power that existed in previous texts. In L'Amant, at the dinner he offers the young girl's family in an expensive restaurant, the rich Chinese lover is ignored, exploited, and humiliated. He is presented as weak and ineffectual before the older brother in this scene where the young Marguerite joins cruel ranks with her poor, but scornfully racist white family. The adolescent participates in the mother's fascination with the toughness of her farming brothers and the brute strength of the older brother against the weakness of the lover, although she does resist the brother's absolute tyranny. Annaud makes this ugly scene a central one in his film, pushing the family's vulgar disdain and the young girl's provocative bravado to burlesque lengths and inventing a subsequent scene of sexual violation in which the lover takes revenge for his public humiliation. In the version of the dinner and its nightclub sequel in L'Amant de la Chine du nord, on the contrary, the lover is tacitly accepted by the mother and the little brother. Pretending to be adept in Kung-Fu, he stands up to and defeats the bullying older brother. Indeed, a taller, more confident, less weak and fearful lover is prescribed by Duras to play the lead part of "her" film.
Although all the elements of potential abuse of power are put provocatively into play in this text in characteristic Durassian reversals—the nymphet, the older man, a diamond, inequality of power—the lover himself in L'Amant de la Chine du nord moves between positions of power and of weakness that are linked not only to virility or impotence, or to wealth and social situation, but also, and especially, to states of desire. The lover from North China is in the power of his father's law, in the power of the fear of death, and in the final instance, as much in the desperate power of money ("un désespéré de l'argent") as is Duras' mother, otherwise burdened with her son's gambling and opium debts, and her family's material survival. The lover is also, and most particularly, in the power of his exclusive, excessive passion for the under-age white girl.
Voluntarist attitudes in the De Beauvoir style, claims Marcelle Marini, are explicitly refused by Duras ("Je [ne] veux pas être déclarative" [I don't want to make statements]) (Duras and Gauthier) or undermined by other involuntary movements of the body. Truth and power for women, according to Duras, derive from desire; "On n'écrit pas au même endroit que les hommes. Et quand les femmes n'écrivent pas dans le lieu du désir, elles n'écrivent pas, elles sont dans le plagiat" (Porte, qtd. in Marini, Territoire) [We don't write from the same place as men. And when women don't write from the place of their desire, they do not write, they plagiarize]. Duras, says Marini, takes the figures that De Beauvoir's analysis lays bare—the man who exults in feeling sexually powerful and the woman who is affectively dependent and dispossessed—and explores their underside, their indecency. Her writing removes the taboo on the aggressive violence within us and permits investigation of dereliction, the horror of loss, suicidal crisis, desire to massacre those one loves, or to destroy the sex desired in the body of the other ("L'autre corps"). These undersides reveal unexpected new relations of gender, close to an entre-deux or to what Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror has called "abjection": an entre-deux that the lover comes to embody and that once again incorporates new relations of power/lack of power.
Madeleine Borgomano's readings of the novels of Duras could be extended to the autofictional stories of the power/powerlessness of the mother and of the power/lack of power of money to see the latter as also deriving from a passionate story of the painful and regressive desire for a male body that has disappeared ("le significant absent du corps masculin participe de ce vide central du texte durassien" [the absent signifier of the masculine body is part of this central void in the Durassian text]). In this reading, the fables of the loss of Duras' own child-lover-little brother would appear to be a traditional Freudian or Lacanian story of loss (of the Phallus).
But, in L'Amant de la Chine du nord, the little brother's desired body, like the lover's, is feminized and sexualized. Paulo is also a (post-Renaissance) Christ-like figure, described as a martyr dying of despair and pain. The passionate, protective and possessive maternal love for Paulo ("C'est comme mon fiancé, Paulo, mon enfant, c'est le plus grand trésor pour moi" [29; He's like my fiancé, Paulo, my child, he's my greatest treasure]) is paralleled by a fierce rejection of the kind of cruel and tyrannical paternal power exerted by the older brother Pierre.
In Un Barrage contre le Pacifique, a single brother who exerts a strong fascination on the young girl concentrated aspects of the two brothers. It seems clear that Duras' rage against and refusal of the fascination of the older brother's power was less intense or less conscious at the time of the writing of Un Barrage than it had become almost forty years later. In L'Amant de la Chine du nord on the other hand, the daughter's fierce love for her victimized brother, first clearly evoked in L'Amant, has been pushed to its extreme limits and become explicitly incestuous.
What was telescoped into a single character in the fictional Un Barrage is polarized in the autobiographical L'Amant and its sequel, suggesting that the turbulent extreme states of love and hate, of rage and tears, may be "complementary." The poles of pain and pleasure, sadism and masochism, power and lack of power, love and hate are contradictory but not mutually exclusive and as troubling in the circulation of their distinctive features as the meaning of the accompanying tears that link the lover "taking" the little white girl and those of the little brother "taken" by the sister.
The verb "to take" is used to express the reciprocity of love in the incestuous relation with the younger brother: "C'avait été là qu'ils s'étaient pris pour la seule fois de leur vie" [It was there that they took each other the only time in their life] and the triangulation of passion in the desire to give Hélène to the lover: "Je voudrais beaucoup ça, que tu la prennes comme si je te la donnais" [I would like that a lot, for you to take her as if I were giving her to you]. The potential self-discovery in self-dispossession is implied in the scandalous being "taken" in the ditches along the roadways, or being "taken for another" by men who do not love her like the schoolgirl "prostitute," Alice. Duras exploits the contexts in which the verb to take ("prendre") recurs to create a network of significations that undermine the traditional semantic distinctive features (+ active + virile) of its active form ("to take") as well as its conventional binary relationship (active/passive) with the passive "taken." In the repetitions of the verb "to take," desire is made to circulate between the passivity and the sexual violence, the voyeurism and the exhibitionism, the control and the renunciation of control that lie at the paradoxical heart of the work of Duras. Again, conventional binary opposition is rewritten.
Similarly, the repetition of the verb "to look" is used to effect shifts between seeing and being seen, between being the subject or the object of the gaze. The two are telescoped into a non-contradictory interactive process in which relations of domination have been reconfigured but have not disappeared. On the ferry: "Il la regarde. Ils se regardent … Elle le regarde fort" [He looks at her. They look at each other … She looks hard at him]. In the Morris Léon Bollée, driving towards Saigon: "Lui, il regarde alors les signes de misère" [He looks at the signs of poverty, then]. Later, "Il la regarde très fort" [He looks very hard at her]. "Le Chinois la regarde: Tu pleures" [The Chinese man looks at her: You're crying].
The "child" accepts being the object of the gaze and the object of a seduction, but her own looking is also determinedly active. In the bedroom in Cholen, "Elle le regarde. Ce n'est pas lui qui la regarde. C'est elle qui le fait. Elle voit qu'il a peur" [She looks at him. It is not he who looks at her. She looks. She sees that he is afraid]. "C'est elle qui veut savoir …" [It is she who wants to know …]. The verbal repetitions may correspond to directions for the camera but these movements of oscillation and reversal are something more. Significantly, the Chinese fiancée who does not yet have the right to look at the lover plays no active part in the story. What does not permit circulation of power and powerlessness, taking and being taken, looking and being looked at, what is passive only, is rejected. In a footnote that describes the requirements for casting the protagonist of the film, beauty is excluded because: "La beauté ne fait rien. Elle ne regarde pas. Elle est regardée" [Beauty does nothing. It does not look. It is looked at]. At the end of the book in a similar and now characteristic conflating of opposites, of strength and weakness, the lover "avait pleuré. Très fort. Du plus fort de ses forces" [had cried. Very hard. With all his strength]. The breaking down of the conventional opposition between the intimate and the public, the movement that characterized L'Amant, is also continued here in the repetition of the "openness" of the room, the "exposure" of the lovers "… dans ce passage du dehors dans la chambre" [… in the passage from the outside into the bedroom].
It can be argued that the relative positions of the writer and the young girl she once was are involved similarly in a circulation of opposing elements. Duras' relation with her character/adolescent self is sometimes that of a fascinated or admiring mother gazing at "la petite" [the little one], sometimes that of empathetic regression to the child's state "je" [I]. The text moves between a polyphony of first persons, "Je" [I] the writer and "Je" [I] the child, and third persons, "elle" [she], "la petite" [the little one], "la petite blanche" [the little white girl], "la jeune fille" [the young girl], and "elle" [she], the writer. Other subject designations operate a circulation between characters and between narrator and character. The words used to designate Paulo by the sister, the mother, and the narrator, "le petit frère" [the little brother] or "l'enfant" [the child], are used to refer to the protagonist/child that the narrator once was, also described as "la petite" [the little one] or "l'enfant" [the child]. The fluidity of these movements breaks down the boundaries of a clear and distinctive, single, powerful self. Past unconscious desire or what Duras has called the "ombre interne" [inner shadow] surfaces in the poetic devices of the rhythmic, repetitive writin. At the same time, there is a narrative stance of present and artful (conscious) control over complex textual relations and intertextual reference.
The extreme masochistic thematics so troublingly present in Duras' earlier works recur in this re-writing of power. The fascination exerted by the crime passionnel, the fantasy of self-loss or dissolution of the self in the other and the text's own uncertainties and self-cancelings are all reinforced by the use of diminutives with shifting reference. In the drama of the opening of the body to the other/the outside in the scene of the "little one's" deflowering, the "taking," the "bleeding," and the "mind-numbing pain" are presented as a kind of ecstasy. Suffering transforms to pleasure and vice-versa in this place where one is lost ("naufragé") and thought is defeated ("terrassée"), where the ecstasy of the flesh is also longing and despair ("ce désespoir du bonheur de la chair") perhaps because, to echo Duras, no love can take the place of Love. The words that weave the thread of a masochistic mysticism in this scene ("prendre," "naufragé," "terrassée") are repeated at other moments of L'Amunt de la Chine du nord and in other Durassian texts.
The child is "emportée par le chauffeur à son amant. Livrée a lui" [carried off by the driver to her lover. Delivered over to him]. "Elle devientobject à lui, à lui seul, secrètementprostituèe … Livrée comme chose, chose par lui seul, volée. Par lui seul prise, utilisée, pénétrée" [She becomes his object, his, his alone, secretly prostituted … Delivered like a thing, his thing alone, robbed. Taken by him alone, used, penetrated]. Her identity becomes "celle de lui apartenir à lui, d'être à lui seul son bien, sans mot pour nommer ça, fondue à lui, diluée dans une généralité … celle depuis le commencement des temps nommée à tort par un autre mot, celui d'indignité" [that of belonging to him, of being his thing only, with no word to name this, merged with him, diluted in a generality … that named erroneously from the beginning of time by another word, indignity]. He "lovingly" insults her: "—Une petite Blanche de quatre sous trouvée dans la rue" [—A poor little White girl picked up in the street].
In this more recent text, however, there are small changes in the re-writing of the passionate relation with the lover and of the gender associations of the pairs of strength and weakness, outside and inside, domination and humiliation that go further than L'Amant in the modification of the traditional "feminine" connotations of weakness, inside, and humiliation.
She, in her turn, insults and degrades him in erotic play as an "espèce de petit Chinois de rien du tout, de petit criminel" [worthless little Chinese, little criminal]. Earlier, she had called him "un voyou" [a wastrel], the word that designated the older brother. The text comments on the inversions it employs: "C'est là, ç'avait été là, après ce fou rire-là, que s'était inversée l'histoire" [It's there, it was there, after that uncontrollable laughter, that the story had reversed]. She had taken the hand of the Chinese man, weak, unresisting, and naked, and looked at it before putting it aside: "… ça s'infléchit vers les ongles, un peu comme si c'était cassé, atteint d'adorable infirmité, ça a la grâce de l'aile d'un oiseau mort … Elle la regarde. Regarde la main nue … La main, docile, laisse faire" [It curves in towards the nails, a little as if it were broken, affected by an adorable infirmity, it has the grace of the wing of a dead bird … She looks at it. Looks at the naked hand … The hand is docile, does not resist]. In the bedroom, initially, the lover seems to control the scenario "avec une sorte de crainte comme si elle était fragile, et aussi avec une brutalité contenue" [with a kind of fear as if she were fragile and also with restrained brutality] but he is awed, overwhelmed by his "violation" and, as in L'Amant, the child also dominates the lover's abandoned, weak, and unresisting body: "Et c'est alors qu'elle le fait, elle. Les yeux fermés, elle le déshabille" [And it is then that she does it. With her eyes closed, she undresses him]. When the lover returns from the visit to the mother at Sadec, "Elle le savonne. Elle le douche. Il se laisse faire. Les roles se sont inversés" [She soaps him down. She showers him. He does not resist. The roles are reversed]. She protects him, maternally. He is her impotent "child" "without strength" who "fait ce qu'elle veut" [does what she wants], much as she has been "sa soeur de sang. Son enfant. Son amour" [his blood sister. His child. His beloved]. He is killed by her, martyred: "Mort du désir d'une enfant. Martyre" [Dead from desire for a child. A martyr] as she, too, becomes fascinated by the fear of martyrdom, "D'être tuée par cet inconnu du voyage à Long-Hai" [of being killed by this stranger of the Long-Hai journey]. As her departure and his marriage approach, his despair and erotic impulse towards death increase:"—il dit: Désespéré, fou, à se tuer" [—he says: Despairing, mad, to the point of suicide]. On the boat, the young girl closes her eyes to rediscover the smell of the silk suit, the skin, his captive look: "L'idée de l'odeur. Celle de la chambre. Celle de ses yeux captifs qui battaient sous ses baisers d'elle, l'enfant" [The idea of his smell. The smell of his bedroom. The idea of his captive eyes fluttering beneath her kisses, she, the child]. Her body is a center of power.
The thin child, almost without breasts, is "cruel". But, so, too, in this oscillating movement that is not an equilibrium, is the North Chinese lover. Unable to keep the child through fear of his father and weakness before the force of Chinese family law that would have him marry the sixteen-year-old Chinese girl betrothed to him in childhood to unite the family fortunes, he fantasizes the murder of the little white girl at Long-Hai, a place of primitive impulse and madness and of her cruel sacrifice in jealous love. In spite of her fear, the young girl shares, but asymmetrically, the fascination of this fantasmatical beach-site of loss of power, where the mad beggar-women and the dispossessed laugh at the same time as they cry.
In earlier work, I interpreted the recurring thematic of "feminine" self-loss and "masculine" violence and domination (ravishing) as the textual imaging of a sado-masochistic (master-slave) structure of the psyche that Jessica Benjamin, for example, sees as characterizing quintessentially the "bonds of love." The remembering of the incestuous nature of the fierce love for the little brother that was not present in L'Amant might be emblematic of a struggle within the psyche against the superego and its burying ("enfouissement") of powerful impulses. While there is no substantive evidence of the real existence of a Chinese lover or of an incestuous relation with one brother, autofiction seeks the recovery of such desires from repression or from the kind of projection that seems to be at work, for example, in Agatha in the invention of the meeting between a brother and a sister and their indirect evocation of an earlier incestuous love. Lacan has claimed that Duras' poetic discourses unconsciously repeat his own psychoanalytic constructs ("Elle s'avère savoir sans moi ce que j'enseigne" [It turns out that she knows, without me, what I teach; qtd. in Marini). Yet Duras' re-writing of the non-dialectical, asymmetric, unpredictable structures of an intra- and inter-psychic sado-masochistic desire is surprisingly conscious. It seems to go beyond the fetish of the lost Phallus or, indeed, beyond even the primal Lacanian "mirror" stage or scene in which the jouissance of (self)recognition through the other is also (self)loss as anguished captive of the dislocated image of the other(self), loss accompanied by aggressive tension toward the other(self). And whereas Lacan takes for granted the primacy of the theoretical discourse, in Duras' text the conscious character of the structuring of the "I" as a fiction, the systematic breakdown and proliferation of traditional meaning, the silences and gaps that demonstrate loudly that conscious language is holed or flawed ("lacunaire") and allows the activity of the imagination to penetrate only in a veiled and incomprehensible form, infinitely repeated, alter traditional power relations between writing from the body and theory. These different kinds of discourse become "complementary" and similarly narcissistic. The logic of the unconscious, which, for Freud, ignores the dialectic of alternatives much as dream brings together opposites (the hunter is also the hunted) influences this Barthesian "mixing" of every language.
Duras' explicit, repetitive intratextual paradigms of sexual violence and masochism are troubling. But the conflating or telescoping of opposites to show their connections in a chaotic and dynamic non-dialectical structure changes conventional relations. Such a structure makes new sense out of the scenes of excess and contradiction that recall Lol who "devait délicieusement ressentir l'éviction souhaitée de sa personne" (Le Ravissement) [who must have experienced the desired eviction of her person with delight]. At the same time, the small changes in the gendering of the dominator and the dominated in the shifting relations of power between the little white girl and her Chinese lover have moved in the direction of an increased association of the "feminine" with active and enjoyed power.
My staging of the sado-masochistic thematics that mark the new autobiographies and, indeed, characterize postmodern texts in general suggests the lines of intersection of what Foucault sees as the two dominant views of the domain of sex: at once the place where the "ineluctability of the master" is established and the source of the most radical of all subversions. Power and resistance to power converge at this intersection. Foucault argues that the figure is dialectical, reducing power to a negative law of prohibition that is homogeneous at every level (the family and the state). It enables power never to be considered in other than negative terms, and the fundamental operation of power to be thought of erroneously as a speech act (enunciation of law, discourse of prohibition), while its origin is subjectivized and located in the sovereign.
The relations of domination, like resistance, in the new autobiographical texts, however, are multiform and largely interchangeable. The writer becomes the child and the child the writer in a telescoping of present and past, history and story, ignorance and rhetorical mastery as Duras claims to have rediscovered and relived the formative age of her own crossing of the Mekong River during the year she re-wrote this new autobiography. The portrait of the film's heroine is evidently a function of the writer's present images of herself and her "others" as well as a product of her previous works and of her personal past. The images of early childhood with the mother in Vinhlong give way to the crossing of the Mekong in which the child is both the heroine of the fictional autobiography L'Amant and aspects of the self-portrait that Duras chooses to elaborate in 1991.
But writing, as for Peter Morgan in Le Vice-Consul, is also an act of desire and an act of knowledge whose vehicle is empathy with pain and non-knowledge. "Peter Morgan est un jeune homme qui desire prendre la douleur de Calcutta, que ce soit fait, et que son ignorance cesse avec la douleur prise" [Peter Morgan is a young man who desires to take on the pain of Calcutta, who wants this to be done, and his ignorance to cease with the pain assumed]. The verb "prendre" here takes on the meanings of "apprendre," but taking and being taken, knowing and non-knowing, like power and powerlessness, are, once again, telescoped.
Such a concern with the nature of verisimilitude and truth as ready-made, originating in common knowledge and in texts (that is, as effect of power and mode of domination in Foucault's model or as entry into the Symbolic in Lacanian terms), has characterized both nouveau roman and new autobiography from their poststructuralist beginnings. The writer remembers her childhood: "Elle se souvient … Elle entend encore le bruit de la mer dans la chambre" [She remembers … She can still hear the sound of the sea in the bedroom]. Sensation, as in Sarraute or Robbe-Grillet, seems to provide some guarantee of truth. But the memory of the sound of the sea recalls, indistinguishably, her past writing of her childhood: "D'avoir écrit ça, elle se souvient aussi, comme le bruit de la rue chinoise. Elle se souvient même d'avoir écrit que la mer était présente ce jour-là dans la chambre des amants" [Writing that, she remembers too, something like the sound of the Chinese street. She even remembers having written that the sea was present that day in the lovers' bedroom].
There is an author(ity) controlling and commenting metatextually on these slippages. The writer calls attention in footnotes to the intertextual origins of a number of scenes, for example, the "ghostly ball" ("bal exsangue") on the deck of the liner that had "already" appeared in Emily L., now watched by the Chinese lover and the little white girl. She corrects the details of scenes from earlier texts—the rattle-trap family car, the B12, from Un Barrage contre le Pacifique was not in such bad condition, after all. Referring to herself in the third person, Duras, narrator, also plays critic for her reader, analyzing, for example, the nature of the dialogues while again pointing to their unnatural, factitious, but artful character that paradoxically re-creates naturalness: "L'auteur tient beaucoup à ces conversations 'chaotiques' mais d'un naturel retrouvé. On peut parler ici de couches de conversations juxtaposées" [The author attaches great importance to these "chaotic" conversations with their constructed naturalness. You could say that they are layers of juxtaposed conversations].
Memory, like writing, is the recapture of a past (body/text) but triggered by a present body and entrusted to a present text that frames and transforms it. Here again, the relations of power put into play in Duras' latest work in the movement between feeling and saying, life and text, go beyond any simple resistance to traditional narrative. There is at once a contesting and reversal of narrative conventions (mimesis is not life) and an affirmation of the writer's power for change (writing brings life to mind/text and alters it).
The relations of power that the thematics and the forms of Duras' text trace are analogous to "complementary relations" in particle physics (association of opposites, matter as both particle and wave) or certain models of the new sciences of complex systems mentioned at the beginning of this essay that incorporate a plurality of simultaneous, self-ordering physical processes. Equilibrium, predictability, and symmetry, like classical determinism, give way in these complex physical systems in far from equilibrium states to probabilistic processes, recursive and self-similar asymmetry, spontaneous local activity, disordered order, and, more generally, to new "complementary" orders within disorder and randomness. Within science, such new models represent change in traditional binarism and determinism. In writing, too, they suggest new kinds of sovereignty.
The fluctuating, local movements toward identification with the mother as intuitive and non-phallic and the imagining of the mother's empathetic, self-giving understanding of the power of her daughter's transgressive desires effect changes in intimate relations of familial and sexual power. So, too, does the writing off, or writing out, of the self-assertive power and attraction of the older brother, the settling of accounts with brutal physical power in favor of the interaction with a feminized, beloved little brother identified increasingly with the lover. These shifts in the relations with the mother, brother(s), and lover, and with the child she once was, do suggest local and specific agency (the writer seeking present resolution of her own past [selves], the mind evoking the senses of the body's responses, in the present, to these fictional "memories"). I have argued that the to-and-fro movements and the gendering of relations of domination and submission both stage and begin to subvert relations of power. Like the "complementary" and "chaotic" forms that carry them, these changes are not always already there. Perhaps we are not always within power as Foucault would have it. What is filtered through the gaps in the text does take Duras further, beyond her ready-made "self." The forms of these modifications may indeed go beyond the already said to represent not only a staging of previously existing power (and gender) relations but also a rewriting of the conventions of traditional autobiography, science, and gender that is both the power of this writing and a re-writing of power.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 929
SOURCE: "Deja Vu Again," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4791, January 27, 1995, p. 23.
[In the following review, Manguel considers the autobiographical nature of The North China Lover and concludes that a clear, factual biography would aid the reader in interpreting Duras' works.]
Marguerite Duras's novel, The North China Lover (1991), can be read in at least two ways. Read in the order in which it was written—that is to say, after The Lover—it has the quality of déjà vu, an extended annotation or correction of the original story. But read on its own, without reference to its best-selling precursor, The North China Lover unfolds as one of the most intense, controlled, quietly moving stories Duras has written.
L'Amant was published in France in 1984. It won the Prix Goncourt, was translated into a dozen languages and, a few years later, it was made into a slick, sunset-coloured film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. It was obvious to anyone who knew anything about Duras's own experience of filmmaking, that she would not approve of Annaud's interpretation. At first, out of a sense of duty, or false hope, Duras collaborated with Annaud, supplying him with several scripts, none of which satisfied him. At length, she dissociated herself from the production, explaining later that Annaud had mistakenly read L'Amant as an autobiographical memoir rather than a piece of literary fiction. Partly to show the kind of film she would have made instead, Duras wrote L'Amant de la Chine du Nord.
Not that Annaud should be blamed for confusing Duras's facts with Duras's fiction. Set in colonial Indo-China, where Duras was born in 1914, L'Amant tells the story of an affair between an adolescent French girl and a Chinese man—an affair Duras has always claimed as hers. The girl's passionate mother, her two brothers—one older and sadistic, the other younger and fragile—belonged also to Duras; "the small cast of my life" as she called them, returning to them in novel after novel and film after film. L'Amant began as a running commentary on a family photo-album. After The Lover, The North China Lover can be read as a commentary on that commentary.
Certainly Duras needed no excuse to rewrite the story. The film-marker who took the soundtrack from one film (India Song) and superimposed it on another, different film (Son Nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert) would have no qualms about going back to the same childhood territory of The Sea Wall, of Whole Days in the Trees, of The Lover, conjuring up the characters and having them act out their passions once again.
Read for its own sake, however (in Leigh Hafrey's precise translation), The North China Lover becomes an extraordinary love story that changes subtly in the telling, as it follows the vagaries of the author's memory. In her foreword to the novel, dated 1991, Duras says (but, in light of her complaint about Annaud, are we to believe her?) that she began writing The North China Lover after learning that the Chinese man of her adolescence had died, and she names him for the first time: "In the blinding light of the retelling, Thanh's face suddenly appeared." And she adds: "I became a novelist all over again", as if the death in real life had caused her to turn, once more, to fiction.
To constrain the uncertainty between imagination and memory, Duras has set up a number of instructions for the reader, so that the text becomes something between an annotated journal and an outline for a film-script. The most obvious device is that of using the author's eyes as a camera (hardly surprising in someone like Duras, for whom the passage from book to screen is so frequent), closing in on certain scenes, panning out over others, with notes that make clear the author's wishes if ever the novel is filmed. Duras is quite unabashed about her intentions. At the beginning of a scene in which the mother talks about the wicked elder brother, Duras intervenes at the foot of the page: "For a motive, we can choose. We can stay with the face of the mother as she talks. Or we can see the table and children as the mother talks about them. The author prefers the latter option." In spite of this device, the uncertainty remains and lends the story an uneasy power. The Lover told a story with conviction; The North China Lover is far more hesitant in the telling, forcing the reader to make decisions, "compromising" them (the word is Duras's) in the text. "They may be sleeping", writes Duras of the girl and her lover. "We don't know." The reader has to guess.
Duras's public knows that, more than most writers, she has always claimed correspondences between the experiences of her past and present, and her books and films. For that reason, and to avoid a faux pas such as Annaud's, it might be useful to have a sensible, factual biography that would not interpret but simply clarify the inspiring events of her life. However, Duras, by Alain Vircondelet, Professor at the Institut Catholique in Paris, is little more than one long exclamation: "O vanity of biographies", he laments, "that claim to restore day after day the slow, furious groping of time, arrange days and nights of tumult and silence, organize events!" Vanity or not, this restoration of order is what is needed and what Vircondelet has largely failed to deliver. In its absence, we must rely on Duras's shifting memories, and be satisfied with their double allegiance to both fiction and fact.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3463
SOURCE: "Emerging from the Shadows: Fratricidal Moves in Marguerite Duras' Early Fiction," in Dalhousie French Studies, Vol. 33, Winter, 1995, pp. 113-23.
[In the following essay, Mazzola discusses the relationship between gender and familial roles in Duras's fiction.]
Brothers form bridges and barriers between mothers and daughters in much of Marguerite Duras' fiction, especially in early novels such as Les impudents (1943), La vie tranquille (1944), and Un barrage contre le Pacifique (1950), all of which foreshadow the tragedy of the two brothers in L'amant (1984). Brother figures, in the guise of husbands and lovers, inform this bridge/barrier motif in these and other books (récits, romans) in which actual brothers are not alluded to directly (Les petits chevaux de Tarquinia ). The allusion to familial ties—all important for Duras' cosmogony—borne by men in general, both absent (dead, missing or silent fathers) and present (secondary male characters such as the caporal in Un barrage contre le Pacifique), reinforces the bridging/barring procedure which culminates in fratricide. This term takes on special significances when applied to Duras and therefore requires clarification and definition before its implications for the mother-daughter relation investigated here can be fully actualized in a reading which sees the annihilation of the brother or brother figure as essential to the exploitation and redefinition of the whole maternal-filial bond.
The usual acceptation of fratricide—killing a brother—has already been repressed by the time later novels have undergone certain stylistic and content modifications through the optique of Duras' 1962 L'apres-midi de Monsieur Andesmas in which father-daughter relations are examined. The less literal but no less powerful symbolic meaning of fratricide—eliminating the brother-barrier by means of denial, assimilation or escape—is the alternative definition of this phenomenon that I intend to explore.
To facilitate this exploration, we can turn to the history of Sophocles' Antigone in which the idea of fratricide is exposed covertly in the character of Antigone herself. Her enterprise has traditionally been considered the antithesis of fratricide in that she works to honor and thus perpetuate, i.e., give further life to, her dead brother Polyneices, that vilified—principally by their uncle/great-uncle Creon—prince and brother of the honorably slain Eteocles. But it can be argued that by sprinkling dust upon his corpse in a rite that would propitiate the chthonic gods, she covers over and thereby reinforces a denial of Polyneices' status as brother, would-be ruler and man. His death is her opportunity for self-assertion. She speaks as a man might speak, defying both authority and propriety; she rejects the lover/husband brother substitute Haemon, whose very name suggests the blood-tie, tainted by her father's sin, which she must rupture in order to assert her new-found status as a woman who speaks. In so doing, she usurps the Polyneices role and alters the notion of the gender-specific speech act. Fratricide, the symbolic act, becomes a praxis that ultimately, at least, eschews actual killing and manages concomitantly to remain compatible with real sibling love. This paradox arises in the Antigone story as well as in Duras' treatment of women who in the formative stage of girlhood learn to speak in a way new for them. They capitulate less to the dead father who often speaks through the mother, the brother, or a substitute (e.g., an uncle). Jocasta is, of course, the prototypical conduit for the absent father's speech.
Paradoxically, Jocasta is both this conduit for the mythologizing speech of the absent male and the one who cuts it short, thus obviating its paternal content. The Durassian mother figure is a Jocasta stand-in, performing rites of silence (hiding certain truths from the child), of expiation (blood-letting as sacrificial atonement), and of murder (suicide, either by act or omission as in the case of the mother in Un barrage contre le Pacifique). In that text, a mother accomplishes her own death not through an overt act but by omitting those possible speech components which, if uttered, might free her children from the unviable myth of the barrier she has attempted, successfully and unsuccessfully, to construct. So that, while she is a would-be builder (of the seawall doomed to failure), she is also a destroyer of possibilities that her son and daughter might have actualized if they had been given the knowledge with which to begin constructing their own separate existences. Where she succeeds, she destroys: in her son Joseph, she helps to create an individual (a brother whose parentage in Duras' fiction we will shortly begin to trace) in whom the act of separation and autonomous existence leads from silence to rebellion (with and without words) and, finally, to the despair of guilt at the mother's death. As the novel ends, no new identity has been forged for either Joseph or Suzanne. They depart without leaving behind them those destructive elements which later in Duras' work will lead to the asylum (Détruire, dit-elle). Their "escape" is as illusory as the prospect of holding back the rising ocean with logs held together by ties that tiny crabs can gnaw.
Antigone's own "escape" is effected through death (suicide) thus echoing her mother's fate. What about Duras' heroines? Can they be said to repeat a maternal pattern? Is that pattern conditioned, wholly or in large part, by the triangular mother-brother-daughter (sister) relation? Bearing these questions in mind, it is possible to weave into this pattern the fratricidal moves—denial, assimilation, escape—which drive the Durassian woman.
My thesis here—that what "drives" the woman Duras creates derives reactively from the dynamic which the triangular relation(s) set(s) up—necessitates a tracing of the influence exerted on that woman by her brothers. In Les impudents Maud's older brother Jacques stands in for the dead father. He is twenty years her senior, and his presence throughout the novel is patriarchal and shadowy as such presences without depth (usually male presences) often are in Duras' fiction. Duras' Deleddian ruralness and primitive social patterning in this early work serve to isolate the young (twenty-year-old) heroine, thus adding further menace to the shadow cast by the present/absent father figure transformed into a brother who, typically for Duras, is troubled and troubling. The younger brother, Henri, is portrayed as weak and ineffectual (perhaps retarded) as all petits freres are in Duras (cf. L'amant).
This 1943 text sets the stage for, and initiates, the fratricidal trace ultimately sustained through (now) fifty years of a saga without resolution, without emergence from Duras' selva oscura in which the three beasts of resistance are internalized as moves toward sublimated murder. This interior praxis (to the extent that this obvious contradiction can bear the weight of guilt which is inevitably imposed when sibling love and sibling rivalry lead to the much discussed Durassian "violence") produces the confrontation at the edge of shadowy forests and remote locales that mark Duras' mental and emotional landscape from this "war novel" to Détrulre, dit-elle and beyond. The three impositions which test the mettle of the lost soul still seeking salvation, coincide with the denial (this can't be happening), the assimilation (by becoming like the he I continue the first move and perpetuate the denial), the escape (mental and emotional, rather than actual, i.e., external, as I have already asserted). At the end of Les impudents Maud and Mme Taneran, her mother, come close to a level of "violence" which will mark all future mother-daughter relations in Duras' Æuvre. Any confrontation between mother and daughter is mediately traceable to the older brother who combines the twin warring aspects of the dyad formed by his precursor, Eteocles-Polyneices. A sometime hatred brings the mother's rapport with her daughter dangerously close to shattering, once the formula which runs that relation touches, as it always must, upon the irrational defense posture the mother assumes vis-a-vis the son. The daughter's "violent" reaction in Maud's case is the creation of an imaginary "death-of-the-(br)other" and the death mask that accompanies and covers over such unacceptable fantasizing. Jacques must "die" if Maud will live, and mother must hate the daughter who imposes such an unresolvable choice. This existentialist moment conditions every daughter-mother relationship in Duras' work and moves to deconstruct Sartrean choice at its most apparently vulnerable point: the question of viability of choice.
Maud and her mother "s'étaient évitées à cause de Jacques et d'Henri". Avoidance and inevitability set the scene for the imaginary escape that caps the thwarted denial and assimilation which Maud has attempted. The two sons (wittingly and unwittingly) contrive to separate, dissociate, her from the mother. As always, the mother defends, this time the younger brother as "le plus gentil de vous trois". Once Duras makes it clear that no choice worth the name 'viable' can come of this confrontation, Maud "escapes" through the fantasy of the death scenario. This immediately recalls the same, nearly exact, scene recounted at the end of L'amant, where the burial of the mother with the older brother becomes a memory for the protagonist, obfuscated consciously or unconsciously through the loss of definition (as in photographic definition) wrought by the intervening years and events between Cochin China and Paris.
A few pages before the confrontation which so sharply divides mother and daughter, the imagination of death takes over and Jacques' face, transfigured by several levels of crime, becomes submissible to an act of coverage that denial alone could not make accessible to Maud in her quest for self-definition. It becomes for her "[u]n visage défiguré,"
[u]n visage faiblement balancé au-dessus de la vraie tristesse et qui pour la première fois rappellerait celui de son enfance, son enfance enfin surgie et éblouie par la mort toute proche. De ce visage volerait en éclats toute la vanité si vivante, la sempiternelle complainte du plaisir, la très belle laideur.
It is fortuitous that this late chapter exhibits through the use of a telling oxymoron the driving motive of Duras' fiction, especially in these early texts. The same altered pleasure principle which comes to such full fruition in L'amant juxtaposes the beauty of the moment with the ultimate and ulterior betrayal of that beauty in death. Death either stands as that corruption of an eternal ideal, or it is incorporated into the ideal, literally made part of its body. The oxymoronic relation between Antigone and the brother resolves the conflict that ends in so much death by denying death its sting. If the gods of the Underworld whom Antigone says she wishes to propitiate become participants in her act of self-assertion, then finality as a concept is brought into question and recourse to the eternal and its seat of justice brings about the displacement of Creon's earthly sway. The separation motif alluded to in Les impudents is vital to the enactment of this displacement since the mother will not (cannot?) allow herself to be separated off from the image of the son. The separation, therefore, comes about between the true combatants, mother and daughter, and alienation and despair are the result:
C'est parce qu'elle [Mme Taneran] croyait en son fils qu'elle vivait dans un songe inaccessible à aucun démenti de la réalité.
À certains moments elle haïssait Maud. Avec brutalité, cette enfant défigurait l'objet de son amour. Et que lui resterait-il en face de cette seule souffrance sans fraîcheur de sa foi?
A year after the publication of Les impudents, Duras dedicates her second novel of her mother: the combat toward an unattainable resolution of maternal-filial conflict continues. She had dedicated Les impudents to "mon frère Jacques D. que je n'ai pas connu," and the order of her dedication in fiction does in fact take her from the brother toward, not to, the mother whose presence is as inexplicable as a father's "absence." Death explains nothing, and especially so to a child. The irony of that second title, La vie tranquille, serves to place in a now sharper relief than was true in the earlier text the immanent "violence" the author nurtures within that absence. As the mother rejected anyone who attempted to dispel the illusion she had built up around a recalcitrant son who had usurped all but one of the father-husband's privileges, so the daughter finds herself in a web of self-deception which she must help to weave in order to compete with the object of that maternal illusion.
La vie tranquille illustrates the impossibility of this competition and at the same time its magnetic lure. Françou Veyrenattes, whose uncle Jérôme dies at the beginning of the novel, extends Maud as a stronger Antigone figure and adds to the formula the element of guilt (a component of underestimated importance in Duras' douleur, variously rendered as 'sorrow,' 'grief,' 'despair'). The life of les Bugues, another Deleddian primitive rural location in northwestern France, is contrasted with the coastal town of T. to which Françou "escapes" in part two of the book. The shadowy brother, Nicholas, has now been consigned to the shadow realm of death; he is already Polyneices as the story of guilt unfolds (Jérôme may have died as a result of an episode in which his niece played a part). The life she tries to escape is, in reality, une vie tourbillonnée ("désordre, ennui, désordre") and the respite on the Atlantic coast represents the only tranquil part of the text.
Françou's lover Tiène becomes her safe harbor and in him she manufactures a tranquility to offset the boredom and disorder, a sort of quotidian chaos, that envelops all rural life in Duras' writing. As a more pronounced Antigone figure than Maud, she takes risks (leaving home and returning) and attempts to "bury" the brother, to lay his ghost. While he lives to speak, her mouth is mute, and so she fantasizes a state of mind in which she is unbrothered: "il évitait de me regarder … et c'est pourquoi, très loin, au delà de ma joie, je me sentais un corps triste, sans frère". Her body is sad because even the consolation of a lover cannot replace the lost brother (he has become more involved with Luce Barragues, the mother of his child). Yet his absence is necessary to Françou's ability to extricate herself from the morass represented by les Bugues. Here the mother and father hover but remain ineffective. The father says and does little, while the mother is cast in the most Jocasta-like role of any Durassian mother. Her brother has been killed (seemingly unintentionally) by her son, thus enacting the violent solution (death of a tyrant) which Sophocles eschews in Antigone. Françou as a heightened Antigone has prompted the brother's actions rather than followed and apologized for them as did the prototype of the woman in search of her own voice.
If Polyneices had been victorious against Thebes, would not Creon have fallen as did Eteocles? Such speculation serves the argument that places Antigone and the Durassian woman at the antipode to the traditionally acceptable heroine whose voice serves, outside of comedy, of course, only to reinforce that of her father, brother, uncle or husband (sometimes that of a son-husband).
The fraternal link in the early and later fiction of Marguerite Duras does more than oppose than link's bridging function to its status as a barrier that the sister must surmount. Somehow, and in ways I have suggested here, the author conveys the interrelatedness of these two vital aspects of the relation without apparently submerging one in the other. When the mother in L'amant beats her daughter in the presence of the sons/brothers, she reinforces both functions which her role as mother has created. Maud, Françou and Suzanne forge a resistance to the filial illusion on which the mother feeds but fails to thrive, so long as the bridge that the mother made possible by birth and nurture holds son and daughter to her via the son's adopted paternal authority in the mother's household. That is the two-span bridge.
The barrier that the bridge as procedure necessarily implies in Duras prevents significant movement on the part of both mother and daughter. They can move only by way of the bridge-link the one has forged and the other has been forced to maintain under her mother's careful (and often careless) supervision.
To the extent that this arrangement fails to move the novels' characters, making change viable and letting past be past, the fiction itself may be seen to fail in convincing us that an endless memoir, confession or expiation is ever able to do more than suggest the inevitability of stagnation once the past becomes the future, and not just any future but the only future. It is at this point that the notion of a bloodless fratricide as three-pronged approach to salvaging some part of the past in order to create a new future emerges from the shadowland of Antigone's walled-up grotto. The Durassian Woman is also, and this is her strength, a woman: not a virtue incarnate, but rather an individual seeking an individual's voice to help stave off madness and emerge from the shadowy forests of the mind. Ultimately in these and other, later texts, we do not sense a failure in the writing, in the expression. The douleur of creativity, the despair without sadness, the flight into and then out of the mind's shadows form the essential Durassian enterprise at the center of which is a woman.
Perhaps no other female character epitomizes this ambiguity of purpose, this ill-defined search, better than the mendiante of Le vice-consul and India Song. Attempting to de-fine her, Duras brings us back to our earlier question: Is there a pattern that unites and identifies the Durassian woman? Is it repeatable? Le vice-consul, which Duras describes as "le travail le plus difficile de ma vie" (Écrire), may hold the answer, with its depiction of this peripatetic woman who has been forced by circumstance to abandon her daughter:
Elle reste une dizaine de jours dans la cour d'un poste sanitaire, nourrie, mais elle se sauve encore, après le pied finira par guérir, il y aura un mieux-être. Après c'est la forêt. La folie dans la forêt. C'est toujours près des villages qu'elle dort. Mais parfois il n'y ena pas, alors c'est dans une carrière ou au pied d'un arbre. Elle rêve: elle est son enfant morte, buffle de la rizière, parfois elle est rizière, forêt, elle qui reste des nuits dans l'eau mortelle du Gange sans mourir, plus tard, elle rêve qu'elle est morte à son tour, noyée.
The woman who becomes her own child and dreams of joining that other self in a death by water that mimes a return to the womb, recalls the fates of Maud, Françou and Suzanne, and calls ahead to Valérie Andesmas and the 'girl' of L'amant. Because the family center will not hold, that family turns out the pregnant girl who then becomes the beggar woman of Le vice-consul. While that text does not deal with the mother or brothers in any developed way, the parallel between one kind of familial abandonment and another is clear. What continues to bind the beggar to her lost child is precisely the bridge as barrier that will always link her to lost family while distancing her from them. And for Duras this beggar must be a woman. She bears the child she is. The pattern is that very ontological acknowledgement, that simple yet complex weave that forms the paradox of life. Through immersion in it one lives but risks madness; by emerging from it one sees clearly and courts death.
Killing, in actuality or figuratively, combines the moves utilized by the women of Duras' early novels in dealing with the intractabilty of this human paradox epitomized as man (absent father, present brother) and by the other woman (now viewable as the other self) represented by the Durassian mother. Through thought and dream, this child-woman first denies that the paradox truly is one (Françou's "hope"), then she assimilates the other, becomes like him, seeks him incestuously in other men (Françou with Tiène, Suzanne with Monsieur Jo but ultimately back with Joseph, Maud with Jean and Georges, stand-ins for Jacques). Finally, an escape of one kind or another is attempted but fails. To escape the other the heroine must "kill him off." It will take the revelation of those "autobiographical" insights to which we are made privy in L'amant to effect a true departure, a killing-off of the past, flight to France and to the art of writing. But the fratricide is, of course, never complete. The writing resurrects and reenacts it with the genesis of each new text.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 789
SOURCE: "Marguerite Duras, 81, Author Who Explored Love and Sex," in The New York Times, March 4, 1996, p. C10.
[In the following excerpt, Riding remarks on Duras's life and literature.]
Marguerite Duras, author of the best-selling novel The Lover and one of the most widely read French writers of the postwar era, died today at her home in Paris. She was 81.
Miss Duras, who was also a prolific playwright, film maker and screenwriter, was best known for the way she used her early life in French Indochina as the inspiration for many of her works, including The Lover, the story of her clandestine teen-age romance with a wealthy young Chinese man….
[H]er plays continue to be performed regularly in France. However, despite the enormous success of her screenplay for Alain Resnais's 1960 classic, "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," few of the 19 movies she wrote and directed herself did well, not least because words often entirely replaced action. Until her 70th birthday, her novels had a loyal albeit small readership. With the publication of The Lover in 1984, however, Miss Duras reached a mass audience in France and abroad. The book sold more than two million copies and was made into a well-received film in 1992 by Jean-Jacques Annaud.
Because she considered her words to be sacrosanct, she often had stormy dealings with movie directors who adapted her novels, among them Peter Brook, Tony Richardson and Jules Dassin. And when Mr. Annaud altered her screenplay for The Lover, Miss Duras broke with him and turned her text into yet another semi-autobiographical novel, The Lover From Northern China. She described that book, published in 1991, as a "reappropriation" of The Lover, yet once again she seemed to be reinventing her life to a point where it became impossible to know whether her original novel, Mr. Annaud's film or her second version of the story was the closest to reality. To Miss Duras, of course, this did not matter.
She was born on April 4, 1914, in Gia Dinh, near Saigon. Her parents, Henri and Marie Donnadieu (she changed her name to Duras in the 1930's), were teachers in France's colonial service. She was only a child when her father died, and her first memories were of economic hardship, above all after her mother invested the family's savings in a disastrous rice-farming venture.
After attending school in Saigon, Miss Duras moved to France at the age of 18 to study law and political science. After graduation, she worked as a secretary in the French Ministry of the Colonies until 1941, but by then Nazi Germany had occupied France. In 1943, she joined the Resistance in a small group that included Françoïs Mitterrand, who remained a friend until his recent death.
In 1939, Miss Duras married the writer Robert Antelme, who was arrested and deported to Germany during the war. By the time he returned from Dachau concentration camp in 1945 (he was the subject of her 1985 book La Douleur, later published in the United States as The War), she was already involved with Dionys Mascolo, who was to become her second husband and with whom she had a son, Jean.
In the late 1940's, Miss Duras joined the French Communist Party, and though she later resigned, she always described herself a Marxist. Yet perhaps her strongest political stance was her contempt for Gen. Charles de Gaulle….
Her first book, Les Impudents, was published in 1943, and from that time, she lived off her writing, gradually building a body of work that included more than 70 novels, plays, screenplays and adaptations. She eventually acquired a country home in Normandy, but her book-lined Left Bank apartment on the Rue St.-Benoit remained her Paris home from 1942 until her death.
For many years, she struggled with alcoholism—a subject she frequently addressed in her writings—and her health was further shattered by emphysema. But in the 1980's, long separated from Mr. Mascolo, she also found love again in an unusual relationship with a young homosexual writer, Yann Andrea Steiner, with whom she shared her final years.
Late last year, struggling again with illness, Miss Duras published That's All, a tiny 54-page book that seemed intended to be her literary adieu to her readers, to Mr. Steiner and to herself. Written between November 1994 and last August, with each occasional entry carrying a date, it consisted of poetic bursts of love, fear and despair, as if all too aware that her death was near.
The very last entry, on the afternoon of Aug. 1, 1995, read:
"I think it is all over. That my life is finished.
"I am no longer anything.
"I have become an appalling sight.
"I am falling apart.
"I no longer have a mouth, no longer a face."
She is survived by her son and Mr. Steiner.
Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 233
"Writer's Life Inspired Novels, Films." The Globe and Mail (4 March 1996): C1.
Summarizes Duras's life and her contribution to modern literature.
Goodman, Richard. A review of Summer Rain, by Marguerite Duras. New York Times Book Review (14 June 1992): 20.
Reviews Summer Rain and compares Duras unfavorably to Samuel Beckett.
Harris, Michael. A review of Summer Rain, by Marguerite Duras. Los Angeles Times Book Review (14 June 1992): 6.
Comments on Duras's sparse writing style, which he finds very effective.
Hirsch, Marianne. "Inside Stories." Women's Review of Books VIII, No. 1 (October 1990): 19-20.
Argues that Practicalities and Emily L. deliver a feminist message and contends that the personal and political are interconnected in Duras' writing.
Marcus, James. "Between Herself and Herself." New York Times Book Review (20 May 1990): 30.
Reviews Practicalities and argues that the same disjointed autobiographical renderings which make her fiction powerful are distracting in this nonfiction work.
Soloman, Charles. A review of The Man Sitting in the Corridor, by Marguerite Duras. Los Angeles Times Book Review (12 January 1992): 10.
Argues that The Man Sitting in the Corridor is fragmentary and too short to appear outside an anthology.
Wilmington, Michael. "Duras Series Reveals Filmmaker's Voice." Chicago Tribune (15 September 1995).
Reviews Duras's work as a filmmaker.
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