Marguerite Duras Duras, Marguerite (Vol. 100) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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 Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Gabriel Josipovici (review date 9 March 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alan Riding (essay date 26 March 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Leslie Garis (essay date 20 October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Marguerite Duras with Alice A. Jardine (interview date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ginger Danto (review date 23 February 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ron Grossman (review date 27 May 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lauren G. Munn (review date 5 January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Melanie Rae Thon (review date January/February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Elaine Romaine (review date Spring 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Daniel Gunn (review date 25 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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?...

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Raylene Ramsay (essay date February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Alberto Manguel (review date 27 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert L. Mazzola (essay date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Alan Riding (obituary date 4 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


"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...

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