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Duras, Marguerite 1914–

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Duras is a French novelist, screenwriter, and dramatist whose work is often linked with that of the New Novelists. Her fiction is strongly visual and experimental, employing cinematographic techniques to explore themes of time, love, and the difficulty of communication. Critics have praised her talent for dialogue and her poetic evocation of atmosphere. She has collaborated with Alain Resnais, and is perhaps best known in America for Hiroshima mon amour. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Alfred Cismaru

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As does all her fiction after 1953 (the date of Les Petits chevaux de Tarquinia, a transitional work), Madame Duras' first play [Les Viaducs de la Seine-et-Oise] falls within the general pattern established by such writers as Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, to mention only the most famous among contemporary anti-dramatists: generally plotless compositions from which motivation, that stock prop of the traditional theater, is patently absent; completely or partly anonymous characters; banalities expressed by disarming clichés; disregard for psychological verisimilitude; meticulous, precise, and detailed presentation of objects; and obsessive and contradictory fragments of thoughts and souvenirs. But in adopting this pattern … Marguerite Duras' stage always evokes a psychological atmosphere, suggests a most human situation, seizes and seals the authentic impasses of heroes and heroines dissatisfied with their condition. Hope, weak, evasive, awkward, emerges somehow, even though aspirations hardly materialize, even though reincarnation remains utopian when it does not die in embryo, and even though the essential mediocrity of life becomes ultimately entrenched in the body and soul of most personages. For in spite of everything, the struggle involved in the attempted metempsychosis gives meaning and reason to one's existence and reaffirms the dignity of one's humanity. The total despair of the corpsed universe observable in the plays of Beckett and Ionesco is absent from the dramas of Marguerite Duras. But in order to achieve this delicate balance between the lack of a firmly established, friendly reality and Man's need of it, the author had to construct with the greatest care. The world, such as it is, is unlivable for her characters. But it is their world, and they will not abdicate until they have not made a number of gestures and have not pronounced a number of words for if they did not make those gestures and did not pronounce those words we would wonder what else they could do outside of seeking death by the most expeditious means. (pp. 145-46)

As in most of her recent novels, Marguerite Duras points … in her first play … to the absolute necessity of never quite giving up, of never capitulating entirely. Man's dignity requires the effort more than the result, as in the case when the action contradicts laws and causes the death of the one who acted. Attempting to give meaning to one's meaningless existence is viewed by her as an eminently worthy deed. And the popularity of Les Viaducs de la Seine-et-Oise … demonstrates that spectators share, albeit intuitively, the brilliant preoccupations of the author—as it proves, of course, that she is highly capable of capturing knotty, contemporary problems (the play is based, after all, on an actual case) and of reorchestrating them into lucid, literary compositions that shed light on the terrible impasses we are forced to face in our terrestrial existence. (pp. 149-50)

Alfred Cismaru, "'Les Viaducs de la Seine-et-Oise': Duras' Dramatic Debut," in Renascence (© copyright, 1971, Marquette University Press), Spring, 1971, pp. 145-50.

Erica M. Eisinger

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The basic theme of Marguerite Duras' novels, plays, and films is the interplay between love and destruction, conflicting drives which are often resolved in the violence of a criminal act. The fascination with the crime passionnel or love murder leads Duras naturally to a reliance on the detective story, a genre where murder is central and where the dual structure of crime and investigation offers a model for parallel movements toward violence, then communion. Duras shares the affinity of the authors of the nouveau roman for the themes and techniques of the detective story. Like Robbe-Grillet, Claude Ollier, and others, Duras' work adopts the basic detective story format: a mysterious crime followed by an intense effort at understanding. But where the nouveau roman focuses on the puzzle element of the detective story, Duras emphasizes the human drama of moral involvement in the mystery of another's criminal act….

Duras turns to the detective story along with the new novelists because she accepts its definition of reality as potentially violent and not immediately knowable. (p. 503)

Violent death, murder or suicide, is a central aspiration of all of Duras' heroines. This unconscious drive toward annihilation becomes unleashed through the dramatic confrontation with the crime of another. Duras' novels recount the transformation of an aimless, self-destructive woman into a purposeful detective. (p. 504)

The fundamental preoccupation is never the murder itself but its repercussions…. Duras' concern is with the irrational obsession of her heroine with the crime of another. The forward-going action of the traditional novel, which relates the adventures of an active hero, is replaced in Duras, and in the nouveau roman as a whole, with the detective story's reverse chronology which presents the story through the optic of the passive observer, the investigator, quite literally a "private eye" for the reader. (pp. 504-05)

Duras' women readily slide into someone else's drama because their own lives are so empty and devoid of action…. Duras' heroines have no existence prior to the crime; like the pure detective, they gain their identity through the investigation.

In the very earliest of Duras' novels, Les Impudents (1943) and La Vie Tranquille (1944), the pattern is set: the crime which is committed by a male—the brother—provokes the woman to action…. The early novels … develop the formula: the transformation of the heroine from witness of the murder act, to investigator, to victim in the sexual act. Lovemaking is seen as a kind of investigation, an effort to understand the violence of the criminal act. (p. 505)

The method of detection in Le Marin de Gibraltar is the one which Duras' future investigators will employ. All rational explanation of the evidence is discounted…. Physical proof yields to intuition; what is sought is not the "airtight case" against a suspect but the spiritual communion between hunter and hunted. Doubt is never entirely dispelled, even at the end of the inquiry. Discovery is a leap of faith, not an assertion of fact. (p. 506)

In Duras' novels, the intense heat, persistent intoxication, excessive sleep, and hypnotic dialogue provide a … dampening of consciousness so necessary to the detective enterprise. (p. 507)

The maid [heroine of Le Square] exhibits the need of Duras' other women and, indeed, of all criminals in detective literature to share her murderous aspirations. It is not enough to commit a crime in perfect safety; it is necessary for someone (the detective) to know. The criminal can only really exist when he or she is identified as such by the detective: the detective creates the criminal. The detective, too, is dependent on the criminal for he only comes into existence at the inception of an investigation. Thus, the detective/criminal team, as the criminal/victim team, offers a model for the study of the interdependence of the couple, a theme which is explored in the tense relationship between Anne Desbaresdes and Chauvin in Moderato cantabile.

Anne Desbaresdes is the archetypical dispossessed Duras heroine…. The absence of first-person possessive adjectives reveals her alienation from her surroundings. (p. 508)

The initial scene of the music lesson reveals much of Anne's character and introduces themes that will be reinforced by the contrapuntal episodes between Anne and Chauvin later. The sonatina itself is significant. Diabelli is best known, not through his own work, but through the Beethoven variations. And will not Anne and Chauvin essentially be playing a variation on the theme acted out by the first couple? Anne replays the lesson, this time with Chauvin the teacher and herself the pupil.

The sonata form contains, en abîme, the nucleus of the novel's structure with its three major movements of the music lesson, the crime, and the investigation. The sonata's return in the last movement to themes stated in the first is the very model of the detective story plot adopted by Duras whereby the detective reproduces the opening crime in the final confrontation scene. (pp. 508-09)

The men to whom [Duras' heroines] are attracted exercise the fascination of death. They are murderers, fugitives, outsiders: the representatives of death. Their function is to lead the women through the rites de passage, by means of endless conversations, to the point at which they accept the fate of the women who preceded them as victims.

The method of initiation is not the physical act of love, but dialogue, a ritual form of question and answer which resembles a police interrogation. Like a well-briefed inspector, Chauvin already seems to know a great deal about Anne. He seems, in fact, able to see through the walls of her villa and to describe the interior, just as he sees into the inner desires of her soul. Thus, he speaks to her in the God-like voice of the second-person plural…. The vous is the voice of the detective who relates to the criminal how he performed his act in a triumphant display of knowledge. It is the persistent use of the second person which elicits the confession, forcing the criminal to assume responsibility for his act.

In a similar way, Chauvin gains control over Anne by the sheer duration of the dialogue, by the hypnotic effect of the endless repetitions. His commands, "parlez-moi, continuez," do elicit the capital revelation that has been awaited from the beginning, the confession of identity between witness and victim. Anne and Chauvin must talk until the magic words are said, until they have achieved in words what the other couple accomplished in deed…. (pp. 510-11)

Anne and Chauvin adopt the notion of the participation of the victim in the crime with such force that this explanation must clearly be a projection of their own situation. They unravel the mystery gradually, not in a scientific attempt to get at the facts, but through sheer invention. Their investigation is not just a reconstruction but a creation of its own….

The key to a comprehension of the mysterious past is the detective's ritual of reenactment which brings the fusion of identity between one individual and another. To understand the suffering of another, Duras suggests, one must become him. (p. 512)

[L'Amante anglaise] is the most police-like of all of Duras' creations. We never see the actual crime take place, only its investigation by an anonymous questioner. The entire novel is built on the question-and-answer form of a police interrogation. (p. 515)

It is, in fact, a reworking of her own play, Les Viaducs de la Seine-et-Oise (1960). The change in title reveals Duras' interest—in the novel—in the mystery of Claire [heroine of L'Amante anglaise] and her capacity for invention. What intrigued Duras in the play was the fatality of the viaduct. In the novel, Duras shows the murder to have been as inevitable as its detection, yet fundamentally incomprehensible. As the gratuity of the title L'Amante anglaise suggests, no investigation will succeed in understanding Claire's private world of madness….

The notion of the viaduct reveals a definite conception of the world, where from disparate pieces of reality it becomes possible to reconstruct the whole. Despite the dismemberment and the geographical dispersion of the separate entities, each part cries out for the whole; an appearance of unity is maintained. The vision of the parts leaving and returning from the viaduct could be diagrammed as a group of concentric circles which corresponds to the obsessive forms which haunt other nouveaux romans, notably the "huit couché" of Le Voyeur or "l'as de trèfles" of La Route de Flandres. The recurring motif represents the attempt to impose a pattern on the chaos of reality, to seek in repetition a grand design in the universe—an attempt which fails in the nouveau roman as the very circularity of the form forces an infinity of interpretations. (p. 516)

The questioner in L'Amante anglaise may also be a writer: the novel is his project. Like so many new novels, L'Amante anglaise is an "anti-novel." The complete use of the question-and-answer form underscores the tentativeness of the writer's task. Duras has lost confidence in the straight narrative; the dialogue which was always a cornerstone of her work now takes over completely. The role of the author is not to explain, or even relate, but merely to ask questions and to listen. The novel ends without concluding. Duras has sent out various possible versions of Claire Lannes' crime, all going in different directions, much as the parts of the body all left on different trains. If they are to converge at a center, it is for the reader to determine the location. (pp. 518-19)

The anonymous questioner fails in his investigation, because unlike Anne Desbaresdes … he does not become the other, which would end the need for all questions. The failure of the questioner to exhaust the enigma of Claire Lannes compels the reader, like a Duras character, to take up the inquiry….

Claire Lannes is typical of Duras' heroines in her capacity for identifying with others. All of Duras' work leads toward this identity, whether it is the fusion of past with present, or the fusion of one individual with another. (p. 519)

The theme of involvement is very close to the notion of responsibility articulated by the authors of existential fiction. Duras may represent a bridge between the moralists of the earlier period and the current group of new novelists…. It is no accident that Duras is practically the only experimental novelist to deal with the couple and consequently to envision the possibility of dialogue….

The detective story for Duras opens moral possibilities. The investigations in her novels do not necessarily end in failure. A communion is achieved. The detective's fusion with his victim opens the way toward a wider moral involvement and enhances the opportunities for human understanding…. The criminal act is itself a love act, as if murder could transcend the excruciating separateness of the individual and bring one, for that privileged moment, into communion with another. (p. 520)

Erica M. Eisinger, "Crime and Detection in the Novels of Marguerite Duras," in Contempory Literature (© 1974 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 15, No. 4, Autumn, 1974, pp. 503-20.

Francis S. Heck

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 269

[The purpose of this study is to reveal a] possible dimension to … Dix heures et demie du soir en été, namely that of symbolism in the relationship of the heroine, María, to the criminal, Rodrigo Paestra.

On one hand, the María-Rodrigo relationship might be interpreted as a possible "incarnation" of love in order to serve as a counterpoint to the awakened passionate love between María's husband (Pierre) and her friend (Claire). Another possibility exists, however: Rodrigo as the symbol of the creative inspiration, with María as the artist seeking to embody or "incarnate" the idea. The novel thus gains an added dimension as we follow the heroine's oscillation between these two possibilities, that is between the possibility of physical love or a deterrent to the passion of Pierre and Claire, and the more spiritual possibility of an artistic creation. (pp. 249-50)

Hence, a new dimension—the heroine as artist or creator—might be viewed as being superimposed on the usual Durasian formula of human love which fails, that is, utopian incarnation. The end result for María the artist, however, is failure, just as it is for María and Rodrigo as possible lovers. The end result, though, is not what counts. What counts, and what is paramount both for María the artist and for María in love, is that there exists a brief moment of hope and high aspiration which excites and pleases the perceptive reader. (p. 253)

Francis S. Heck, "'Dix heures et demie du soir en été': The Heroine as Artist, A New Dimension," in Romance Notes, Winter, 1975, pp. 249-53.

Roland A. Champagne

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Diabelli's sonata provides the mood for many encounters in Marguerite Duras' Moderato Cantabile. The enchantment of this sonata performs much like the Sirens who provided Ulysses with a magnetic attraction and a need for self-discipline. In Moderato Cantabile, the sonata creates a "controlled" (moderato) and "lyrical" (cantabile) atmosphere for Mlle Giraud and the young Desbaresdes, Anne and her son, as well as Chauvin and Anne. Each of these couples participates in the alternation between the binary themes of reason-madness, possession-dispossession, the explainable-inexplicable, and construction-destruction. The setting of Moderato Cantabile is organized according to a perpetual alternation between those poles. At first, the mood of Diabelli's sonata attracts the characters toward a milieu of "hateful contraries." The tune itself becomes an enchantment of the "controlled and lyrical" community of these "hateful contraries." On the one hand, the "controlled" elements are lined to reason, possession, the explainable, and construction. These elements dramatize a world of correspondences which can be articulated, created, and mastered. On the other hand, the "lyrical" elements are linked to the irrational, dispossession, the inexplicable, and destruction. These traits characterize an unchained world which cannot be grasped. Thus, two forces are produced which fascinate and polarize the community of Moderato Cantabile. Nietzsche's Apollonian and Dionysian distinctions (The Birth of Tragedy) are akin to these two worlds. Indeed, Marguerite Duras' novel develops Nietzsche's study of the ties among music, literature, and culture. These ties in Moderato Cantabile, however, are concentrated about the dual forces of the "controlled" and the "lyric."

Diabelli's music … introduces the music into the literary world of Moderato Cantabile. But this music achieves an ambivalent effect. The very name "Diabelli" implies "diabolic" from which the incantation of Satan's "hateful contraries" develops a pattern of refusal, the supreme diabolic act…. [Moderato Cantabile] presents a "theater of the spoken word" whereby words become animated in a dialogue with silence, gestures, and physical sensations. As the readers of Moderato Cantabile, we become spectators of the isomorphic metamorphosis of mere words into a living dialogue.

The sonata provides the atmosphere for other realizations of the dialogue of "hateful contraries."… The pounding surf, the clamor of the crowd in the café, the siren at the arsenal, and even the silence among the characters echo (redoublement) the musical atmosphere of the sonata. This atmosphere is created by a tension between the two forces of the "controlled" (moderato) and the "lyrical" (cantabile). (pp. 981-82)

The conversations of the characters portray the ambivalence of these controlled and lyrical forces. The "theater of the spoken word" becomes especially vivid in portraying simple and fragmentary dialogues. These dialogues represent the tensions between reason and the irrational, possession and dispossession, the explicable and the inexplicable, and construction and destruction. (p. 983)

The fascination of the binary forces of the controlled and the lyrical is perpetuated by the themes of intoxication and madness. This atmosphere is a fascination which obliterates the distinct relationships among characters and objects. (p. 984)

The gestures, physical sensations, and spoken words are all set in motion to transform the characters into objects (isomorphs)…. Indeed, the very structure of Moderato Cantabile revolves about the metamorphoses of people into objects. While the characters cannot express themselves through words, the objects, as well as the words themselves, recreate the lives of the people around them by tracing the rapports of the controlled forces. The gestures, perfumes, sounds, conversation, and silence replace the characters from whom they emanate.

Silence itself, as the absence of the spoken word, creates a dialectic of "hateful contraries" which generates the bonds among these physical sensations. While conversation creates a rapport among several characters, it is silence which remains to express the love, death, and madness which had tied together those victims of the café-crime…. Indeed, the reader participates in this dramatic portrayal of silence by his own silent reading of the "sous-conversation" but also by his active re-construction of what Nathalie Sarraute calls "the tropisms." Hence, the reader becomes another character "isomorphed" into an object by his silence and his words. (pp. 984-85)

The visions, sounds, and perfumes perceived by the characters also participate in [the dramatic life of the novel]. (p. 985)

The olfactory sensations of Anne and Chauvin especially represent their relationship. The evening of the dinner-party at the Desbaresdes, Chauvin recalls his love for Anne as Anne's magnolia tree emits a unique perfume. The magnolia tree's perfume becomes an "objective correlative" (to use T. S. Eliot's term) for the inexplicable bond between Anne and Chauvin. However, this bond between them excludes the child…. The child cannot participate in this physical sensation which is exclusively enjoyed by Anne and Chauvin. (p. 986)

Gestures evoke the human predicament of being trapped by the "hateful contraries" of controlled (moderato) and lyrical (cantabile) forces…. Duras creates a new phenomenology as the gestures in Moderato Cantabile indicate the relationship between the characters. The hand becomes increasingly important to dramatize human relationships. (pp. 986-87)

The hands of Chauvin and Anne especially portray their relationship. Their cold and deathly ("mortuaires") hands tremble to dramatize a love which is virtually extinct. Sometimes their hands are joined above the table to indicate an open and expressive friendship. Sometimes their hands are hidden under the table to imply a secretive, shameful liaison. Their hands are joined to express their unity during that gesture which portrays the consummation of their love: the kiss of their deathly cold lips. These gestures thus dramatize the impossibility of their love as their "conversations" explore the possibilities of developing their friendship.

The dramatic presentation of silence, sensations, and objects is only one of the cinematic techniques of Duras…. The eclectic techniques of Duras recall three problems with her linking of a literary text with music and film: (1) is it possible to completely reconstitute time with memory? (2) is it possible to escape this new world of literature, music, and the film? and (3) is it possible to speak of "metaphor" or of "symbol" in a phenomenological world of objects? (p. 987)

Moderato Cantabile can be considered to be a study of forgetfulness. Its cyclical structure, indicated by Anne initially ("ça recommence" …) and by Chauvin later ("ça recommencera" …), destroys the linear understanding of time…. The cinematic techniques of Duras seem to be exploring these limits of forgetfulness with a fragmentary narrative that has few formal transitions between the fragments. Thus, the empty spaces preclude the possibility of completely tracing the past or even the present time.

The cinematic presentation also confuses a linear, temporal sequence in the narrative…. The effect is the suspended animation, created by Beckett, whereby the movement of time is assigned to a perpetual beginning, always in the act of being completed, but never finished…. Thus, an ambivalent world of controlled and lyrical forces is being produced which re-creates the impossibility of drawing a timeline uniting past, present, and future in coherent succession….

We have spoken of the isomorphic transformation of persons into objects…. Objects are no longer the signs or metaphors of something else. Objects may exist for themselves, have rapports with other objects, and even predicate human existence…. Humanity becomes transformed into neutral objects in this narrative which studies the polar attractions of objects fascinated by "controlled" and "lyrical" forces.

The destruction of the love between Anne and Chauvin is … the ultimate result of the "greater realism" of this polar community. In order to perpetuate the circular structure of life itself, death is a prerequisite of a rebirth. (p. 988)

Roland A. Champagne, "An Incantation of the Sirens: The Structure of 'Moderato Cantabile'," in The French Review (copyright 1975 by the American Association of Teachers of French), May, 1975, pp. 981-89.

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