Marguerite Duras

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Marguerite Duras began her writing career as a journalist and novelist and later moved on to motion pictures and the theater. It is difficult to distinguish Duras’s dramatic output from the rest of her literary production. Characters and situations in her novels, films, and plays tend to reappear in later works, and her style remains constant throughout all genres. Duras’s novels are filled with dramatic dialogue, and the stage directions of her screenplays are usually longer than the spoken text. India Song: Texte-théâtre-film does not consist of three different treatments of the same theme, as its subtitle might suggest. It is one comprehensive text, to be treated differently by readers, performers, and directors.

Achievements

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Marguerite Duras had already published several novels when she first achieved an international audience with the scenario of director Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959; Hiroshima mon amour: Text by Marguerite Duras for the Film by Alain Resnais, 1961). In 1984, she was awarded the coveted Prix Goncourt for her novel L’Amant (1984; The Lover, 1985).

The importance that Duras gave to the reader or spectator in her work, her search for “inner realism,” and her systematic use of ellipsis bring her close to writers such as Nathalie Sarraute, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, Robert Pinget, and Michel Butor. Unlike these writers, however, she never felt the need to define a literary theory of any kind. To Duras, any preestablished formula seemed an instrusion into the freedom of the reader or spectator, an attempt to control his or her response. In this respect, she came close to realizing Gustave Flaubert’s ideal of perfectly transparent prose. Duras also differed from the so-called New Novel/New Theater group in that she was politically committed to individual causes in which she believed and about which she was highly vocal. Here again, however, she did not fit under any label. Duras was expelled from the French Communist Party in 1950 and never again joined a political party. She did not like to be labeled a feminist either, although virtually all of her literary output addresses, in one way or another, the problem of feminine identity. Thus, Duras cannot be pinned to any literary or political school of thought. Instead, she developed her own original style and, deeply committed to the defense of human values, she became a controversial figure in France. Duras also attained recognition abroad, and many of her works have been translated into English. Within and beyond France, critical articles and doctoral dissertations are written on various aspects of her work. Her plays are performed throughout the world.

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In addition to her novels (most of which were published by Gallimard, with the exception of Moderato Cantabile and Destroy, She Said, which were published by Minuit, the press favored by the New Novelists), Marguerite Duras (dew-RAH) published a collection of short stories, Des journées entières dans les arbres (1954; Days in the Trees, 1967), and two short texts, L’Homme assis dans le couloir (1980; The Man Sitting in the Corridor, 1991) and L’Homme atlantique (1982; The Atlantic Man, 1993). Duras was also known as a prolific playwright, and her plays were regularly performed on the French stage. In 1969, Duras turned to filmmaking as her principal activity, perhaps encouraged by the success of her scenario for director Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959; Hiroshima mon amour: Text by Marguerite Duras for the Film by Alain Resnais, 1961). In 1961, she collaborated with Gérard Jarlot on the script for Une Aussi Longue Absence (English translation, 1966), directed by Henri Colpi, and in 1969, she wrote and directed...

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her first film,Détruire, dit-elle, avowedly inspired by the May, 1968, leftist revolution. Her other films include Nathalie Granger (1972), La Femme du Gange (1973), Baxter, Véra Baxter (1976), Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (1976), Des journées entières dans les arbres (1976), Le Camion (1977), Aurélia Steiner (1979), Agatha: Ou, Les Lectures illisibles (1982), and L’Homme atlantique (1982). Duras evolved a new “hybrid” genre with works such as India Song, subtitled Texte-théâtre-film, and Le Navire “Night” (1979). India Song, the 1973 film, was awarded a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975.

Achievements

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In 1984, Marguerite Duras’s novel The Lover won the Prix Paris Ritz Hemingway and the coveted Prix Goncourt. Despite her affinities with the New Novelists, who gained prominence in the 1950’s and 1960’s (Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon, and Robert Pinget), Duras steadfastly refrained from aligning herself with any one school of literature. She had a deep concern for human values, and some of her fiction of the early 1970’s is definitely marked by the events of May, 1968, which proclaimed an end to excessive governmental control in France and sought a more egalitarian society. For the most part, however, Duras’s novels address political issues indirectly. Her talents as a writer lie in character portrayal, particularly in her studies of female protagonists caught in the imaginative re-creation of a passionate love. In her later works, Duras eschews straightforward analysis of characters’ emotions for an allusive style that evokes fantasies and imaginations through a lyric, often fragmented, prose. As a result of numerous interviews in periodicals and on television and through her prodigious output in fiction, drama, and film, Duras became a highly visible, often controversial, figure on the French literary scene. Her work has gained recognition abroad as well, and most of her novels have been translated into English.

Discussion Topics

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How does Marguerite Duras incorporate her experiences in World War II into her characterizations?

How does memory and recall function in Duras’s plot development?

How does the theme of loss affect the actions of the characters in Duras’s novels?

The impact of outside events is important in many of Duras’s works. Describe two events, natural or human-made, which affect the events of the plot in her novels or plays.

Describe how the complexities of love are used as a force of change in Duras’s works.

Bibliography

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Adler, Laure. Marguerite Duras: A Life. Translated by Anne-Marie Glasheen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. A portrait of the novelist, especially interesting in its examination of Duras’s heretofore little known activity during World War II.

Cody, Gabrielle H. Impossible Performances: Duras as Dramatist. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. Treats Duras as one of the most important dramatists of the century, a feminist and postcolonialist whose plays operate against what Cody identifies as the masculine ideals of representational, realistic theater.

Glassman, Deborah N. Marguerite Duras: Fascinating Vision and Narrative Cure. Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991. Chapter 1 provides an overview of Duras’s life and career, chapter 2 concentrates on The Ravishing of Lol Stein, chapter 3 on The Vice-Consul and India Song, chapter 4 on autobiographies and fictions. Includes detailed notes and extensive bibliography.

Schuster, Marilyn R. Marguerite Duras Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1993. Updates and thoroughly revises the original Twayne volume of 1971. This newer volume takes into account Duras’s later fiction and the growing body of criticism. Schuster includes chapters on Duras’s life, on her coming-of-age stories, on her work in films, and on her major novels. In addition to a chronology, there is also an annotated bibliography.

Vircondelet, Alain. Duras: A Biography. Translated by Thomas Buckley. Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press, 1994. This translation from the French of a book that appeared in France in 1991 is the first biography of Duras. See the biographer’s preface for his approach to her life and work and for problems faced by any biography of this complex figure. Includes an extensive bibliography.

Williams, James S. The Erotics of Passage: Pleasure, Politics, and Form in the Later Work of Marguerite Duras. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Chapters on all Duras’s major works in her last phase, with a detailed bibliography.

Willis, Sharon. Marguerite Duras: Writing on the Body. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Willis deals with Duras’s entire career—her fiction and her film work—with separate chapters on Hiroshima mon amour, The Ravishing of Lol Stein, and The Vice-Consul and L’Amour, emphasizing the erotic figure of both the author and her fiction, as well as the elusiveness that Vircondelet finds also in his biography. Provides detailed notes and bibliography.

Winston, Jane Bradley. Postcolonial Duras: Cultural Memory in Postwar France. New York: Palgrave, 2002. An examination of Duras’s role as an intellectual force in a colonizing power, particularly valuable in the light of her early life in French Indochina and her continued use of the region as a setting.

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