Marguerite Duras (1914–1996) is one of France’s most important and interesting intellectual figures. She excelled at being a writer, filmmaker and dramatist. After the Second World War she also worked for a number of years as a journalist for France-Observateur. She was often at the forefront of political movements, such as the opposition to the Algerian War, May ’68 and feminism. Surprisingly, Duras supported of the sinking, by the French secret service, of the Greenpeace vessel, The Rainbow Warrior in 1985, her view being at the time that any impediment – which Greenpeace represented – to French nuclear testing in the Pacific only encouraged Soviet expansionism.
The Oeuvre of Marguerite Duras
In her extensive oeuvre, Duras particularly explored the emotional disequilibrium brought by love, desire, suffering and death, especially as these affect women and propel them towards the abyss of madness. In addition, Duras’s writing explores the space between fusion and separation (e.g. in love and sexuality) as it breaks down the boundary between private (family) and public (political and artistic) life – between the symbolic and the imaginary, and between the time of narrative and the event recounted. Often narrative appears as a kind of distancing from the real, so that writing becomes the only reality. Subject and object thus become difficult to separate in many of Duras’s key fictional texts. This is illustrated in The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein (Duras 1966), where the writer/narrator and what is being written about become particularly difficult to determine. For this reason, Duras has come to be seen as a post-modern writer.
Duras’s own life was a crucial source of material and inspiration for her fictional writing. Few could transform everyday life fragments into artistic statements with the combination of intensity and starkness that characterises Duras’s prose. Although, as Leslie Hill has pointed out (Hill 1993: 1), there is no absolutely true and unchanging set of biographical facts pertaining to Duras’s life, certain points can be taken as given.1
Marguerite Duras was born Marguerite Donnadieu in 1914 at Gia- Dinh near Saigon in Cochinchina (now South Vietnam). Both her parents had been married previously and had met in Vietnam. Duras’s father was a mathematics teacher from southwest France, while her mother came from a poor farming family in the north. Shortly after being posted to Phnom Penh in 1918, the father contracted dysentery and had to return to France, where he later died. Duras’s mother was thus forced to bring up Marguerite and her two older brothers alone in various abodes in Cambodia and Vietnam. Until the age of eleven, when she completed her first school certificate, Marguerite spoke more Vietnamese than French.
In 1932–33, Duras returned permanently to France and took up the study of mathematics, but soon abandoned this to study political science and law. After her studies, she was employed in the Colonial Office as a researcher and archivist, and shortly before the outbreak of the war, she married the writer Robert Antelme. Between 1940 and 1942, Duras published her first work with Philippe Roques, L’Empire franc¸ais, but her first novel written under the family name Donnadieu, La Famille Tane´ran, was refused by Gallimard. Also in this period, Duras’s first child was stillborn. She would subsequently have a son in 1947 with her partner, Jean Mascolo, her marriage with Robert Antelme having been dissolved in 1946.
The year 1943 proved to be a major turning point: Les Impudents appeared, Duras’s first published novel, and the first piece of writing to appear under the pseudonym ‘Duras’, and Duras made friends with Georges Bataille, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Edgar Morin and others. At the same time, she and her husband joined the French movement for prisoners of war. While active in the Resistance with Francois Mitterand, Duras, in 1944, joined the communist party, from which she was expelled in 1950. Robert Antelme was arrested and sent to Buchenwald and Dachau. The painful experience of waiting for his return inspired the novel, La Douleur, published in 1985. In 1984, Duras received the prix Goncourt for her novel, The Lover.
Prior to her public acclaim in 1985, however, Duras had become known to a wider public for her script for Alain Resnais’s film, Hiroshima mon amour (1959), for her own film, India Song (1974) based on her novel Le Vice-consul (1966), and for two much-discussed novels, Moderato Cantabile (1958), and The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein (1964). Generally speaking, Duras’s writing does not focus on the elaboration of ideas or on the experimental side of art (although these were of course implicit in everything she did), but rather on emotional experiences which are barely translatable into symbolic form: silences, inarticulateness, deep sadness, sudden and inexplicable violence, loss in love, almost imperceptible – yet fundamental – changes in emotional, or bodily states, odd flights of imagination – it is these which are at the heart of her artistic effort. The focus on emotional states in particular has given Duras’s oeuvre an allure that feminists have claimed has undermined the supposedly rationalistic and phallocentric narrative of highly regarded male writing.
One can no doubt point to the unique rhythm of the articulation of the fragmentary narrative in the film India Song as illustrative of Duras’s ‘feminine’ style – a style contrasting with the tightly ordered realist approach typical of much conventional cinema. Shot in black and white, India Song plays on a dissonance between the sound track and the images; the dialogue is spoken off-screen rather than on, most shots are static, and there is a refusal of the shot/reverse shot technique. Clearly, the film’s poetic character sharply contrasts with the diegetic emphasis of a conventional realist film.
Duras’s writing style, while clearly singular, often evokes the experimental realism of the Nouveau Roman. Short sentences focus on small details, thus slowing the rhythm of the articulation of the intrigue. A look, a sigh, a touch, often seem to be as important in their own right as the significance they are charged with conveying – which is often a mood, or an emotional crisis, rather than an idea. Typically, the novel, L’amour (Love), does not contain a discussion of what love is; rather, it evokes and denotes love in dialogue and short sentences. As if to reinforce a minimalist, and non-Baroque style, most of Duras’s novels are short by conventional standards (around 40,000 words). Such minimalism is more than a stylistic device; it is also part of an effort to focus on the difficulty of speaking and writing; it contains a barely suppressed silence.
Deficit of Language
The features of the Durasian oeuvre mentioned above have prompted Julia Kristeva to see Duras’s writing as symptomatic of a world where a deficit of language and representation has emerged in light of the terrible events of the twentieth century. While it is true that Kristeva uses a psychoanalytic framework that some might find problematic to interpret features of Duras’s oeuvre, few commentators seem to disagree about what these features are. Indeed, while Leslie Hill is critical of Kristeva’s reading of The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein, his insight that indeterminacy is a fundamental feature of the novel in question, would only seem to confirm the problematic status of identity typical of the crisis of representation that characterised the end of the twentieth century.
For Kristeva, then, Duras’s work has to be seen against a background of apocalyptic themes: Hiroshima, the Holocaust, Stalinism, Colonialism. She thus participates in the search for a symbolic means adequate to represent the horror of what has happened. Rather than focusing on a public sense of the suffering, the latter is presented in an intensely private context. People become locked in their private grief – or depression – so that their speech, rather than being a means to some kind of catharsis or coming-to-terms with the horror, is in fact a symptom of it. Because it is so intensely evocative and descriptive of sadness, rather than being an analysis of it, Duras’s writing, in Kristeva’s view, brings us to the verge of madness; her texts fuse with it rather than represent, or transcend it. This madness, though, is now the only way of living one’s individuality, so impoverished are the public means of representation.
Leslie Hill’s remark in the context of a discussion of The Lover confirms the thrust of Kristeva’s interpretative insight: Duras’s ‘L’Amant does no more than repeat episodes rather than account for them’ (Hill 1993: 118). Indeed, many scenes and characters in Duras’s repertoire are reworked in her novels, and none more than those related to her own autobiography.
Kristeva thus notes the importance of the mother and the theme of separation in Duras. The presence of the mother, from The Sea Wall (1950), The Lover, and further, to The North China Lover (1991) is not only to be seen in the figure represented in a narrative, but also in the writing itself. The mother, on this more psychoanalytic reading, is the emotion of lived experience, it is the madness that cannot be transcended. To begin to understand this one need only refer to how the narrative (such as it is) of The Lover stays so close to the wellknown facts of Duras’s life. As Duras writes in the novel, she wanted to kill her brother because her mother loved him so much. Moreover, he writes that, ‘I’ve written a good deal about the members of my family, but then they were still alive, my mother and my brothers. And I skirted around them, skirted around all these things without really tackling them’ (Duras 1986: 11). Although setting out to tackle the things concerning her life, ‘The story of my life,’ she says ‘doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any centre to it. No path, no line’ (Duras 1966: 11). Again, what she is doing now ‘is both different and the same’ (Duras 1966: 11).
Duras reworks the same material, but the question is whether she is thereby able to transcend the despair and the hatred depicted in this novel and elsewhere, or whether her writing is indeed an analogue, and thus a confirmation, of it. In other words, did Duras remember her past, and to that extent transcend it, or did she rather have a largely affective and nostalgic relationship to it? In favour of the first explanation, and against Kristeva’s view perhaps, is the fact of Duras’s undoubted success as a writer – and no more so than with The Lover which became a worldwide bestseller. Therefore, even if she could not remember for herself, Duras, it seems, remembered for others. To this extent, the work transcends despair. On the other hand, the absence of transcendence may well confirm the despair present in modem society, and it may be this which is at the heart of Duras’s success. Just as it is possible to respond to suffering by suffering oneself, so readers may respond to Duras empathetically, in a fascinated rather than an analytical way. Whatever the case, it is certain that Duras prompts one to think seriously about the nature of writing.
The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein
One of the most intriguing and renowned of Duras’s novels is The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein. Its complex narrative – or absence of a clear narrative – has given rise to numerous interpretations, one of the most famous being by Jacques Lacan (Lacan 1987: 12–129). Lacan famously sees in Duras’s story an exemplification of his own psychoanalytic teaching, even though Duras, in 1964, was not in the least familiar with his theories, nor had she ever attended his seminar. For Lacan, the novel is the repeated attempt at the rememoration of the traumatic primal scene, where Lol Valerie Stein’s fiance´ goes off with an older woman, Anna-Maria Stretter, at the ball at T. Beach. This event is at least in part doubly filtered: first of all through the narrator, Jacques Hold – also an active protagonist in the events – and through Tatiana Karl (wife of Hold’s superior at the hospital where Hold, a doctor, was employed, and also Hold’s lover) who, Hold’s narrative suggests, had told him what had transpired at T. Beach. What is also clear, however, is that the telling of the story of T. Beach is not separate from the events being recounted. This is reinforced by the fact that part of the narrative describes the attempted re-enactment of the fateful night.
On this night, the shock of her fiance´, Michael Richardson, departing with Anna-Marie Stretter seems to send Lol V. Stein into a state of madness. However, she seems to recover, and leaves her native town, S. Tahla, in order to marry Jean Bedford, with whom she has three children. Eventually, Lol V. Stein returns to S. Tahla after an absence of ten years, and renews her acquaintance with Tatiana, and at the same time meets Tatiana’s lover, Jacques Hold. A key element of the novel concerns the ambiguous place of Lol V. Stein. Initially it appears (whether appearance is ever really transcended is a key issue) that Lol is devastated by being thrown over for another woman. A number of things complicate the situation, however, not the least of these being that, later, Lol cannot remember exactly what happened on the fateful night, and claims not to have loved her fiance´ from the moment when Anne-Marie Stretter entered the dance hall. Given Lol’s forgetting, Tatiana’s testimony, filtered through Jacques Hold’s narrative, is crucial for the reconstitution of events, that is, effectively, for the story itself. As her story is entirely in the second degree, we suspect that being unable to tell it herself is part of Lol’s condition; the trauma, unable to manifest itself in a symbolic form, is continually acted out. And in fact, the last part of the text concerns Lol’s return to the scene of the dramatic events, and their attempted re-enactment.
Very quickly, the reader, increasingly on the alert for new evidence that might throw light on the meaning of the story, realises that the story is less about an event than it is about how this event can be told. Lol cannot tell it, because she was too close to it; only the witness has the symbolic means to tell the story. Even this is not a simple matter, however; for in Jacques Hold’s telling, Lol is placed in the mediating, third position of the symbolic when she becomes a witness to the affair between Hold and Tatiana. It is as though Lol desperately wants to be in the position which allows her to speak of what she sees instead of being the traumatised victim: the object of another’s discourse.
Lol V. Stein’s relation to her trauma would seem to correspond to Marguerite Duras’s relation to her own family (particularly to her mother and brother). Again, the issue is not one of reconstituting the true events of one’s past, but of being able to occupy the position of witness to one’s own life. How to speak and write at all is at stake, not whether what one says or writes is true or false, fictional or nonfictional. Taking a pseudonym, giving up the family name, should therefore be seen as an essential, and not an accidental part of Duras’s art. It is the means whereby she can begin to become a witness to her own life. It entails the separation from (and even denial of) the very real trauma of that life. In this way Duras may well have achieved something that few writers have achieved: a putting into language – however minimal this might be – of the struggle for language.
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1 The following biographical details about Duras come largely from Leslie Hill (1993), and Christiane Blot-Labarre`re (1992).
Blot-Labarre`re, Christiane (1992), Marguerite Duras, Paris: Seuil ‘Les Contemporains’. Duras, Marguerite (1966), The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein, trans. Richard Seaver, New York: Grove Press.
——(1986), The Lover, trans. Barbara Bray, London:Collins, Fontana/Flamingo. Hill, Leslie (1993), Marguerite Duras: Apocalyptic Desires, London: Routledge.
Lacan, Jacques (1987), ‘Hommage to Marguerite Duras’, trans. Peter Connor in Duras on Duras, San Francisco: City Lights Books.
Duras’s Major Works
(1998 ) No More, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Seven Stories.
(1993 ) Summer Rain, trans. Barbara Bray, New York: Collier Books; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada; New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.
(1992 ) The North China Lover, trans. Leigh Hafrey, New York: The New Press.
(1989 ) Emily L., trans. Barbara Bray, London: Collins, Fontana/Flamingo.
(1988 ) Blue Eyes, Black Hair, trans. Barbara Bray, London: Collins, Flamingo.
(1987) [(1981 and 1984)] Outside: Selected Writings, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, London: Collins, Fontana/Flamingo.
(1986a ) La Douleur (also published as: The War: A Memoir), trans. Barbara Bray, London: Collins, Fontana/Flamingo.
(1986b ) The Maladie of Death, trans. Barbara Bray, NewYork: Grove Press.
(1986c ) Sea Wall, trans. Herma Briffault, London: Faber & Faber.
(1985 ) The Lover, trans. Barbara Bray, London: Collins, Fontana/Flamingo.
(1976 ) India Song, trans. Barbara Bray, New York: Grove Press.
(1971) L’Amour, Paris: Gallimard.
(1969 ) Destroy, She Said, trans. Barbara Bray, New York: Grove Press.
(1968 ) L’Amante anglaise, trans. Barbara Bray, London: Hamish Hamilton.
(1966a )The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein, trans. Richard Seaver, New York: Grove Press.
(1966b [1960 and 1966]) Hiroshima Mon Amour and Une aussi longue absence, trans. Richard Seaver and Barbara Wright, London: Calder & Boyars.
(1966c ) Moderato cantabile, trans. Richard Seaver, London: John Calder.
(1944) La Vie tranquille, Paris: Gallimard, folio.
Harvey, Robert and Volat, He´le`ne (1997), Marguerite Duras: A Bio-bibliography, Westport, Conn. and London: Greenwood Press.
Hill, Leslie (1993), Marguerite Duras: Apocalyptic Desires, London: Routledge. This book contains an exhaustive English and French bibliography of
Knapp, Bettina L., ed. (1998), Critical Essays on Marguerite Duras, New York: G.K Hall.
Williams, James S. (1997), The Erotics of Passage: Politics and Form in the Later Work of Marguerite Duras, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Williams, James S, ed. (with the assistance of Jane Sayers) (2000), Revisioning Duras: Film, Race, Sex, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Winston, Jane Bradley (2002), Postcolonial Duras: Cultural Memory in Postwar France, New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave.