A shriek of truth amid the tragedies of life

Marguerite Duras: a life by Laure Adler translated by Anne-Marie Glasheen (Gollancz, £25)
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Marguerite Duras was born in 1914 in Indochina and died in 1994 in Paris. The list of her works in this biography runs to over 70 titles, including, in addition to novels, many screenplays, plays and articles. Her most famous novel, The Lover (1985), won the Prix Goncourt and was filmed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Although Duras fell out with Annaud over the film and refused to attend the opening, she later spotted him in a café and went over to kiss him, whispering: "I saw your film. It was wonderful."

Marguerite Duras was born in 1914 in Indochina and died in 1994 in Paris. The list of her works in this biography runs to over 70 titles, including, in addition to novels, many screenplays, plays and articles. Her most famous novel, The Lover (1985), won the Prix Goncourt and was filmed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Although Duras fell out with Annaud over the film and refused to attend the opening, she later spotted him in a café and went over to kiss him, whispering: "I saw your film. It was wonderful."

By this time she was a ravaged old lady with an ugly liver, unrecognisable as the young white girl who sold herself to her Chinese lover at the age of 15. Begun in her first successful novel, Sea Wall, the game of proposing, disowning and reclaiming her own versions of her life was still being played in characteristic style.

Duras was one of those children who knew they wanted to be a writer. The unhappy childhood in Indochina, the absent father and violent, son-adoring mother who encouraged the daughter's lovemaking with her rich Chinese lover - it is almost as though this was lived by a girl who knew what she was buying with her adolescent initiation: an enduring ability to perceive the world as one who had suffered.

Throughout the rest of her life - as a writer and political activist in the French Resistance and Communist Party, as a lover, a mother and, later, an alcoholic with no beauty left in her wallet to pay the bills with - Duras used her childhood like a drop of ink released into different solutions. She stayed with her first words - sea, sky, love, pain, shriek, night (and money) - and made them into a song of which she gave endless different renditions.

Her biographer, Laure Adler, has the unglamorous role of detailing the facts, whereas Duras, using the same material, allowed herself every fictional licence. Her texts, alongside Adler's conscientious account, make the latter look like anatomical drawings in a dance studio, outshone by the moving forms.

Duras's involvement with cinema, which began with her script for Resnais's Hiroshima, Mon Amour, is well covered. Duras soon turned director herself. In her movie Le Camion, she plays a ranting, reflecting old woman - a writer who used to live in the colonies - who hitches a lift from a lorry-driver played by the young Gérard Depardieu. The use of the camera on the lorry created problems, so they all went back to Marguerite's and rigged up a cab in her kitchen. Sometimes the biographer does get a tune to sing, after all.

Adler also writes well about Duras's role in the Resistance. Yet La Douleur, Duras's own account of her wait for her husband, Robert Antelme (who had been incarcerated in Dachau and was discovered there soon after the Liberation by François Mitterrand), catches the plumb line on the upswing. Adler's hangs vertical and without a tremor.

By the time of the first meeting between biographer and subject, the Duras myth was pretty much dry on the page. The tone of this biography suggests that Adler's early admiration scarcely survived intact. Duras lived the last years of her life in the company of a young homosexual, Yann Andrea. Although she had some harsh things to say about homosexuals (as well as about "frigid women", women who never bore children and even women who couldn't keep house), she was devotedly attached to Andrea. With him, and often in the absence of him, she conducted a tormented love affair.

The tragedies of her life came round duly as farce, and she was still writing them - dictating them, since detoxification left her able to form letters only in a child's hand - on her deathbed. Sartre said she was a bad writer, but her texts have a shriek of truth to them. After that, the biographer can only go round with the dustpan, like an archaeologist in the wake of a destructive act of nature.

Laure Adler will be in conversation with Anne-Marie Glasheen at the Institut Français, London SW7, tonight at 6.30pm (tel: 020-7838 2074)

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