Wartime Notebooks, By Marguerite Duras

The formation of Duras the famous writer is documented in these early fragments
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

This collection of stories plunges fearlessly into the realities of grief and cruelty. It is peopled by characters capable of intense bitterness, but made bearable, if not redeemed, by the arresting honesty of their creator. In one of the tales, "Albert of the Capitals", a suspected Nazi collaborator, a pathetic 50-year-old man, is stripped naked in a Paris café and battered by a team of keenly sadistic Resistance youths. Presiding over the torture is Theodora, a woman of chilling fanaticism, a Communist whose lover is a prisoner of the Germans. Tough Theodora is a persona of Marguerite Duras, caught in the confused events of the Liberation of France in 1945. The stories, fragments, drafts and memoirs, which make up this compelling book, are essentially a prism of her experience in that appalling and turbulent time. Great events puncture its many small dramas.

As the trembling suspect fearfully removes his grimy clothes, the young woman Theodora hears the advancing Free French forces: "Outside you could hear machine guns over by the Louvre. It was still going on. In the distance the rumbling of tanks. And now and then, artillery. Paris was free – almost. Theodora wasn't particularly vicious, she was heartsick."

Very rough justice is about. Great events of war rumble in the background of intensely private agonies. The Americans cross the Elbe into Germany and the Germans begin to force-march and then shoot their starving captives. Interleaved within the grisly story of Resistance reprisal is a poignant vignette of hope dashed among the hundred women waiting for news of their men on the rue des Saussaies.

"There was a young pregnant woman in mourning, he'd been executed... she'd read his last letter out loud, she read and reread that letter, 'Tell our child I was brave' and she wept aloud, she must have been 20 years old and she kept saying 'It's not possible.'"

Marguerite Duras's own husband Communist and writer Robert Antelme had been deported to Germany in 1944 and at the time of these stories was starving in Dachau concentration camp. Throughout this intriguing and powerfully challenging book, fiction and fact burn together into tales of such visceral intensity it is sometimes quite hard to read them. The depiction of the anguished waiting woman in "The War" is so raw, so unvarnished, so entirely frank, that events we thought familiar seem newly discovered. The anxiety of the unknowing, the anguish of the limbo of uncertainty all here emerge in a fierce, brutally light that goes straight to the heart.

"Sometimes her heart and head are invaded by upheavals, analyses, syntheses, wrenching turmoil bright hopes, crushed expectation, precipices around which thought wander shivering and dazed, unable to make sense of anything."

Robert Antelme was rescued from the charnel house of Dachau by a character who appears in the stories as François. His Resistance nom de guerre was François Morland, better known to us as François Mitterrand, the recently deceased President of France. Antelme returned to Paris weighing 86 pounds and for three weeks hung between life and death. The story "Did not die deported" plots Duras's agonising wait for him and the almost more appalling account of tending his emaciated body back to health. Duras' curse on anyone who winces at these sickening descriptions is typically combative: " I shit on them." She brings the passion of her life into the relationship with her reader. You are either with her or damned.

Marguerite Duras eventually became one of France's most celebrated writers, receiving international recognition for her plays, novellas and screenplays. As if the emotional intensity of her wartime drafts and memoirs isn't enough, this rather strange volume of fragments also contains her first working of her famous book The Lover. It's an unflinching depiction of a 15-year-old girl in 1930s Indo-China, bullied and outcast, regularly beaten by her debauched older brother, whose doubtful solace lay in the attentions of a much older, oddball, pock-marked Cambodian man. This story simply rocks you on your heels.

Reckless and defiant, here is the Marguerite of the future, ready to die rather than compromise, totally unafraid of the very worst in other people – and willing to confront both the most sadistic and vulnerable parts of herself. Even if you made her up, she would just have to be French.