Obituary: Marguerite Duras

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The Independent Online
Marguerite Duras was the most contradictory, and in many ways perverse, figure on the Parisian literary scene during the post-war period, the subject of popular interest far beyond her many readers, always controversial and both the source and the object of much argument.

When known as a popular novelist she wanted to be a highbrow one, and changed to a more specialised literary publisher to further her intellectual reputation, but then altered her technique and image to become more popular, deliberately confusing the borderline between fact and fiction to arouse discussion and disagreement concerning the real-life content of her novels.

The two principal examples of this are her reputed affair as a young girl with a rich Chinese lover in Vietnam, and her personal participation in the Resistance during the German occupation. Her novel The Lover, which won the Prix Goncourt, owed its best-seller status to her television interviews with Bernard Pivot on Apostrophe, a literary programme with a large regular following, in which she claimed that her novel was the true story of her early seduction by a Chinese lover who for family and racial reasons was not willing or able to marry a white girl of lowly status in what was then a French colony. When her claim to have played an important part in the Resistance, the subject of another novel, was unsubstantiated, she appealed to Francois Mitterrand, known to have himself been in the Resistance, who gave her ambigious but qualified support. It is unlikely that she could have taken part in all the events that she described, but then everything about her was unlikely.

Marguerite Duras had a steely will, was relentless in getting what she wanted, and had a selective memory that served only her mood of the moment. Sonia Orwell, a sometime close friend, who like many others was often dropped from favour, accurately described her as "not like a man, but rather a new kind of woman, stronger than a man". A comparison could be made with Margaret Thatcher, but not in political ideology. She was the subject of much barbed wit from literary rivals, Nathalie Sarraute in particular, who would say how wonderful it must be to be able to adore oneself so much. There were many men in her life, most of them appearing in some form in her novels, and the names of many of her invented characters were amalgams of the surnames of past or present husbands and lovers.

Born at Gia Dinh in French Indochina in 1914, she was brought up with her two brothers, in what for Europeans was considerable poverty, by her mother; her father died when Marguerite was four. Her mother made a small living as a teacher and by playing the piano for silent films, later acquiring a smallholding on the Cambodian coast - which turned out to be uncultivatable, as the sea overran it for half the year. Her mother, whose predicament is described with understanding but little sympathy, plays a prominent part in her writings, and figures in the play Eden Cinema and the novel Barricade Against the Pacific. The sea, as implacable enemy, emerges many times in her work, but her fascination with water also has sexual overtones. Poverty and its effect on the personality is another important theme.

Duras went to Paris at the age of 18 to study law, mathematics and political science, received her degree and went to work for the Ministry of the Colonies until her marriage to Robert Antelme, a rich businessman (pictured, but in little detail, in Moderato Cantabile, where she shows herself as an unhappy wife bored by social obligations, craving excitement, often escaping into heavy drinking). She left Antelme to live with another writer, Dionys Mascolo, the father of her one son. They both joined the Resistance in 1940, but her role is still the subject of some contention, especially as described in La Douleur (1986), which is almost certainly a blend of memory and fiction.

Her first novel, Les Impudents, was published in 1943 and was soon followed by others, all stressing the interrelationship of people and nature, and the struggle to fight off elements that are hostile to life and happiness, including one's own human nature and desires. Passion plays a large part in Duras's work, often presented in metaphorical or symbolic terms, as does political commitment. She joined the Communist Party in 1945, but she was expelled 10 years later for her unwillingness to toe the party line on all issues: she had found the demands made on artists and intellectuals intolerable, and would have left earlier but for the influence of Mascolo, whose own massive tome Le Communisme is mainly about the dilemmas that party discipline poses for intellectual freedom.

During the Fifties Duras's work began to have a special appeal to women, whose maternal and protective instincts, disappointments in love, erotic desires and fantasies, often only dimly understood but depicted by her in a new, poetic and oblique way, she was poignantly able to express. The Sailor of Gibraltar (1952, filmed by Tony Richardson in 1967) and The Little Horses of Tarquinia (1953) are both love stories about loss and disappointment, where a present relationship is made possible or enhanced by the memory or the synbolic presence of an earlier love.

With The Square (1955), written as a novel and then transferred to the stage, she became accepted by the Parisian avant-garde, then dominated by Beckett, Ionesco and Adamov, and the actors who had made their name with the new absurdist drama also began to play Duras; the same phenomenon was soon apparent in London. In The Square, a travelling salesman and a housemaid meet and talk for an hour in a park; Duras gives a picture of their empty lives, with the faint possibility that they might meet again, but happiness is not possible for either except in symbols and fantasies; it is her most poetic novel, often recalling Proust.

International success, and the money associated with it, came with the film Hiroshima, Mon Amour, written for Alain Resnais, which won major attention at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960. Marguerite Duras found herself part of the glamorous film world and loved the ambiance of the smart restaurants and night-clubs where she soon became a familiar figure. She wrote more film-scripts and then began to make her own films, most of them on a property south of Paris that she bought for the purpose.

Opinions vary about her own cinema work, all of it atmospheric and heavily symbolic, but also heavily presented, sometimes overwritten with long dialogues that analysed the theme, usually to do with love and desire, that she wanted to put over. Her oblique approach, saying one thing by showing or describing another, is well illustrated in Hiroshima, Mon Amour, where a Frenchwoman in Hiroshima, scene of a major war horror, the dropping of the first atomic bomb, while having a brief affair with a Japanese man recalls a previous sexual experience during the war with a German soldier with whom she fell in love; he was killed by the Maquis and at the end of the war brought her disgrace and punishment. In spite of the natural emotional prejudice of the audience, who would understand and approve of the killing of the German if not the dropping of the bomb, she effectively made her point that a single death is also a tragedy and all war is wrong.

Moderato Cantabile (1958) is central to and typical of her work, but, because she wanted to be numbered among the currently fashonable nouveaux romanciers, she changed from Gallimard to Editions de Minuit, the avant- garde publisher of the day, later see-sawing between the two according to her whims. Moderato was filmed by Peter Brook with Jeanne Moreau and Jean-Pierre Belmondo and depicts her alter ego rich housewife, fascinated by a crime passionnelle that takes her back repeatedly to a working-class bistro to get more details from one of her husband's workers who is in love with her, but fails to realise that it is not him she wants, but the excitement of a passionate death, the opposite of her passionless life.

The former Communist activist now became part of fashionable Paris, seen with film stars and public personalities. She was difficult, not only with publishers and directors, but with her foreign translators, changing her loyalty from one to the other as they jealously denigrated and criticised each other. Many novels were adapted for the stage and some to the screen. Whole Days in the Trees, taken from an early story, was performed by Madeleine Renaud in Paris and Peggy Ashcroft in London, while Delphine Seyrig and Eileen Atkins both starred in Suzanna Andler. Peter Hall commissioned a play for the National Theatre, but India Song was never produced there, ending instead as a film and a French play production.

Duras's childhood memories of South-East Asia increasingly influenced her work and culminated in the great success of The Lover: she then changed from the smaller publishers who had translated her work for years in other countries to large commercial firms capable, she thought, of keeping her on the best-seller lists. But most of these were less than happy with the later work which increasingly became self- indulgent and less attractive to readers.

Her films, now entirely under her own control, also lost much of her previous audience, who found it difficult to follow her current preoccupations. Typical of these is Le Camion, where we are confronted with two images, a lorry driving through the night until dawn, a depiction of the loneliness and determination of the long-distance driver, and, intercut with it, an all-night conversation between Marguerite Duras herself and her young collaborator and lover, who are writing the script together, imagining the lorry- driver and discussing the emotions they are trying to depict and their method in doing so. Two frustrations, that of their creative imaginations, and the that of the driver they are depicting, become identified. It is a film which works through the nerve endings rather than through the mind, making no concessions to the audience or, for that matter, to possible commercial distributors.

Much of Duras's work is about obsession, and her very powerful early novellas Whole Days in the Trees (the play comes from the title-story), are about four obsessive women. The interchangeability of lust for love and sex and lust for power and riches is always well caught, not so much described as suggested. Lost love is a frequent theme and the sadness and nostalgia for magical past moments surfaces frequently, especially in such plays as La Musica and Suzanna Andler.

Like Beckett, she understood the fear in a changing and itinerant society of not belonging anywhere, of ending anonymous in a big and unfriendly world, which can lead to committing even a senseless crime in order to be famous for a brief instant, just once in a lifetime. This is the theme of The Viaducts of Seine-et-Oise, where a couple, having committed a series of murders, secretly want to be caught and leave vital clues too ensure that they are.

Marguerite Duras, in her last years, having not been in good health for some time, due largely to heavy consumption of wine, fell into a coma, and it was assumed she would not last long. But after two years she recovered fully, continued writing and took control again of her financial and professional affairs. Nothing could have better demonstrated her indomitable willpower and determination to survive and continue to be creative as long as her body was alive.

A difficult and rebarbative personality, not open to persuasion or to arguments other than her own, Duras lacked tact and humour in life and in her work, but there is much poetic feeling in it and she helped many women, in particular, to understand their problems and their natures. She overcame most of her own handicaps, especially an early addiction to alcohol, and was in many ways an illustration of her own literary observation that in life we tend to replace one thing we want and cannot have with another associated with it.

Her place in literature is assured, perhaps even more than that of Colette whose niche in the Parisian scene she replaced.

John Calder

Marguerite Donnadieu (Marguerite Duras), writer, born Gia Dinh, Indochina 4 April 1914; died Paris 3 March 1996.