Marguerite Duras (1914-1996)

Hailed as one of France's most original and controversial contemporary writers, Duras utilizes fiction, drama, and film to explore the nature of love and the existential conflicts of the individual. While her early novels were considered realistic and stylistically conventional, Duras's later experiments with form, repetition, allusive dialogue, and fragmentation led many critics to label her as one of the French nouveaux romanciers, or New Novelists. Juxtaposing biographical and fictitious elements within shifting time frames and questioning the reliability of memory, Duras challenged the boundaries between fact and fiction. Two of her works of autobiographical fiction, L'amant (1984; The Lover) and L'amant de la Chine du Nord (1991; The North China Lover) attracted a large international audience. Duras has also been singled out as one of the best experimental filmmakers of the twentieth century, particularly for her screenplay for the film Hiroshima, mon amour (1960).

("Marguerite Duras." Contemporary Literary Criticism Select, Gale, 2008).


One of the most important literary figures in France, Marguerite Duras won international acclaim after she was awarded the 1984 Prix Goncourt for her autobiographical novel L'Amant (translated almost immediately into English as The Lover). Although Duras had been writing fiction and directing films for over forty years, she was always considered a rather inaccessible author by the general public. The publication of L'Amant sparked interest in all her work, which was speedily republished to meet the overwhelming demand. Featured in numerous interviews on television and in popular magazines in France, Duras became something of a national literary phenomenon. The Lover, elegantly translated by Barbara Bray, won the Ritz Paris Hemingway Award in 1986, and, in the United States, the cover article of the New York Times Book Review (23 June 1985) featured an elogious review of the novel, comparing it, in terms of popularity and interest for an American reader, to Thomas Mann's Death in Venice and D. M. Thomas's White Hotel. Articles in such nonliterary magazines as Vogue, Vanity Fair, and People also chronicled the event.

L'Amant is the tale of a passionate love affair lived by a young French lycéenne in Saigon with a wealthy young Chinese man during the 1930s. The story is recounted by a sixty-year-old woman ravaged by the pain of life, who, to those familiar with Duras's biography, is not unlike the author herself. L'Amant is indeed representative of most of Duras's fiction, informed as it is by memories of her youth spent in French colonial Indochina, now Vietnam. The experiences of those years marked her emotionally and physically; the first few paragraphs of L'Amant are a description of the narrator's aged face: "J'ai un visage lacéré de rides sèches et profondes, à la peau cassée ... détruit" (My face is lacerated with deep, dry lines and broken skin ... destroyed). These personal scars were to furnish the stuff of her fiction. Her first important novel, Un Barrage contre le Pacifique (translated as The Sea Wall in 1953), is set in the rice paddies of the Mekong River delta. The exotic landscape of Vietnam colors the decor of much of Duras's fiction with a sensual but oftentimes suffocating eroticism either implicit, in novels set in non-Oriental places, such as Le Marin de Gibraltar (1952; translated as The Sailor from Gibraltar, 1966) and Dix Heures et demie du soir en été (1960; translated as Ten-thirty on a Summer Night, 1962), or explicit, as in Le Vice-Consul (1966; translated as The Vice-Consul, 1968) and India Song (1973; translated, 1976). Des Journées entières dans les arbres (1954; translated as Whole Days in the Trees , 1984) also recalls the lush landscape of Duras's youth and was published first as a short story, then staged and published as a play (1966) and finally produced as a film (1976), directed by the author. In consistently rewriting this period of her life, often in several genres or blends of genres, Duras has evolved what might be called a core story of passionate love and desire undercut with death. Successive texts echo or decant the story in an increasingly fragmented, lyrical style which has come to characterize Duras's poetic prose.

Duras was born Marguerite Donnadieu on 4 April 1914, in Giandinh, near Saigon. Her parents, Henri and Marie Legrand Donnadieu, had left the north of France for teaching positions in the French colony. The death of her father when she and her brothers were young resulted in her mother's decision to farm a government land grant to support her family. Duras, whose pen name was inspired by a village in southwestern France where she spent part of her early childhood, has chronicled the feisty determination of her petite but domineering mother in many of her works. She paints an especially potent portrait in Un Barrage contre le Pacifique, in which the mother's force of character is rendered as justifiable anger against the corrupt colonial government which bilked her of her fortune by selling her a worthless piece of land. Duras's bitter attack against colonial injustice persists as a thematic thread in her works such as Le Vice-Consul and India Song and bespeaks a hatred of exclusion, exploitation, and misuse of power, whether it be political or sexual, public or private.

Duras's attempt to come to terms with her family, but especially with her mother, surfaces repeatedly in her interviews and in her fiction. The mother's continued support of Duras's philandering older brother is the subject of Des Journées entières dans les arbres. In both the stage and film versions, Madeleine Renaud created a memorable role. Renaud also played Duras's mother in L'Eden Cinéma (1977), a stage rendition of Un Barrage contre le Pacifique in which Duras recounts evenings spent in the movie house where her mother worked as a piano player to supplement her meager income. Descriptions of the mother testify to her presence as a strident "mother courage": "Mère de tous. Mère de tout. Criante. Hurlante. Dure. Terrible. Invivable" (Mother of all. Mother of everything. Screaming. Howling. Terrible. Impossible to live with). Acclaimed critically as a study in exquisite melancholy, the play's rhythm was compared to that of a silent film. Duras's love of the cinema as well as her depiction of young female protagonists as passively engaged in erotic activity probably springs from her early acquaintance with the medium and its portrayal of the reigning female sexual fantasies of the time.

In L'Amant, the narrator says that she is finally free to talk about her mother and brothers now that they are dead. Duras's beloved younger brother was her constant companion during the carefree childhood days spent "under the trees" in Pnompenh, Sadek, and Vinh Long. He appears in the fiction, often as an older brother, such as Jacques in Les Impudents (The Shameless, 1943), Nicolas in La Vie tranquille (The Tranquil Life, 1944), and Joseph in Un Barrage contre le Pacifique. Of her real-life older brother, who left Indochina early for schooling in France, Duras has left the unflattering portrait of Jacques in Des Journées entières dans les arbres . The irresponsible young man gambled away the family heritage but always remained the preferred child of the mother, a circumstance which, as Duras has revealed in interviews, constituted a wound that would haunt her in both her life and fiction. In an excoriating passage in L'Amant she accuses her older brother of having been the "assassin" of the younger, who died of pneumonia at age twenty-two because of the unavailability of medication during World War II. The reappearing character of an adored but feared and hated sibling in the early novels is probably a composite portrait of both of her brothers. Agatha, an incestuous dialogue between an older brother and sister, published in 1981, is an example of this ambivalence.

Duras took her baccalauréat in Saigon in both Vietnamese and French and in 1931 left for Paris where she earned a licence in law and political science in 1935. While working as a secretary for the Ministère des Colonies from 1935 to 1941, she met and married Robert Antelme, an active member of the French Communist party and author of L'Espèce humaine (The Human Species, 1947). Duras, too, was a member of the Party and participated actively in political life, especially during the Resistance movement, when she became friends with François Mitterand. It was during the war that she began to write fiction. Although her first manuscript, "La Famille Taneran," was rejected for publication in 1941, she was encouraged by Raymond Queneau to continue writing. Duras later met Dionys Mascolo, a fellow Communist and a philosopher, with whom she had a son, Jean. In "La Douleur," the autobiographical text which is the title work of a collection published in 1985 (translated as The War: A Memoir , 1986), she recounts the story of Antelme's return from a prisoner-of-war camp with the help of Mitterand. Duras's attentive care of the emaciated, corpselike figure whom she nursed back to life was all the more poignant in that the couple proceeded with an already agreed-upon divorce soon after, in 1946. In 1950 Duras was one of a number of intellectuals ousted from the French Communist party. As a result of this experience and the Parisian student-worker revolution of May 1968, she proclaimed her rejection of all ideology as well as of bourgeois values and social conventions. The spirit of May '68 in its quest for egalitarianism and liberation from authority is expressed in Détruire, dit-elle (1969; translated as Destroy, She Said, 1970) and in the Duras-directed film of the same title (1969), as well as in Abahn, Sabana, David (1970).

Duras has addressed social issues in her journalistic writing for newspapers and magazines as diverse as France-ObservateurVogueLibération, and L'Autre Journal. In 1963 she achieved notoriety for her exposé of the Ben Barka affair during the Algerian war. Most of her journalistic work has been collected and published in Outside (1981; translated, 1986) and L'Eté '80 (Summer '80, 1981). In the latter, a collection of articles which she wrote at the request of Libération editor Serge July, passages of fiction and lyrical description alternate with startlingly vivid and moving accounts of the Polish labor strikes in Gdansk led by Lech Walesa of Solidarity. In an earlier article in Libération , "Sublime, forcément sublime" (Sublime, Necessarily Sublime, 17 July 1985), Duras took up the defense of accused criminal Christine Villemin by writing an unsettling fictionalized account of her case, thereby creating a stir over judicial procedure. A member of the editorial board of L'Autre Journal, she conducted for the liberal magazine a series of interviews with François Mitterand prior to the 1988 elections.

Duras's stance on feminism and feminist writing has been sporadically active and political, as seen in her writings for the French periodical Sorcières and in her interviews with Xavière Gauthier collected in Les Parleuses (1974; translated as Woman to Woman, 1987). For the most part, however, Duras has not espoused a consistent political position concerning the French feminist movement, which has been factious since the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (Woman's Liberation Movement) was founded in 1970. She influences French feminism through example rather than pronouncement. In Marguerite Duras: Writing on the Body (1987), Sharon Willis details Duras's essentialist view of femininity, especially as regards a particular "economy" of writing. In Les Parleuses and in an interview in the American feminist journal Signs, Duras spoke of a specifically feminine mode of writing. She affirmed in an interview with Michelle Porte, published in Les Lieux de Marguerite Duras (The Places of Marguerite Duras, 1977), that women write from desire, a posture which she maintained is fundamentally different from that of male writing. Elsewhere, Duras has spoken of her writing as a response to an inner music and, in the novel Emily L. (1987), as a response to fear.

Duras's cinematic work is at one with her novelistic vision of counterpoint, fragmentation, highly charged eroticism, and errant desire. Before the publication of L'Amant, she was probably best known in the United States for her deeply moving film script for Alain Resnais's film Hiroshima mon amour , which stunned the public at the Cannes Film Festival in 1959. The story of a public and private tragedy, intertwined and played out in remembering and forgetting, conferred an almost musical quality on the film which scandalized some moviegoers for what was perceived to be a diminishing of Hiroshima's tragedy. In her own filmmaking, Duras has favored low-budget movies, in part as a protest against the glibness of commercialized cinema. She created a controversy when she made Le Camion (The Truck) in four days and then entered it in the Cannes Film Festival in 1977. Although her films have had limited popular success, she is supported by a faithful coterie of stars, including Michaël Lonsdale, Delphine Seyrig, and Gérard Depardieu; technicians, such as the photographer Bruno Nuytten; and the composer Carlos d'Alessio, who wrote the haunting tango music of India Song. India Song, by its radical separation of the image and sound tracks, is a landmark of cinematography for which she won a special prize at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival.

Duras has long enjoyed the support of the Compagnie Renaud-Barrault and several of her plays, including Des Journées entières dans les arbres (produced, 1965; published, 1966; translated as Days in the Trees, 1967), L'Amante anglaise (produced and published, 1968; translated, 1975), and L'Eden Cinéma (produced and published, 1977) were part of the company's repertory at the Odéon, the former Théâtre d'Orsay, and the Théâtre du Rond-Point. Claude Régy's imaginative direction of Madeleine Renaud, Michaël Lonsdale, Bulle Ogier, and Catherine Sellers led to memorable performances. Other plays have been staged by the Lucernaire theater group and at the Théâtre Marie Stuart. Duras has also collaborated on stage adaptations of two of Henry James's stories. "The Aspern Papers" and "The Beast in the Jungle," and written as well an adaptation of Strindberg's Dance of Death. In 1983 she was awarded the Grand Prix du Théâtre de l'Académie Française.

Duras's life--and probably her fiction--have been marked by her near-fatal alcoholism. Indeed, the narrator of L'Amant refers to alcohol as having played a God-like role in her life: "L'alcool a rempli la fonction que Dieu n'a pas eue, il a eu aussi celle de me tuer, de tuer" (Alcohol filled the function that God did not in my life, and it also functioned to kill me, to kill). The ravaged face of the narrator in L'Amant, like Duras's own, bears testimony to her disease. In the fiction, heavy drinking is a characteristic of the earlier protagonists, a trait which certain critics attributed to the then prevalent influence on French writers of Hemingway and the so-called American-style novel. Maria in Dix Heures et demie du soir en été drinks to deny that her husband is unfaithful to her with her best friend. Both the French actress in Hiroshima mon amour and Anne and Chauvin in the 1958 novel Moderato Cantabile (translated, 1960) drink to forget so that, paradoxically, they can remember and re-create an impossible love situation. Drinking in Le Marin de Gibraltar and the 1953 novel Les Petits Chevaux de Tarquinia (translated as The Little Horses of Tarquinia, 1960) makes reality more hospitable to characters' illusions. Duras's own bout with alcoholism has been graphically related by Yann Andréa, her faithful companion since 1980, in M.D. (1983), a book that, by its perfect resonance with Duras's own prose, reveals stylistically the symbiotic bond between the two. M.D. recounts Duras's torments in 1982 while undergoing treatment for alcoholism at the American Hospital in Paris. Duras herself has written of this painful but miraculous turning point in her life in La Vie matérielle (Material Life, 1987). In that series of textes dits (spoken texts) to Jérôme Beaujour, in which Duras discusses her life and her fiction, she recalls meeting Andréa at the seaside resort of Trouville. Since that time, he has been at her side and is the subject of L'Homme atlantique (The Atlantic Man), her 1981 film, published as a récit in 1982. He is also the probable referent for the male companion of the older female narrator in Emily L. In La Vie matérielle Duras discloses that she has forsaken her sixth-arrondissement Parisian dwelling for her apartment at Trouville where she spends most of her time. She also maintains a country home at Neauphle-le-Château which is featured in photographs in Michelle Porte's Les Lieux de Marguerite Duras.

It is clear that the intertwining of Duras's life experiences with those of her protagonists is a hallmark of her fiction. The zigzag narrative style of L'Amant is characteristic of the Durassian corpus as a whole. In L'Amant the narrator darts back and forth from the past to the present following the meanderings of memory and refers to herself both in the autobiographical first-person as well as in the more impersonal and fictional third-person narration. The refusal to occupy a fixed place or space and the anxious search for wholeness or identity as the motivating force of desire are equated with the task of writing the text in Duras's work. While certain themes persist--remembering, forgetting, desiring, and crossing boundaries--the stylistic and generic rendition of these themes varies. Fragments of past "texts," both fictional and actually experienced, reappear as if remembered, or relived, in more recent works. Duras seems to have found her particular voice in the late 1950s, in Moderato Cantabile and most especially in Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein (1964; translated as The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein, 1967). Influenced perhaps by the New Novelists, with whom she was associated but from whom she distinguished herself by her lyrical style (Alain Robbe-Grillet is said to have called her the "Edith Piaf of the nouveau roman"), Duras progressively pared her texts down to all but the essential elements of her story of sustained desire, so as to emulate better her themes. L'Amant exemplifies this technique in that it is a "lightened" version of Un Barrage contre le Pacifique which, stripped of its epic sweep, reorchestrates poetically a past affective moment, the sensuousness and futility of a fifteen-year-old's desire. The music of memory and desire is sustained in these repetitions, and both writer and reader are left with the intangible reality of what Duras has called in her résumé of India Song "une histoire d'amour immobilisée dans la culminance de la passion" (a story of love immobilized in the culminating moment of passion). Far from a reduction of her story of desire, the Durassian rephrasings in counterpoint accentuate the complexities and contradictions of a universal memory of an impossible love, or wholeness, which she delivers to the reader. Our task is to rewrite the story, transporting it to new narrative regions, as she indicated in the introduction to India Song "de faire basculer le récit dans l'oubli pour le laisser à la disposition d'autres mémoires que celles de l'auteur" (to topple the story into oblivion so as to leave it at the disposition of other memories different from those of the author). In effect, Duras creates a gap of desire, memory, and meaning which is bridged through the medium of her writing and the reader's reading of her writing, which she sees in La Vie matérielle as "écriture flottante ... ces aller-et-retour entre moi et moi, entre vous et moi dans ce temps qui nous est commun" (floating writing ... these round trips between myself and myself, between you and me in this time which we share).

The swing between self and other, reader and writer, past and present is an intangible that Duras aims to conjure up for her reader, and it explains the questioning of borders that her work explores thematically, structurally, and compositionally. For example, characters are often confused, such as Alissa and Elisabeth in Détruire, dit-elle . The narrator of Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, Jacques Hold, abdicates narrative responsibility halfway through the text and admits to inventing the story of a woman whose very sense of self is built on a void. Interrogations of genre abound. Oftentimes, Duras's titles bear indications of how one is to read them. India Song is subtitled texte-théâtre-film. Duras referred to Moderato Cantabile as a poem and to La Vie matérielle as textes dits, or rewritten conversations. The 1976 film Son Nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (Her Name of Venice in Deserted Calcutta) employs the same sound track as India Song with different images, those of a deserted chateau. In Le Camion, Duras and Depardieu are filmed reading the script of a movie called Le Camion, a work which "might have been," in alternation with footage of the film itself. The boundaries of fiction and reality are stretched in all of Duras's works but especially in L'AmantLa Vie matérielle, and Emily L., which is the only one of the three she chose to designate as a novel. As Duras continually weaves and unravels her story for the reader, she spins an invisible thread of memory and desire at the borders and in the gaps of traditional narrative modes. Thus, the Durassian fictional thrust is progressively transgressive and the gradual breakdown in character psychology, narrative structures, and genre leads to the "free circulation of desires" which Xavière Gauthier posits as the point of convergence of the works.

A brief overview of the fiction confirms this trajectory. The early novels, Les ImpudentsLa Vie tranquille, and Un Barrage contre le Pacifique , portray young heroines in search of male companions to complete their boring, empty lives. Passive and lethargic, these women have not yet experienced the passionate love which will mark later protagonists who mourn melancholically the loss of such loves. Maud, Françou, and Suzanne are dominated by a brother and/or mother, and the plot revolves around their attempts to extricate themselves from family control. The suffocation and ennui of the settings of these novels recur, especially in Les Petits Chevaux de Tarquinia, where marital life is rendered in its quotidian monotony, as well as in L'Après-midi de Monsieur Andesmas (1962; translated as The Afternoon of Monsieur Andesmas, 1964), where the loneliness of the aged male protagonist is juxtaposed with the gaiety of a village dance in the valley below, where his granddaughter is having an affair with a married man.

With Le Marin de Gibraltar , a slightly different fictional prototype develops. Anna's exotic travels on her yacht in search of a former lover, the sailor of the title, signal the futility of her task. In fact the very existence of the sailor is questioned by the strategies of the text. Her vagabondage and obsessive drinking in a torpid Mediterranean climate accentuate the void at the heart of her quest. This lack must be filled by the continual retelling of the tale of the sailor from Gibraltar. Echoes of Anna's travels and the self-conscious text reappear in Duras's script for Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour in which a French actress, in Japan to make a film about World War II, journeys mentally to her past in occupied France where she fell in love with a German soldier. The confusion of a past illicit love with a present one--her affair with a married Japanese architect--in a city that is a constant reminder of a tragic past situates the film's élan in the transgressive meanderings of memory and desire. In Dix Heures et demie du soir en été , infidelity and quest are rendered in a more fragmented, rhythmic style. The story of Maria, who is caught in a triangular situation with her unfaithful husband Pierre, is marked by free indirect discourse and scenic fragmentation so as to orchestrate allusively the perturbations of its protagonist. Maria's fugue with a criminal in a city besieged by violent storms is Duras's indirect affirmation of the destructive nature of love.

Infidelity, triangles, and musical motifs recur in Moderato Cantabile , which has been variously described as the "x-ray of a depression" (by Julia Kristeva in a 1987 PMLA article) and "Madame Bovary rewritten by Bela Bartok" (Claude Roy, in the afterword to the 1958 Minuit edition). This work portrays another illicit relationship, albeit a verbal one. Anne Desbaresdes, the wife of a local industrialist, and Chauvin, one of his workers, become enamored of one another after witnessing a crime of passion in which a deranged husband kills his unfaithful wife. They meet for a week in the café near the scene of the crime to try to understand the motivation for such an act. Their re-creation of the tale as mutual seduction in an increasingly alcohol-blurred vision takes place against the backdrop of a weekly piano lesson. During the lesson, Anne's child refuses to render the Diabelli sonatina comme il faut, that is, moderato cantabile. The musical motif which furnishes the book with its title also informs its structure. The moderato principle (marital fidelity, bourgeois social conventions, objective narration) is played off the cantabile (passionate love, criminal madness, subjective vision) in a stylized evocation of emotional transport. As in Hiroshima mon amour, death and love merge in a powerful but masterfully controlled narrative of Eros's dark underside. The contrapuntal technique which had already emerged in Dix Heures et demie du soir en été is perfected in Moderato Cantabile, where characters' motives, incidents of plot, and bits of dialogue and decor are repeated in carefully orchestrated fragments. The self-consciousness of the couple's rewriting of the crime is a comment on the writing and reading of the text.

With Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein begins the "saga" of what has come to be known as the India Cycle, comprising, in addition to Le Ravissement de Lol V. SteinLe Vice-ConsulL'Amour (1971), the text La Femme du Gange (Woman of the Ganges) and the film of the same title (both 1973), and the film Son Nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert. Duras's adolescent experiences anchor the story of desire in reverberation and repetition throughout these texts and films but with a thematic and stylistic minimalism which accentuates a central affective experience. The repetition of selected detail, the continued breakdown of discursive style, and a blurring in characterization and scenery create a hallucinatory erotic effect. Duras has said of Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein that, unlike Moderato Cantabile, which she considered a finished product, the story of Lol is still in the process of being written, spilling out from generic borders to be evoked simultaneously in film and text. Although the theatrical version of India Song was never produced, the hybrid genre form is significant of a narrative break that comes to define Duras's project.

The title of Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, like that of Moderato Cantabile, highlights the conflictual elements at play in the novel both thematically and structurally. Ravissement, or ravishing, suggests simultaneously a physical and emotional state, ecstasy and rape. The heroine of this story totters on the edge of annihilation, for she is nothing but the memory of a past episode in which she was figuratively voided. At the Municipal Casino of T. Beach in S. Thala, Lol V. Stein is forsaken by her fiancé for a seductive, older woman, Anne-Marie Stretter. Her identity is thus crystallized in "lack," a fact echoed by the mysterious sonority of the setting S. Thala (es-tu là? [are you there?]. Like other Durassian protagonists, Lol can (re)live passionate desires only by being the excluded element in a romantic triangle. The triangular mediation of desire which serves as catalyst for the plot is underscored by the novel's tripartite division. However, what appears to be an ordered text is upset by the narrator's intrusion halfway into the novel to proclaim that he is simply inventing Lol's story, thereby voiding any verisimilitude. Identity of protagonist and text is questioned in this work where typographical indications such as unfinished sentences and blank spaces riddle the novel with holes and constitute its grounding in lack. Lol vainly seeks "le mottrou" (the word-hole) which would allow her to express the pain of her existence, and it is precisely this word that the narrator Jacques Hold cannot hold or make whole.

In the same way that Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein echoes faintly the triangular affairs, characters, and settings of previous novels such as Le Marin de GibraltarDix Heures et demie du soir en étéModerato Cantabile, and so forth, Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein is itself echoed or distilled temporally, psychologically, and linguistically in L'Amour, an allegorical rendition of the Durassian triangle of desire, published in 1971. The anonymous characters in this text mime a ballet of desire on a beach, in effect remembering, reliving, and rewriting Lol's ravishing at the ball which frames the 1964 novel. Metaphor is concretized in this ravaged version of the Durassian story where the reader confronts a devastated world: daylight becomes the intense light of fire accompanied by sirens, cries of alarm, and black smoke, all of which signify a thematic and textual paroxysm of memory's return to a past, personal destruction. Emotional breakdown is conveyed indirectly by the contestation or destruction of textual coherency. The title of L'Amour is ironic in that the absence of love is necessary to sustain the act of desiring that the book performs in its open-ended, elliptical style. As in Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, both text and female protagonist are anchored in a sustained negation.

The character of Anne-Marie Stretter, who served merely to reinforce Lol's alienation or exclusion in Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, emerges as a central Durassian figure in an earlier novel of the India Cycle, Le Vice-Consul. The wife of the French ambassador to Calcutta, she is sought after by colonial society for her charm and beauty but remains aloof, almost indifferent to those around her. Stretter is modeled on a woman who left a lasting impression on Duras during her childhood in Indochina. A quiet, unassuming wife and mother, Elizabeth Striedter was rumored to have caused the suicide of a young lover which occasioned her move to Vinh Long, where Duras was living at the time. In various interviews, Duras has spoken of her shock in learning that such an apparently ordinary woman could hold the sway of death over another. Emblematic of a feminine silence that is mortal, Striedter/Stretter became the focus of a Freudian primal scene for Duras which eventually propelled her to write. In La Vie matérielle, Duras defines this shocking new awareness--of the power of death shrouded in the silence of certain women--as a "connaissance interdite." Because this "forbidden knowledge" did not correspond to the young Duras's social and moral universe, it was blocked verbally and emotionally from understanding, whence Duras's need to find a "vocable qui dirait que, très clairement, on sait ne pas comprendre ce qu'il y a à comprendre" (a word which would very clearly say that one knows how not to understand what there is to be understood).

The inability to understand and the search for a word--Lol's mot-trou--to express an affective and verbal insufficiency is at the heart of the Stretter character, who embodies in her very vagueness the Durassian protagonist anchored in a melancholic search. Her encounter with the vice-consul of the title is one of complicity and desire. The latter shot at a pack of lepers in the Shalimar gardens and has been consequently condemned to social and professional exile, not for the heinous nature of his crime but rather for the lack of apparent motivation behind it. Both Stretter and the vice-consul are gripped by an inexplicable and ineffable need to rebel against lack, public and personal. In India, their individual and social distress finds its counterpart in the hunger and poverty of Calcutta's needy. Unable to express their awareness of pain, suffering, and exile, they communicate nonverbally in a "dance of desire" at the embassy reception which, given the vice-consul's condemnation, is viewed by the guests as a scandalous transgression of accepted social custom. An inarticulate protestation resounds also in the vice-consul's cry of despair when he is rebuffed by Stretter. His plaintive wail, which flays the soundtrack of India Song, is emblematic of the cri de l'écriture (the cry of writing) as protest against the unbearable.

Juxtaposed with the story of Anne-Marie Stretter and the vice-consul in this novel is another tale of famished desire, that of the mendiante, a young beggar woman, crazed and pregnant, who wanders through the forests in search of a metaphoric food which would satisfy her hunger. Like the vice-consul she cannot articulate her desire by communicating with others but can only repeat a nonsensical word, Battambang. The cry of the beggar woman and the vice-consul, together with the latter's dance with Stretter which is itself mirrored by the anxious march of the beggar woman, embody the desire to know, to be (w)hole, and to conclude that propels the writing of this text. The presence of a narrator, Peter Morgan, who avows the difficulty of his task, that is, to write something about which he knows nothing, or the beggar woman's story, further emphasizes the impossibility of writing the whole/hole story and showcases writing as desire.

Duras's dissection of the thematics of writing is further explored in the texte-thèâtre-filmIndia Song by her accentuation of the discontinuous. In separating the visual from the verbal in the film, she opens up the story to its universal implications. India Song is a reduplication of Le Vice-Consul but with the characters projected into new narrative regions. As Duras explained in an interview, the reader/viewer is invited to a new place, one which is not only described by new narrative strategies but is also the experience of a radically different narration. In the film, Stretter, played by Delphine Seyrig, moves silently and languorously through the rooms of the embassy surrounded by her faithful lovers, who glide after her in phantom like fashion. Simultaneously, four narrative voices in voice-over comment on Stretter's story, on other stories of impossible love, and on directives for staging/filming the story. Mingled with these narrative blurbs are disembodied voices of guests and gossipers at the reception and snatches of tango and blues music, the Diabelli Variations, and so forth. Visual and auditory clues suggest that Stretter has already committed suicide and thus indicate that the story being told in the film/text is a flashback. The external voices amplify the memory of Stretter's life by recalling others who have succumbed to desire. Past and present are mingled in a modulation of memories and desires where the music in the text becomes a music of the text grounded in an absent, yet ever-present, death. The reader/viewer experiences this sustaining of fragmentation and recomposition in the immediacy of its expression, and this unusual film experience prompted one critic to exhort the French moviegoer to leave his/her "Cartesianism" in the cloak-room.

With India Song, Duras elaborated most successfully her themes of remembering and desiring conflated as writing, in a musical and visual reverberation of the India Cycle texts together with fragments of preceding novels. In the film Son Nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert, Duras used the exact sound track of India Song while the camera panned the abandoned, ruined set of the latter so as to distill further her story into a musical evocation or memory of a film that was itself a memory.

Other works develop thematic concerns touched upon in this cycle. In L'Amante anglaise , the novel and play, for example, the implications of a female character's madness in the enactment of a macabre crime are left up to readers and/or spectators who are delivered evidence in the form of fragments of taped interviews with the accused. Thus the reader/spectator assumes the role of a jury member who must reconstitute both the crime and the motives behind it. That the crime consisted of dismembering a corpse and shipping the body fragments in several freight cars throughout France only underlines ironically and in a somewhat grotesque manner the reader's task--to put together the story and to uncover the motives--as well as the impossibility of that task since, at the end of the tale, the corpse's head has still not been located. Further heightening the disconcerting nature of the plot is the fact that it is based on an actual crime. The drama was first staged at the Théâtre National Populaire in 1968 by Madeleine Renaud and was revived in 1970 when it became a stock play in the Compagnie Renaud-Barrault's repertory.

The loss or absence of the missing word/head that would piece together a body and a text, thereby restoring identity and making sense out of apparent madness, is a familiar Durassian motif. It acts to play off one term against another in oppositions such as madness-reason, absence-presence, forgetting-remembering, silence-speech and, in Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, hole/whole. In keeping with this ongoing sustaining of reversals, texts such as La Maladie de la mort (1982; translated as The Malady of Death, 1986) and L'Homme assis dans le couloir (1980; translated as The Seated Man in the Passage, 1983) sound the sadistic violence of erotic passion and the undercurrent of death present in love. Together with some of the short stories collected in La Douleur, they investigate the relationship of sex, power, and need. Duras's use of the vous form in La Maladie de la mort, as well as in L'Homme atlantique, continues to implicate her reader, seeming to suggest that conflicting emotions are human and that every heroic or affirming action is capable of being reversed. By blurring boundaries between contradictories and within identities or categories, Duras trangresses thematically and textually black-and-white ways of thinking. L'Homme atlantique is a static moving picture about a film that "will be" made. La Maladie de la mort could equally well be entitled "La Maladie de l'amour," as Maurice Blanchot has indicated in his La Communauté inavouable (The Unavowable Community, 1983): "Ainsi revient la duplicité du mot mort, de cette maladie de la mort qui désignerait tantôt l'amour empêché, tantôt le pur mouvement d'aimer l'un et l'autre appelant l'abîme ..." (Thus returns the duplicity of the dead word/of the word dead, of this malady of death which at times would designate thwarted love, at other times, the pure movement of loving, each of them summoning the abyss...).

The political implications of collapsing categories in the interplay of desire and violence, love and death, redemption and guilt, inflicting and receiving pain is brought home in La Douleur , a collection of six texts set in France at the end of World War II. Duras's pretense of having found the manuscript in a drawer where it sat for forty years is perhaps most interesting for the dimension of verisimilitude that it seeks to convey. Intending perhaps to plunge her reader into the actuality of the past, Duras's narrator tells of her anxious grief in awaiting the return of her husband, Robert L., from a prisoner-of-war camp. She loyally nurses him back to life with the support of D., the man whose child she would bear and for whom she wants to divorce Robert L. To anyone familiar with the author's life, Duras, her first husband Robert Antelme, and Dionys Mascolo are thinly disguised in this récit. As Francine du Plessix Gray commented (New York Times Book Review, 4 May 1986), "the sorrow of waiting becomes encrusted" in this spare prose which contains an outpouring of indignation at the sight of so many private and public tragedies. Outrage, loss, and the redemptive powers of love are so skillfully written here that, quite simply, the word ècrit (writing/the written) does not apply, as Duras accurately indicates in the preface. The final cameo of the restored near-victim of Dachau smiling at his wife after having lost her to another man, his sister to the Nazis, and much of his physical strength is a compelling portrait of the regeneration after death that defined the times. Yet, in this very same collection there are three texts, also autobiographical, in which Duras questions heroic action and redemption. In "Monsieur X., dit ici Pierre Rabier" (Mr. X, here called Pierre Rabier) she relates her involvement in a compromising situation with a Gestapo agent whom, in a postwar trial, she testifies both for and against. "Albert des Capitales" (Albert of the Capitals) and "Ter le milicien" (Ter the Militiaman) concern the brutal torture of Nazi informers in which Duras and other members of the Resistance were involved. In the preface to "Monsieur X," which she claims is founded on fact, Duras offers us these stories in "doubt," hoping to describe the dual-edged nature of any sanction and the swiftness with which victim can become victimizer.

In 1986 Duras published Les Yeux bleus cheveux noirs (translated as Blue Eyes, Black Hair , 1988), which was an attempt to rewrite La Maladie de la mort, as she herself indicated in La Vie matérielle . A description, at times crude, of a prostitute and a homosexual caught in the impossibility of their love, Les Yeux bleus cheveux noirs is an investigation of sexual difference, not only between male and female but also and especially of the homosexual nature of the heterosexual male. The direct, clipped style is cut through with interventions of a character called the actor. He plays a choruslike role and imagines a dramatization of what the love affair of this anonymous couple "would be like" if enacted on stage. Impotency rendered potent or possible through the imagination of art is an important theme in this self-conscious text which, like La Maladie de la mort, engages the reader (through the interruptions of the actor) in a voyeuristic obsession reminiscent of scenes in Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein.

More "joyous" a work, published in the same year, La Vie matérielle is a patchwork of digressive essays sprinkled with sagesse and humor in which Duras expresses her thoughts on a variety of topics, running the gamut from shopping lists to alcoholism. This range of subjects prompted Philippe Aubert (Monde, 7 October 1987) to qualify the work as "l'irruption surréaliste de l'Ajax et du Nescafé dans la cosmogonie de Marguerite Duras" (the surrealistic eruption of Ajax and Nescafé into the cosmogony of Marguerite Duras). At first glance an inconsequential work written to amuse and "pass the time," La Vie matérielle renders nonetheless a Durassian vision of the world where something is nothing, the material is intangible, and the impossible is seen as possible. Duras playfully engages the reader in this work which falls between the cracks of traditional genre classification in its blend of journalism, fiction, and autobiography.

Emily L. is the most recent of Duras's texts but one in which she picks up the threads of her preceding works and theme preoccupations in her ongoing story of paradox and (im)possibility. In part a rewriting of Le Marin de Gibraltar, in part a reinscription of the colonial experience of her youth, this novel is a meditation on the fear at the heart of writing and loving in their rapport with otherness, the other. Set in Normandy, Emily L. is a tale-within-a-tale, and each plays off or mirrors the other. The female narrator and her male companion, indubitably Duras and Yann Andréa, recount and "invent" the story of Emily L. and the Captain while simultaneously reflecting on their own impossible love affair. The fear which governs both stories is identified by the narrator as the silent underside of reason, what she calls the "congenial madness" of a reclusive self reaching out to the otherness of reason. Self-conscious statements about the fear of writing and about the fear of loving bathe this text in a generalized anxiety in which borders between writing and loving, concluding and dying, self and other, autobiography and fiction are suspended. Echoes of L'Amant and Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein are manifest in the theme of an absence which generates the text. Just as L'Amant springs from an absent photo which, had it been taken, "would have captured" the past, likewise, in Emily L., an absent poem--one written by Emily L. and destroyed by the Captain--"would have told" the story of the fear and exclusion at the heart of writing and loving. Like Lol and Anne-Marie Stretter, the mendiante and the vice-consul before them, Emily L. and the female narrator each experience the uneasiness of not seeing or not knowing, the connaissance interdite which Madame Striedter symbolized for Duras who incarnated her in Anne-Marie Stretter.

It is difficult to conclude a study of an author who has continually expressed the inability to conclude and is indeed still engaged in writing. From the earliest novels to the most recent, the trajectory of Duras's fictional enterprise remains firmly entrenched in desire--the desire to know how to understand and express that which continually slips away from human understanding, what Julia Kristeva has so accurately characterized as the "whiteness of meaning" at the heart of Duras's rhetoric. It is this impulse which informs the Durassian corpus and has established Marguerite Duras as a powerful and memorable voice in twentieth-century French fiction.


From: Murphy, Carol J. "Marguerite Duras.French Novelists Since 1960, edited by Catharine Savage Brosman, Gale, 1989. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 83. 


  • Further Reading
    • Marguerite Duras, translated by Edith Cohen and Peter Connor (San Francisco: City Lights, 1987).
    • Xavière Gauthier, Les Parleuses (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1974); translated by Katharine A. Jensen as Woman to Woman (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1987).
    • Susan Husserl-Kapit, "An Interview with Marguerite Duras," Signs: Journal of Women and Culture in Society, 1 (Winter 1975): 423-434.
    • Michelle Porte, Les Lieux de Marguerite Duras (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1977).
    • Alain Vircondelet. Duras: Biographie (Paris: Editions F. Bourin, 1991); translated by Thomas Buckley as Duras: A Biography (Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive, 1994).
    • Sanford S. Ames, ed., Remains to be Seen: Essays on Marguerite Duras (New York: Peter Lang, 1988).
    • Yann Andréa, M.D. (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1983).
    • Arc, special issue on Duras, 98 (1985).
    • Maurice Blanchot, La Communauté inavouable (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1983), pp. 51-93.
    • Cahiers de la Compagnie Madeleine Renaud-Jean-Louis Barrault, special issues on Duras, no. 52 (December 1965); no. 89 (October 1979); no. 106 (September 1983).
    • Alfred Cismaru, Marguerite Duras (New York: Twayne, 1971).
    • Susan D. Cohen, Women and Discourse in the Fiction of Marguerite Duras: Love, Legends, Language (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993).
    • Laurie Corbin, The Mother Mirror: Self-Representation and the Mother-Daughter Relation in Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, and Marguerite Duras (New York: P. Lang, 1996).
    • Mechthild Cranston, ed., In Language and in Love, Marguerite Duras: The Unspeakable; Essays for Marguerite Duras (Potomac, Md.: Scripta Humanistica, 1992).
    • Deborah N. Glassman, Marguerite Duras: Fascinating Vision and Narrative Cure (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press/London & Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Press, 1991).
    • Yvonne Guers-Villate, Continuité/Discontinuité de l'oelig;uvre durassienne (Brussels: Editions de l'Université de Bruxelles, 1985).
    • Leslie Hill, Marguerite Duras: Apocalyptic Desires (London & New York: Routlege, 1993).
    • Carol Hofmann, Forgetting and Marguerite Duras (Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1991).
    • Karen Kaivola, All Contraries Confounded: the Lyrical Fiction of Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, and Marguerite Duras (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991).
    • Lucy Stone McNeece, Art and Politics in Duras' "India Cycle" (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996).
    • Julia Kristeva, "The Pain of Sorrow in the Modern World: The Works of Marguerite Duras," PMLA, 102 (March 1987): 138-152.
    • Suzanne Lamy and André Roy, Marguerite Duras à Montréal (Montreal: Editions Spirale, 1981).
    • Marcelle Marini, Territoires du féminin avec Marguerite Duras (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1977).
    • Michèle Montrelay, L'Ombre et le nom sur la féminité (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1977).
    • Carol J. Murphy, Alienation and Absence in the Novels of Marguerite Duras (Lexington, Ky.: French Forum Monographs, 1982).
    • Jean Pierrot, Marguerite Duras (Paris: José Corti, 1986).
    • Rencontre des "Cahiers Renaud-Barrault" avec Marguerite Duras, Madeleine Renaud, Jean-Louis Barrault, Claude Régy, les spectateurs et les comédiens de la compagnie, Cahiers de la Compagnie Renaud-Barrault, no. 91 (September 1976).
    • Revue des Sciences Humaines, special issue on Duras, 202 (April-June 1986).
    • Raylene L. Ramsey, The French New Autobiographies: Sarraute, Duras, and Robbe-Grillet (Gainesville, University Press of Florida, 1996).
    • Marilyn R. Schuster, Marguerite Duras Revisited (New York: Twayne, 1993).
    • Trista Selous, The Other Woman: Feminism and Femininity in the Work of Marguerite Duras (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).
    • Jean-Luc Seylaz, Les Romans de Marguerite Duras (Paris: Minard, 1963).
    • Eleanor Honig Skoller, The In-Between of Writing; Experience and Experiment in Drabble, Duras, and Arendt (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993).
    • Raynalle Udris, Welcome Unreason: A Study of "Madness" in the Novels of Marguerite Duras (Amsterdam & Atlanta: Rodopi, 1993).
    • Alain Vircondelet, Marguerite Duras ou le temps de détruire (Paris: Seghers, 1972).
    • Sharon Willis, Marguerite Duras: Writing on the Body (Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987).