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Trail: MargueriteDuras




The writer Marguerite Duras died in Paris, on March 3, 1996. Throughout her life and to her dying breath, this astonishing woman never ceased to ascend the steps of national and international fame. Undoubtedly, she owed her success to her obstinacy to be and remain herself, come what may and at whatever cost to her own person.

One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place, a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: “I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.

Those are the opening lines of The Lover, the novel which, in 1984, brought Marguerite Duras not only the Goncourt, France’s most famous literary award, but also a print run of almost three million copies, translations into some forty languages and an enormous world-wide success, magnified by the film subsequently directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Hers was, indeed, an astonishing face, as astonishing as her life story, from the young woman’s sensual and disturbing elegance during the years between the wars to the sarcastic pout and reptilian gaze of the sacred contemporary monster, with provocative eyes glaring from behind her thick glasses.

“Between eighteen and twenty five,” she wrote, “my face took off in a new direction. My ageing was very sudden. I saw it spread over my features one by one... And I’ve kept it ever since, the new face I had then. It has been my face. It’s got older still, ofcourse, but less, comparatively, than it would otherwise have done. It’s scored with deep, dry wrinkles, the skin is cracked. But my face hasn’t collapsed... It has kept the same contours, but its substance has been laid waste. I have a face laid waste”...

Love, life and death

Destruction. A key word when it comes to Marguerite Duras, who uses her novels, her plays and her films to study herself in as many mirrors; she identifies herself with her work to the point that she no longer knows what is autobiographical fact and what is fiction. Love, life and death Like all her characters, the author suffers the ruthless law of destruction, but her own vitality and her talent are such that, in them, she taps into perennial springs of rapture.

Extraordinary Marguerite Duras! She was born at Gia Dinh, in Indochina, in the suburbs of Saigon, in 1914, a few weeks before the outbreak of the First World War. Her father, Henri Donnadieu (a surname she did not like and for which she substituted the name of a village in the south-west of France from where her family on her father’s side originated) taught mathematics and made a career for himself in Tonkin, Cochin-China and in Cambodia. When he was repatriated to France for health reasons (where he died still a young man), his wife, Marie Legrand, born on a farm in Picardy, decided to stay in Indochina with her two sons and her little Marguerite, aged four.

Here, then, is the key figure in the life and work of Marguerite Duras: the Mother figure. The mother figure in The Sea Wall (1950) can be found thirty years later in The Lover, always the same, plain-spoken, courageous and obstinate to the point of absurdity in her choices and her prejudices; loved and hated, respected and denigrated all at once: “The daughter of country folk, she had been so good at school that her parents had allowed her to study on to her higher school certificate,” writes Duras. “After that, she had become a school-mistress in a village in northern France. That was in 1899. On certain Sundays, at the mairie, she would stand day-dreaming in front of the colonial propaganda posters “To all you young people, go to the colonies, where a fortune awaits you.” In the shade of a banana tree sagging under the weight of its fruit, a colonial couple, dressed all in white, swung to and fro in a rocking chair while natives all around them busily went about their business, smiling. She married a school-master who, like her, was dying of impatience in a northern village; like her, he too had fallen prey to the mysterious writings of Pierre Loti.”1. »

Now a widow, her mother taught French and played the piano at a cinema to pay for her children’s education, until she sought a concession of land in Cambodia with the aim of developing it. But, too naive to see the corruption of the administration and to understand that there could not be any worthwhile concessions without under-the-counter dealings, she lost all her savings and went bankrupt trying in vain to build dams to protect her rice paddies against the annual encroachment of the sea.

To write, against all odds

Duras set about her writing with the same determination and obstinacy as her mother’s with her plantations in Indochina and, later, in France, with wine-growing and cattle farming. But with less naivety and, more importantly, with a lot more success. There is no denying that the temperament and burning passion for life she had inherited from her mother were far better suited to writing novels than to cultivating rice or growing grapes.

This became quite apparent when Duras published her first novel, The Impudents, in 1943, and the following year, La Vie Tranquille, which the writer Raymond Queneau, impressed by the young talent, had published with Gallimard. It became all the more apparent when she published The Sea Wall, in 1950, a shortlisted novel with which she narrowly missed the Prix Goncourt due, by all accounts, to her Communist sympathies. Indeed, Duras, who had arrived in France at the age of eighteen to study, had already been through a great deal: a law degree and a post at the Ministry of Colonies. In 1939, a marriage to the poet Robert Antelme and, in 1942, a still-born child. Paris under the Occupation and the Résistance groups. Her husband arrested along with her sister-in-law, Marie-Laure, who died in deportation. Antelme was to survive and was brought back from Dachau by François Mitterrand, who introduced Marguerite to the Résistance and accompanied the Americans as they freed the camps.

After the Liberation, Duras joined the French Communist Party, which she left in 1950, after the Prague Uprising. She did not publish during that period; instead, she sold copies of L’Humanité, the Communist mouthpiece, and militated on behalf of the Party. She also shared a ménage à trois, with Antelme and Dionys Mascolo. By the age of thirty, in the creative melting pot of the post-war period, Duras was already a star among the Paris intelligentsia and her neighbour at Saint Germain des Prés was none other than Sartre. But it would take another forty years and a good many more wrinkles before she became a leading figure in the world of literature and the cinema.

She was the sort of woman who spared neither herself nor others. The day after her death, the journalist and académicien Bertrand Poirot-Delpech wrote in Le Monde: “When this diminutive character with the large spectacles and a morning-after voice gets involved in the Résistance or in politics, when she believes in Communism only to detest it, when she deals with issues of daily life, she does so with her guts, without restraint, and throws caution to the winds.”

Borders mean nothing to Duras: There are no borders between the demands of the heart, no matter how contradictory. Just as there are none between the whims of the flesh, or between wine and alcohol, whisky in The Sailor from Gibraltar (1952), campari in Little Horses of Tarquinia (1953) and red wine in Moderato cantabile (1958). There are no borders either between the novel, the theatre, the cinema and journalism. When she writes Whole Days in the Trees (1954), she turns it indifferently into a book, a play or a film.

Duras is a master at only one thing: writing, the very special sound words make when she puts them together on paper. Who could ask for more? Everything she feels, she writes, stringing the syllables together as an artist strings his pearls. Her books, like her films, need to be experienced with the ear, more than with the eyes. It comes as no surprise, then, that she should combine Hiroshima and Mon amour2, nor that she should dare to describe as “sublime, necessarily sublime” the murder of a child found drowned in a river in the Vosges mountains - an incident that led to the spilling of much ink during the eighties - and that, on literary rather than legal presumptions, she points at the mother, Christine Vuillemin, as the murderer3.

A many-faceted body of work.

After an autobiographical account still full of realism, in which she tells of her childhood and adolescence in Indochina (The Sea Wall, 1950), Marguerite Duras turned towards seemingly static works in which the characters seek to escape their solitude to give a purpose to their lives through absolute love (The Ravishing of Lol Stein, 1964; The Vice-Consul, 1966), crime or insanity (Moderato cantabile, 1958; L’Amante anglaise, 1967). These heroines, incapable of truly communicating, live “without knowing why” but wait for “something to come out of the world and come to (them)”. Seemingly inane dialogues express this pathetic expectation (Afternoon of Monsieur Andesmas, 1962), suggest “these ambiguous and inextricable situations” (Destroy, She Said, 1969) or tell of characters struck by “an essential and fatal weakness” (The Malady of Death, 1983).

With The Lover (1984) and The North China Lover (1991), the author returns to thirties Indochina to tell equally of the extremes of delight, the pain of death, and of the ever renewed desire to write. Yann Andrea Steiner (1992) is dedicated to her last lover and companion, a young man who shared the final ten years of her life. In all, the body of her work includes some forty novels, a dozen plays and films either written and (or) directed (including India Song, 1975).


1. Pierre Loti (1850-1923): Naval officer and impressionist novelist famous for his accounts of exotic lands.
2. Hiroshima mon amour, a film by Alain Resnais based on a script and dialogues by Marguerite Duras (1959).
3. “Sublime, necessarily sublime” applied to the alleged gesture made by the mother as, according to Duras, she sacrificed her little Grégory.