Marguerite Duras / The translated life by Carmen Callil
THE TRANSLATED LIFE
by Marguerite Duras, translated by Linda Coverdale
336pp, Maclehose Press, pounds 19.99
From the fevered world of intellectual literary criticism the French writer Marguerite Duras (1914-96) has suffered much. Her clear, minimalist prose, stating and restating experience and feeling - desire, suffering, fear, passion, fury - is often akin to the writing of Harold Pinter. Like Pinter, Duras was a playwright and film-maker, best known perhaps for her script for Alain Resnais's 1959 milestone of French cinema, Hiroshima Mon Amour. Elliptical always, her difference is that into the pauses, into what is not said in a Pinter play, Duras places staccato words and dialogue, sometimes repeated time and time again, a kind of echo chamber of what goes on in the minds of most human beings as they contemplate daily life. This latter point makes her immensely easy to read: she writes audaciously about childhood, about sex, love and war, about the human heart in extremis - all the great, and popular themes.
Complication sets in because Duras's near-destitute childhood in the colonial towns and coastal paddyfields of French Indochina set her on a path of intense suffering, living at such a pitch in her life and in her works that even the contemplation of a dustbin and its importance in the lives of a community of apartment dwellers seems to take on an obsessive and incantatory importance. This sensibility has made her prime fodder for theoretical investigation, in the course of which her accessibility as a writer has been mightily obscured. For this reason the publication of her Wartime Notebooks, written between 1943 and 1949, before she had published her first novel, is a marvellous introduction to what is best in her writing.
Although there are pieces in the Notebooks you can read nowhere else, all the ideas, themes and stories that were to make her famous begin here, as does that tightrope of anguish and eroticism that marks the Durasian universe - at once shocking, mischievous and heart-breaking. The most remarkable is the first, the Pink notebook. Here is Duras's earliest account of her savage childhood in Indochina and, while still an adolescent, of her affair - almost a sale into prostitution by her mother - with a rich, socially unacceptable Chinese lover. Forty years later this became her most celebrated novel, The Lover, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1984 and became an international bestseller.
Duras wrote memoir-fiction - her own life was the basis of all her creations, worked and reworked again and again. Truth is indecipherable amid so much invention. Nevertheless, in the Pink notebook, the original version of her brutal family life gives off a fierce stench of reality that the more romantic The Lover does not have.
"Since I was the smallest of her children and the easiest to control, I was the one Mama beat the most . . . I always agreed with Mama's reasons for beating me but not with her methods. The use of the stick I found radically shocking and unaesthetic; the blows on the head, dangerous . . . the slaps that marked my cheeks were my despair . . . " For Leo, her Chinese lover, would notice them and "would never approve of Mama's attitude towards me, while I agreed with her completely, and could not have tolerated anyone criticising her ..." In the page that follows, Duras calmly dissects the more vicious beatings and verbal abuse which were her elder brother's contribution to her implacable memories and to "the true taste of my youth . . . the raw, vivid angers of my fifteenth year . . . I will never feel again no matter what anyone says to me".
But she was to feel again, and these Notebooks show how she interlocked fact and fiction, and how transfigured experience was the cornerstone of all her work. The other three notebooks include startling accounts of her activities, often questionable, during the war in France and in the Resistance, her participation in the trial of French collaborators at the liberation, then the return from Dachau of her husband, the French communist and philosopher Robert Antelme. These war stories, a rare mixture of rage and anguish, in 1985 became La Douleur ( The War ), which contains one of the most excruciating descriptions extant of the skeletal, almost transparent human bodies who returned from the German death camps.
Duras kept these Wartime Notebooks, carefully so named, in a brown envelope in a chest of drawers. They were first published in 2006 in France and, except for the irritating "guys" and "gottens" ever present in American versions, this is a fine translation, edited well. The title refers to the time of writing, not to the war itself, and so this rich volume contains many other crucial episodes of her life: the loss of her first, still-born son, notable for hair-raising dialogues with the Reverend Mother of the hospital about the burning of her dead baby. Here too is her engagement with communism and the Communist party, her menage a trois with husband and lover immediately after the war, some short stories, the cafe and concierge life of Saint-Germain-des-Pres.
Duras's Notebooks, then, are not so much the beginnings of all her best fiction as distinguished works in their own right, written for herself, almost to see what she could do with the material of her own life before she presented what she chose to the outside world. In that lies their fascination: foundation stories of a writing life as fresh, as original and as mesmerising as on the day they were written.
· Carmen Callil's Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland is published by Vintage.