Marguerite Duras / The power and glory of a passionate woman
The power and glory
of a passionate woman
Marguerite Duras's Wartime Notebooks are haunted by her childhood, says Olivia Laing
by Olivia Laing
The Observer, Sunday 20 January 2008
by Marguerite Duras, translated by Linda Coverdale
MacLehose Press £19.99, pp336
In the first draft of what would later become 'Madame Dodin', French novelist and film-maker Marguerite Duras breaks off her narrative with the admonishment: 'Do not involve myself.' It's advice she made a career out of disregarding, for her work is always rooted in her own experience. But there is nothing self-regarding or indulgent about her practice of embedding her life within her fictions. Whatever Duras's gaze alights upon - the squalor of her childhood, the death of her son, the return of her husband from Dachau - she regards with a pitiless objectivity.
The four exercise books that make up this collection were written between 1943 and 1949, at the very beginning of Duras's career. Wartime Notebooks is a bricolage of previously unpublished first drafts, reportage and autobiographical essays, written in a voice that is already recognisably Durasian, by turns ardent, raging, sensual and embittered. What it most strikingly reveals is the process by which she transformed life into art. Childhood experience eddies into novels, the first person dissolves into the third and the catharsis of confession gives way to the cool, dissecting scrutiny of the professional story-maker.
Her childhood in Indochina is more than a preoccupation: it is an obsession that she would return to until the very end of her life. 'I don't want to explain anything to myself,' she writes here. 'Even so, that childhood plagues me and follows my life like a shadow. It holds me not through its charm, for it has none in my eyes, but, on the contrary, through its strangeness. It has never moulded my life. It has been secret and solitary - fiercely locked away, buried within itself for a very long time.'
Anticipating the misery memoir by five decades, Duras recounts her upbringing on a failing rice plantation on the Cambodian coast. She was regularly beaten by her mother and elder brother before beginning an affair with a wealthy Chinese man that verged on forced prostitution. 'Once Leo began giving me some money, my brother's insults acquired a fresh nuance. From "crab louse", I passed to the status of "tart", "bit on the side" and "bitch who sleeps with natives". My mother, speaking of this aspect of my relations with Leo, would say, "It's a dreadful misfortune." Still, 50 piastres - why let them go to waste?' What elevates her account beyond the merely voyeuristic is the purity of her writing; the hypnotic, compelling voice of Hiroshima Mon Amour is already in evidence here.
The ability, so hard-won, to stare suffering in the face finds its fullest expression in the writing that directly addresses the war. Duras's husband, writer and publisher Robert Antelme, was arrested for Resistance activities in 1944 and transported to Buchenwald and later to Dachau. Like war photographer Lee Miller, Duras's reportage is marked by a cold and terrible fury. The diary in which she describes the weeks of waiting for Robert to come home is written in a stuttering torrent of words. 'Ever since Eisenhower was sickened by Buchenwald, three million women and I don't give a fuck how the war turns out. In a ditch, face turned towards the earth, legs bent, arms flung out, he's dying. I see. Everything. He starved to death.' It is almost unbearable to read of the long, despairing vigil before Robert was found and brought home, a walking skeleton, by François Mitterrand. To have lived through it must have been at the limits of human endurance.
Even the most inchoate of stories in this collection is pervaded by that same intensity of vision, the essential honesty that was Duras's greatest gift. In the years that followed the war, she went on to publish more than 30 novels and plays, the last written only six months before she died in 1996. But the material contained in this well-edited and annotated volume is the wellspring from which her later work was drawn. As such, it serves as a portal to a dreamlike, savage world, in which the great themes of love, war and death found their most recklessly impassioned chronicler.