DECEMBER 11, 2019
READING MARGUERITE DURAS reminds me, in many ways, of reading Joan Didion. Though I have read several works by each author — memoirs, essays, and novels — I never feel confident when describing their work to others and often feel the need to reread compulsively to familiarize myself with their rhythms. Both seem to share a core aloofness — I mean this as a great compliment — in that, though the writer may speak in the first person, it is not to establish closeness with the actual person who writes. Rather, their aloofness is a provocation: why, when writing of our lives, should there be any necessity to reveal some central truth about ourselves?
This notion is distinctly gendered: women writing about events from their lives are almost always said to be “exposing” themselves in some way — or, as Rachel Sykes, lecturer in American Literature at the University of Birmingham, has shown, they are called “oversharers.” To write about our lives is not necessarily an act of intimacy, though it can be made to be. For Duras as for Didion, writing about the self is a way of addressing one possible subject among many others.
In the case of Duras, she kept returning to her own life because she found it interesting to talk about. As she puts it in an essay about her mother: “[S]he is not the main hero of my body of work, nor the most permanent. No, I am the most permanent.” To assert oneself as the central “hero” is to remind readers of the originating force of one’s writing; it is a matter of staking out authority. As Rachel Kushner explains in an introduction to a recent reprint of Duras’s 1984 novel The Lover, “Duras was consumed with herself, true enough, but almost as if under a spell. Certain people experience their own lives very strongly.” This “strong” experience, and the impulse to record it, is also a testament to the centrality of writing — in essence, writing was Duras’s life. This preoccupation may seem self-centered, but surely, if one spends so much time alone, engaged in a necessarily solitary process, one must become one’s own constant companion.
Dorothy, a publishing project’s new collection of Duras’s work, Me & Other Writings, encompasses pieces of varying lengths and subjects, from brief thoughts on translation, to shrewd articles on politics and political figures, to the strange and profound essay “Summer 80,” which defies description. Both Dan Gunn, in his introduction, and Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan, in their translators’ afterword, write of the difficulty Duras’s work poses. Gunn notes that her writing is made up of “often uncertain referents […] mixing of registers […] comma-splices [and] stream of a consciousness that is constantly straining towards an ideal of unconsciousness.” For Baes and Ramadan, the difficulty is found in the intensity of her writing, which is hard to capture in translation, and what they see as her quest to transport the reader into immersive realms. All of Duras’s work — films, novels, essays — displays a distinctive rhythm to which one must become acclimatized in order to get to the core. But, for Duras, the difficulty she seems to prize is part of the very process of writing itself: “There’s no writing when there’s no difficulty or else it’s worthless, it’s school kid writing.” In her view, writer and reader are jointly involved in the strenuous process of giving life to prose.
This struggle is not geared to produce perfection; in fact, Duras was suspicious of writing that was overly smooth. In many of the essays included here, she shifts topics without warning; in the opening piece “Flaubert Is…,” for example, she moves from a consideration of Flaubert’s writing, to comments about her own film work, to meditations on the legacy of the Holocaust. It is as if she has removed the essay’s framing. “Summer 80” gathers a series of articles produced for the journal Libération during the titular season; it includes commentary on the Moscow Olympics, the Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan, the funeral of the Shah of Iran, and the Gdańsk shipyard strike. As the translators remark in their afterword, this piece signals a shift to what is generally seen as Duras’s more overtly autofictional work, such as The Lover, which chronicles her teenage affair with an older Asian man. But, as is shown in her moving 1976 essay “The Horror of Such a Love,” in which she writes lucidly of the experience of giving birth to a stillborn son, this question of writing the self had already begun to transform Duras’s work. “I hadn’t had a child,” she comments simply, “not even for an hour.”
Duras is drawn to difficult and dark events, whether in her own life or other people’s. Included in this collection is her essay “Horror at Choisy-le-Roi,” an examination of a crime that rocked France in 1958, wherein a doctor’s mistress, Simone Deschamps, stabbed the man’s wife to death at his bidding. While Duras doesn’t shy away from the gruesomeness of the case, her analysis focuses on the judicial process during the trial, especially the way the language of the law rendered the accused incapable of speech. “Simone Deschamps has nothing more to say,” Duras writes, “because the judicial system forces her to tell us in its own language.” The supposed impartiality of the process is revealed as a fabrication: the judge, the lawyers, and even the audience have already made up their minds about someone they perceive as unattractive, perverted, and evil. Deschamps’s repeated statement “I’ll explain nothing” recalls the indifference and resignation of Melville’s Bartleby, who “preferred not to.” As Duras writes, “We can’t explain darkness, of course, but we can still define it, leave to the darkness its due share.”
In the words of Victoria Best, a perceptive academic critic of the author’s work, Duras’s “special territory was the account of a disturbing relationship, or the shocking, unexpected expression of the violence that always lurks behind even respectable façades.” Violence, like the sea that also obsessed her, seems to surround us everywhere. Such a preoccupation is perhaps unsurprising given the facts of Duras’s biography: her difficult childhood in colonial Southeast Asia, her perilous experience in the French Resistance, and her husband’s harrowing internment in Buchenwald. But Duras also found writing itself frightening and fraught with violence: “You compete with God. You dare to create. You write. Going against creation, you write. You do your own thing. You. It’s completely terrifying.” Duras returns to this idea again and again in this collection, stating in one essay: “The most important experience you can have is to write. I have never had another experience so violent — except, yes, the birth of my child. In fact, I can’t discern a difference between the two. Writing is wholly equivalent to life.”
Katie Da Cunha Lewin is a writer and tutor based in London. She writes on literature, culture, and film and can be found in the Irish Times, The White Review, and the Times Literary Supplement, among others.