Marguerite Duras

French Writer and Filmmaker

Marguerite Duras
Marguerite Duras. McKeown/Getty Images

About Marguerite Duras

Known for: novelist, essayist, playwright and scriptwriter, filmmaker

Dates: April 4, 1914 - March 3, 1996
Also Known as: Margaret Duras 

Écrire. Marguerite Duras

On Marguerite Duras' tombstone at Montparnasse Cemetery (Paris, France) there are a small plant, a lot of white pills scattered over her sober gray stone, two flowers and two letters engraved: M. D. Two are also the images that could illustrate the unbridled process of her existence: the evocation of a beautiful girl full of eroticism traveling by ferry along the Mekong River with a felt hat on, her lips in a dark red color, and, just at the other end, a woman with her face and body devastated by alcohol, dressed in a straight skirt and a vest over a turtleneck jumper who, after four detoxification cures, went into a five months coma.

Marguerite Duras leapt in just a moment from the beginning to the end of her life but, in the brief time of that moment, she did what she wanted to do: écrire. To write.

She wrote and she loved what she wrote to the obsession. She herself used to wonder what was that mortal need that had taken her to live in a parallel world to the world of the others and her to exist less and less because everything, her essence, was given to the all-consuming writing. When she was fifteen, she said to her mother that the only thing she wanted to do in her whole life was to narrate and she sincerely wondered what could do with their time the people that didn't write. Because, even her most painful memories were filtered through literature. One of the most heartbreaking statements against Nazism appears in her text La Douleur (P.O.L., 1985) where she describes her impatience when, from the windows of her house at the Rue Saint-Benoît (Paris), she gazes people quietly walking by and she wants to shout out loud that inside that very room there is a man, her husband, who has come back alive from the German concentration camps and he, as his neck is so thin that it could be hold with just one hand, only can eat some clear soup in teaspoons because his stomach would tear with the weight of any other food.

Early Life

Marguerite Donnadieu was born in 1914, April the fourth, next to Saigon, in the French Indochina (what today is South Vietnam) "I cannot think of my childhood without thinking of water. My home town is a town of water", said M.D. She was the first girl out of five brothers, two of them, Pierre and Paul, sons of the wedlock, and the other two, Jean and Jacques, sons of the father and a previous wife who died in Hanoi.

Her father, a math teacher, had to be repatriated to France when she was just four years old because of infectious fevers and he never went back to Indochina. He died after having bought a house next to a small French village called Duras where he wanted to spend next summer with all his family and that would replace in the future his own surname. This death left his family in an impoverished economic situation and they started having financial difficulties. Children grew like vagabonds in the forest, almost acquiring a native look, and all their mother could do was to feed them with European food, brought directly from France. Food that they loathed.

Marie Legrand, Marguerite's mother, fought hard against poverty. She clung to her possessions, to her land that she had to save once and again against the sea and the wind if she wanted something to grow from there. And, meanwhile, she was discovering the strange beauty of that girl, her daughter, that wasn't dressed like the other girls, that had her own personal way of doing things and that could be really fascinating to men. Marguerite Duras met her Chinese lover. To become a rich family started then to be a real obsession. Many years later, the writer declared that money didn't change a thing because she would always keep "a damned mentality of being poor".

For her, poverty at birth was hereditary and everlasting. It had no cure.

Any reader of Un barrage contre le Pacifique (Gallimard, 1950) or of L'amant (Minuit, 1984) will discover that this first data about her biography are already familiar. Because reading Marguerite Duras' books also implies reading her own life. In a real act of literary vivisection, she extracted her own pain, she filtered it through the balsam of writing and then she offered it all to the reader. And this reader had to find out that what he or she was reading was not only the account of the vital subsistence of a woman writer, but also the individual evolution of every character in her books that, at the same time, were a novelistic reflection of what really happened to thousands of human beings throughout the twentieth century.

Marguerite Duras offers us in her books a description of different crucial moments at different places of the world. A description so reliable as that of any good historian, but with a very important matter added: she shows the suffering, hope and compassion of those genuine figures of our history.

Writing Career

Gallimard Publishing Company did not accept her first book, but she kept on writing and when she finished her next novel, Les impudents, she threatened with committing suicide if it wasn't published. In 1943, she joined the Resistance, while her beloved brother Paul, who had remained with their mother in Saigon, died of bronchopneumonia because of the lack of medicines. Pain was unbearable and she showed it in La vie Tranquille (Gallimard, 1944), the book that she was writing at that very moment and that Gallimard published. At last, she received the recognition she was waiting for, bust she couldn't enjoy it because the Gestapo arrested her husband at his sister's apartment at the Rue Dupin. Then, suddenly, M.D. decided not to write again a single line anymore and she didn't published anything till 1950. She, that had threatened everybody with committing suicide if her books weren't published, realized all of a sudden that literature was a trivial little thing compared to the pain of reality.

Literature and reality… Two points hard to be separated one from the other in the works of this writer who traps and devours because her writing oozes wisdom and it is always difficult to relinquish the charm of authenticity.

In 1950 she achieved her first literary success, Un barrage contre le Pacifique and, from that moment, her memorable works were published: Les petits Chevaux de Tarquinia (Gallimard, 1953) where she tells the story of a vacation in Italy, Des journées entières dans les arbres (Gallimard, 1954),Moderato Cantabile (Minuit, 1958), Hiroshima, mon amour (Gallimard, 1960) the later famous film by Alain Resnais, and Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein (Gallimard, 1964), novel with which she reached the top of her creative activity. According to her own words extracted from an interview for the French television, to write Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein was specially complicated: "Writing is always a hard thing to do, but in that occasion I was more frightened than usual: It was the first time after a very long period that I was to write without alcohol and I was afraid of writing something common". Of course, she didn't write something common. She created a character dispossessed of herself who sees at a ball how the person she loves is falling in love with another woman, and it consequently means that she, the main character, suddenly is pushed into the background. M.D. created such a desperate character, and at the same time so adorable, that many years later she, the writer, would declare that she regretted the impossibility of being Lol V. Stein herself. Because she had conceived her, she had written everything about her, she had created her, but she hadn't been Lol and therefore she felt "that mourning because she was never Lol V. Stein".

In her next novel, Le vice-consul (Gallimard, 1965) the main character walks out to the balcony of his house in Lahore and shoots into the air. He doesn't shoot at the passers-by or at the doves. "He shoots at pain, disgrace and at the million of children that were to starve to death in the next four months.""Then came the titles: L'amante anglaise(Gallimard, 1967), L'amour (Gallimard, 1971), L'amant (Minuit, 1984), La Douleur(P.O.L., 1985), Émily L., La vie matérielle

Her captivating way of facing her world and her past is inside every book she wrote. And, when speaking about literature, this is the only thing that matters: books. Those fascinating, splendid and incredible books.

Eight Quotes from Margaret Duras:

  1. Writing is trying to know beforehand what one would write if one wrote, which one never knows until afterward.
  2. You have to be very fond of men. Very, very fond. You have to be very fond of them to love them. Otherwise they're simply unbearable.
  3. Men like women who write. Even though they don't say so. A writer is a foreign country. 
  4. The woman is the home. That's where she used to be, and that's where she still is. You might ask me, What if a man tries to be part of the home -- will the woman let him? I answer yes. Because then he becomes one of the children. 
  5. I see journalists as the manual workers, the laborers of the word. Journalism can only be literature when it is passionate.  
  6. Acting doesn't bring anything to a text. On the contrary, it detracts from it. 
  7. No other human being, no woman, no poem or music, book or painting can replace alcohol in its power to give man the illusion of real creation. 
  8. The best way to fill time is to waste it. 

Bibliography

About Marguerite Duras:

  • Adler, Laure. Marguerite Duras: A Life. Anne-Marie Glasheen, translator.
  • Willis, Sharon. Marguerite Duras: Writing on the Body.

By Marguerite Duras:

  • Four Novels: The Square, Moderato Cantibile, 10:30 on a Summer Night, The Afternoon of Mr. Andesmas. Richard Seaver, translator.

  • Hiroshima Mon Amour. Richard Seaver, translator. Alain Resnais, photographer.

  • India Song. Barbara Bray, translator.

  • Leden Cinema.

  • The Lover. Barbara Bray, translator. Maxine Hong Kingston, introduction.
  • The Malady of Death. Barbara Bray, translator.
  • The Man Sitting in the Corridor.
  • Moderato Cantabile.
  • No More. Richard Howard, translator.
  • The North China Lover. Leigh Hafrey, translator.
  • The Ravishing of Lol Stein. Richard Seaver, translator.
  • The Sailor from Gibraltar. Barbara Bray, translator.
  • The War: A Memoir. Barbara Bray, translator.
  • Whole Days in the Trees.
  • Writing. Mark Polizzotti, translator.
  • Yves Saint Laurent and Fashion Photography. With Yves Saint Laurent.