BORN: 1914, Saigon, French Indochina
DIED: 1996, Paris, France
GENRE: Fiction, drama
The Sea Wall (1950)
The Sailor from Gibraltar (1952)
The Ravishing of Lol Stein (1964)
The Lover (1984)
The North China Lover (1991)
Marguerite Duras. Duras, Marguerite, 1955, photograph. Lipnitzki / Roger Viollet / Getty Images.
One of the most important literary figures in France, Marguerite Duras won international acclaim after she was awarded the 1984 Prix Goncourt for her autobiographical novel The Lover. Although Duras had been writing fiction and directing films for over forty years, she was always considered a rather inaccessible author by the general public. The publication of The Lover sparked interest in all her work, which was quickly republished to meet the overwhelming demand. Featured in numerous interviews on television and in popular magazines in France, Duras became something of a national literary phenomenon.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Childhood in Indochina. Duras was born Marguerite Donnadieu on April 4, 1914, near Saigon (present-day Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, then known as French indochina, where her parents had moved to teach school. Following the death of her father when Duras was four years old, her mother spent the family’s savings on a rice plantation, hoping the venture would prove viable enough to support her and her three young children. Unfortunately, the colonial officials who sold her the plantation were dishonest, the land was virtually worthless because of recurring flooding from the sea, and Duras’s mother found herself broke and trying to raise her family far from home. The family’s troubles in Indochina form the backdrop for many of Duras’s novels. In particular, her most famous novel, The Lover, is based heavily on her own experiences as a young woman coming of age in French Indochina.
A French Resistor. Despite the family’s poverty, Duras was able to study Vietnamese and French in the prestigious Lycee de Saigon. At the age of seventeen, Duras left for France and eventually earned a licence in law and political science at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. She worked as a secretary for the Ministry of Colonial Affairs until 1941, when World War II arrived at France’s borders. At that time, France was invaded by German forces, resulting in the German occupation of much of France, with the rest of the country remaining ‘‘free’’ under a provisional government approved by the Germans and based in the city of Vichy. Duras became a member of the French Resistance who opposed the German occupation, working with Francois Mitterrand. She became a member of the French Communist Party, one of the main supporters of the French Resistance. In 1946 she divorced her first husband, Robert Antelme, whom she had married in 1939. She later married Dionys Mascolo, with whom she had a son, Jean. She published her first novel, Les Impudents, in 1943 and went on to publish more than seventy novels, plays, screenplays, and adaptations in her lifetime.
She was later dismissed from the French Communist Party in 1950 along with a number of other French intellectuals for ideological differences. Many who joined the party during World War II did so to show their opposition to Nazi Germany as well as their support of workers’ rights. However, after World War II, communism became closely associated with Joseph Stalin’s dictatorial rule of the Soviet Union; Stalin’s regime was notable less for the ruler’s establishment of workers’ rights than for his frequent use of imprisonment and murder against those who disagreed with his policies. This stigmatization of communism, especially in the United States, led to trouble between Duras and American officials over a travel visa in 1969. Duras, wishing to attend a New York Film Festival showing of her Detruire, dit-elle, had to prove to officials her adherence to anticommunist principles. Duras was also an apologist for the student uprisings in Paris in 1968 and a supporter of French president Francois Mitterrand during the 1980s.
In her later life, she lived with a young homosexual writer, Yann Andrea Steiner. In 1984, while recovering from alcoholism in a treatment center, Duras wrote The Lover, for which she won the Prix Goncourt in 1984. In poor health as a result of her lifelong alcoholism, she died on March 3, 1996, in Paris.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Duras's famous contemporaries include:
Samuel Beckett (1906-1989): English dramatist and poet, Beckett's work straddles the line between modernist and postmodernist. His minimalist plays formed the keystone of what came to be called the ''Theater of the Absurd.''
Robert Musil (1880-1942): Austrian author of the same generation as Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka, Musil never received the same recognition as his peers despite being greatly admired by them. His unfinished masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities, would be recognized after his death as one of the most important modernist novels.
Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964): Major figure in the Indian independence movement, close associate of Mohandas Gandhi, Nehru was named the first prime minister of India after the country won its independence in 1947.
Helene Cixous (1937—): French feminist writer, poet, critic, and philosopher, Cixous also wrote extensively on the relationship between sexuality and language, most famously in her 1975 essay ''The Laugh of the Medusa.''
Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970): French general, leader of the Free French during World War II, and founder of the French Fifth Republic in 1958, for which he served as its first president until 1969.
Works in Literary Context
Duras’s work has spanned many genres and styles, but the emotional intensity and themes of love, solitude, desire, and despair remain constant throughout. Commentators on Duras’s work often divide her literary career into four periods. The novels from her first period have been described as her most realistic and conventional. Her most significant novel from this period, The Sea Wall (1950), is set in Indochina and reflects the author’s interest in both East Asian culture and issues of social injustice and oppression. Like many of her acclaimed novels, the book is loosely based on an incident that occurred in Duras’s childhood.
Focus on the Individual. The works from Duras’s second period are marked by a shift from linear plots and abrupt, obscure dialogue to a more personal and ironic idiom. The primary works from this period—The Sailor from Gibraltar (1952) and The Little Horses of Tarquinia (1953)—are considered more concentrated than Duras’s previous novels because they focus on fewer characters, events, and relationships. The Sailor from Gibraltar concerns a woman who travels on her yacht throughout the Mediterranean in search of her former lover. Duras suggests that the protagonist’s persistence gives meaning to her otherwise empty life. The Little Horses of Tarquinia similarly reflects Duras’s increasing interest in individual characters and their varying moods and emotions.
The Antinovel. Duras’s third literary cycle includes works often described as antinovels, in which she employs minimalist techniques to accent particular experiences or emotions. The Ravishing of Lol Stein (1964), for instance, describes a woman’s descent into madness after being rejected by her fiance. Considered an antinovel because of its stark narrative, unreliable narrator, and fragmentary contrast and insights, The Ravishing ofLol Stein has also been described as an investigation into human consciousness. The Vice-Consul, considered the last of Duras’s antinovels, simultaneously focuses on a young Asian girl who is abandoned by her mother after becoming pregnant and a government official who becomes involved in the glamorous diplomatic life of Calcutta, India.
Inability to Love. Duras’s fourth and most eclectic literary period is evidenced in such novels as The Malady of Death (1982), The Lover, and The North China Lover. The Malady of Death is a minimalist account of an asexual man who pays a prostitute to live with him for a week and addresses his overwhelming sense of isolation and inability to love. Emily L. (1987), another novel from this period, also addresses how one’s inability to love can lead to self-destruction.
Autobiography. Often considered a revised version of The Sea Wall, The Lover explores more completely Duras’s childhood experiences in French Indochina and her debilitating relationships with her overbearing mother and indolent brothers. While The Lover is recognizably autobiographical, Duras focuses on the recollection of events and their emotional significance rather than on the events themselves, thus creating a complex structure that conveys the illusion of simplicity. In 1985, Duras published The War: A Memoir (1985), a collection of six narratives believed to have been written during World War II and forgotten for forty years. In the title story, Duras recounts her experiences with the French Liberation Movement during the war. She also describes the mental agony she endured while waiting for her husband, Robert Antelme, to return from a German concentration camp. The North China Lover, which began as a screenplay for Jean-Jacques Annaud’s adaptation of her novel The Lover, tells the same story as the novel but in a very different style and tone. In addition, Duras provides cinematic directions—how a scene could be shot, what kind of actress should play a role—creating a work that is part novel, part screenplay. The publication of The North China Lover is in large part due to the disagreements between Duras and Annaud over the script for The Lover.
Regarding the relationship between her fiction and her life, Duras is quoted by writer Alan Riding as explaining: ‘‘Even when my books are completely invented, even when I think they have come from elsewhere, they are always personal.’’ Speaking of how a writer should approach his work, Duras states: ‘‘You shouldn’t have a subject. You have to go into the forest; you shouldn’t be afraid, and it comes, all alone; stories of love, of foolishness, they come on their own, as if you were walking like a blind man before they arrived.’’
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Duras's life as well as her fiction have been marked by the author's alcoholism. The following works also deal with alcoholism:
John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs (1913), a novel by Jack London. This novel is widely recognized as being the first intelligent literary treatise on alcohol in American literature.
The Lost Weekend (1944), a novel by Charles Jackson. In this novel, the author tackles the demons and obsessions that challenge the alcoholic.
Days of Wine and Roses (1962), a film by Blake Edwards. This story of an alcoholic man who draws his wife into his hard-drinking lifestyle received five Academy Award nominations.
Works in Critical Context
Critical commentary on Duras’s work has focused on several major themes. These include the relationship between love and self-destruction, the metaphysics of boredom and inactivity, and the pain of solitude and despair. As Germaine Bree has observed: ‘‘The very title of [The Sea Wall] suggests a dogged, unequal battle against a superhuman force. This was to remain one of Duras’s basic themes: barrage against the immense solitude of human beings, barrage against the pain of all involvements, barrage against despair.’’
The North China Lover. Scholars have also noted Duras’s movement away from the realism of her early novels to the minimalist techniques and focus on emotional experience of her later works. Considered one of her most abstract and impressionistic works, The ViceConsul, notes Alfred Cismaru, contains ‘‘standard [antinovel] devices: unfinished sentences, subconversations, hidden allusions ... [and] mysterious and unexplained situations.’’ At the time of its publication, many critics argued that The Lover was Duras’s most effective synthesis of her themes and minimalist style. With the publication of The North China Lover, however, many critics argued that the latter was the better of the two closely related novels. In The North China Lover, Duras writes in the third person, a technique she uses to distance her characters from the reader, instead of switching between first and third person as she did in The Lover. While the second novel is more explicit and shocking, critics believe it is more humane, lyrical, and compelling.
Responses to Literature
1. Duras was one of several French feminist playwrights active during the latter part of the twentieth century. Research another of these writers (Helene Cixous, Monique Wittig, or Nathalie Sarraute) and analyze their style in comparison to Duras. What qualities make them feminist writers? How did their feminist views differ from each other?
2. In addition to her plays, Duras worked in cinema as both a screenwriter and director. Watch one of the films she worked on (Hiroshima, Mon Amour or India Song) and compare it to its literary source. How did Duras adapt the film? What changes did she make to the material? Do you feel the essential story remained the same?
3. What role does Duras’s experience in the French colonies play in her writing? How does she represent colonial subjects in works such as India Song and The Lover?
4. One of Duras’s recurring themes is the body. How does she portray the body in her writing? Is it a positive or negative object? What larger themes does the body represent?
Ames, Sanford S., ed. Remains to Be Seen: Essays on Marguerite Duras. New York: Peter Lang, 1988.
Beauclair, Michelle. In Death’s Wake: Mourning in the Works of Albert Camus and Marguerite Duras. New York: P. Lang, 1996.
Blot-Labarrere, Christiane. Marguerite Duras. Paris: Seuil, 1994.
Cohen, Susan D. Women and Discourse in the Fiction of Marguerite Duras: Love, Legends, Language. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.
Cranston, Mechthild, ed. In Language and in Love, Marguerite Duras: The Unspeakable: Essays for Marguerite Duras. Potomac, Md.: Scripta Humanistica, 1992.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 83: French Novelists Since 1960. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book, edited by Catharine Savage Brosman, Tulane University. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Research, 1989.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 321: Twentieth-Century French Dramatists. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book, edited by Mary Anne O’Neil, Whitman College. Farminington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2006.
Hacht, Anne Marie, ed. ‘‘India Song.’’ In Drama for Students., Vol. 21. Detroit: Gale, 2005.
Harvey, Robert, and Helene Volat. Marguerite Duras: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Murphy, Carol J. Alienation and Absence in the Novels of Marguerite Duras. Lexington, Ky.: French Forum Monographs, 1982.
Selous, Trista. The Other Woman: Feminism and Femininity in the Work ofMarguerite Duras. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.