Marguerite Duras? Outrageous, simply outrageous.
She was self-dramatizing, self-promoting and self-destructive, both as artist and individual, yet no account of French literature or cinema or theatre would be complete without her.
In her seventies Duras continued to pour down alcohol as though water, liters in a day of cheap Bordeaux, and with one foot in the grave and no one listening to her as a writer, she created the semi-fictional account of her youth in French Indochina, The Lover (1984), that, according to Edmund White, “sold a million copies in forty-three languages and became the inspiration for a major commercial movie.
A unique French lady (not quite the word), Duras continues to demand our attention, alongside repulsion and fascination. Threading between reality and fantasy, riddled with controversy, we want to read what she wrote, we want to know everything about who she was, what she really did.
Throughout her Ã…€œuvre, Marguerite Duras made mention of the treasured “notebooks she kept tucked away in an armoire in her country home.
The War Notebooks, as the author herself named them, are comprised of four small exercise notebooks she kept between 1943 and 1949. They tell quite a story, one not entirely known even to friends or those who have studied Duras in France and beyond.
These notebooks were among her personal papers deposited in 1995 at the Institut de la MÃƒÂ©moire de l’Edition Contemporaine (IMEC). First published ten years after the author’s death, the texts are considered a literary treasure, as they contain early drafts of several of Duras’s extraordinary first novels.
While the bulk of the notebooks focus on the Second World War and its aftermath (including scenes of French Resistance members who torture a Gestapo informant, as well as descriptions of the pitiful state of Duras’s husband on his return from a concentration camp), the opening text recounts the author’s childhood and adolescence as an impoverished French colonist in Indochina during the 1920s and 1930s.
Many kept notebooks and journals during World War II years. In some ways, Wartime Writings is reminiscent of the texts of the so-called “new novelists (such as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Sarraute) who emerged in France during the post-war period.
In his revolutionary 1963 essay entitled “For a New Novel, Robbe-Grillet called for literary creation liberated from metaphor, freed from message; he argued that through lucid description of what is, reader and author could become co-creators of meaning.
His novels are replete with obsessively repeated images, coolly examined from multiple vantage points.
Throughout her War Notebooks, Duras stares violence in the face, unflinchingly examines several brutal scenes. Awaiting her husband’s return from the war, for example, the narrator repeatedly visualizes his crumpled body in a ditch, shot dead by German soldiers.
In the repetition of this image, it becomes difficult (for both reader and narrator) to disentangle reality and imagination. Similar stark photographic style, shows several images of Duras’s adolescence detaching themselves as though a series of snapshots; such is the vision of the fourteen year-old child in the raw silk dress and the apple-green straw hat parading through town on Sunday afternoons, for example.
Like the nearly photographic images that emerge from the texts of Robbe-Grillet, Duras’s are raw in their violence: we witness the elder brother beating his sister (“a moment would come when I believed my brother was going to kill me, and my anger would give way to fear that my head would come off my body and roll along the ground); we hear the strikes that gradually split the skin of the tortured informant (“she hears the thudding blows and thinks that in a man’s body there are protective layers that are hard to split open).
The author renders these descriptions in cold, clear, and lucid prose. She delivers them without pity, without judgment. But where this implacable gaze in the case of Robbe-Grillet, for example, becomes voyeuristic, even criminal (his novel Le Voyeur forces the reader to peer through the eyes of a child rapist), Duras’s penetrating gaze is most frequently turned upon little other than herself.
The narrator looks deeply at the child she was, the madness within the family home, where mother and brother both beat and insult her, and where she is pushed to prostitute herself to a wealthy Annamese man to relieve the family’s abject poverty.
She unaffectedly describes her self at fourteen, despised by teachers and peers alike. In particular, she describes the utter, the complete isolation of the young girl who refuses to participate in Sunday walks with the rest of her boarding school cohorts, venturing out instead on her own: “I set out to walk along the street with the air of a girl who knows where she’s going… Well, once outside, I stiffened up and walked so bizarrely that people were looking at me. As she defiantly paces the streets, the narrator becomes increasingly conscious of the bizarre image she projects: the young girl in the silk dress and the straw hat, resembling either “a little girl or a little whore.
Fighting rising panic at her own unbearable presence, she dives into a cinema where she can dissolve into the dark. The movie has yet to begin, however, and with little money in her purse, the girl can only afford one of the front seats “taken only by the ‘Ëœscum’ of the city:
I had to walk the length of the theater watched by everyone in the orchestra. Alone. Because no one escorted the patrons down front to their seats… I did not flinch. I walked down the aisle. The crossing of that theater by my public persona took place in the profound silence my public entrance had provoked. I remember that I no longer remembered how to walk… Everything danced before my eyes, and I found myself in a truly advanced state of unreality. I had bonded deeply with shame. I was a walking shame. I was simply ridiculous.
Yet the young girl in the cinema refuses to flinch before the public that gawks at her.
She carries her shame and suffering, acknowledging it in her very posture, in her physical being. Likewise does the author refuse to flinch as she recounts the ferociously painful details of the wartime experiences Duras has lived, uncompromisingly narrating the scandalous events.
Other particularly painful passages contained in the notebooks describe the homecoming of Robert, the narrator’s husband, following the Liberation.
Although alive, barely, he is nearly unrecognizable, beyond emaciation. The narrator chronicles three weeks of Robert’s mounting fever, his inability to swallow even a teaspoon of gruel, the death that rumbles through his body even as his organs struggle feebly to survive.
She becomes obsessively focused on the trail the gruel winds through Robert’s entrails, as he fights for life. With liquid clarity, she describes the fulminating passage of the food he is unable to digest from his body.
She dares her reader to follow her into the sickening hell she has described: “Those who wince at this very moment, reading this, those whom it nauseates – I s*** on them… I wish that kind of devastation on them.
Duras dares her reader to face her truth unflinchingly, as unflinchingly as the child in the straw hat had passed before the crowd in the movie theater.
What emerges from the pain of Duras’s prose is a gritty, pulsating, visceral life force. This is what rivets her to Robert as he heals:
I used to watch him… that was an unforgettable sight, the spectacle of blind life. Of life scorned, crushed, humiliated, spat upon, beaten, a life supposedly mortally wounded at its route, and then there in the deepest density of the body, a trickle of life still ran, the withered tree isn’t dead: at its foot, a bud.
She compares this overwhelming sense to that she experienced for another lover she had feared dead:
I was experiencing a kind of cosmic moment, a sort of ascesis, if you will, in which nothing of life could reach me anymore save the very idea of life, and not its earthly manifestations. That’s how I knew, once I’d had that experience because of him, that I was attached to him, at my core. Not that I loved him… No: that I was attached to him¦
It is the same sense of physical, visceral attachment – a force beyond love – that binds her to the child who dies at birth, having lived “only in the dark, viscous, and velvety warmth of my flesh… So small and already so much… In the sheer, unvarnished pain quivers palpating human life.
Wartime Writings is not a text for the faint-hearted.
It is a brutal read, the scenes of the adolescent prostituted by her family as excruciatingly difficult to bear as that of the torture of the informant, or that of the starved prisoner of war fighting to feed his wasted body to the point of survival. The frigid, resolute, and implacable gaze of the narrator spares nothing – not even (and especially not) herself.
Speaking of her brother and the violence he inflicted upon her, the narrator claims: “I refrain from passing judgment… I ask not for indulgence, but for a reprieve from all morality. This is the author’s invitation to her reader.
She dares us to refrain from judgment, in order to follow her gaze over every contour, every crevice of her life experiences.
It may be the reader’s tendency to shrink away in the face of horror, to avert one’s eyes rather than to look. Indeed, this struggle is mirrored within the text, as the character of ThÃƒÂ©odora, while commanding the torture of the Gestapo informant, attempts to stare starkly upon the suffering man.
Yet she feels the judgment of others closing around her, hears the murmurs of those who protest she has gone too far; try as she may to convince herself her actions are necessary, she wants to cry as the her comrades turn their back.
“What we want is for you to tell us the truth, ThÃƒÂ©odora barks at the snitch. And this is what Duras herself would do through her Wartime Writings, etch all her ungainly and unseemly truths, as she dares us to look on.]]>