- Marguerite Duras by Laure Adler
Gallimard, 627 pp, frs 155.00, August 1998, ISBN 2 07 074523 6
- No More by Marguerite Duras
Seven Stories, 203 pp, £10.99, November 1998, ISBN 1 888363 65 7
For twenty years or so – but particularly after she hit the jackpot with her Goncourt Prize and sold a million copies of her most conventional novel, The Lover (1984) – Marguerite Duras was a literary monster. Her personality and the legends about her have fascinated readers of everything from Elle to the Village Voice. Laure Adler’s biography, the best so far, proves that the required period of mourning is over. Duras produced 73 books and about twenty films; her last posthumous work, No More, is currently available in a chi-chi edition and billed as her ‘raucous salutation welcoming death ... a concatenation of words as pure as poetry and as full-throated as a fish-wife’s call.’ ‘I love my gibberish’ (‘mon charabia’), she used to say.
The big question, raised by this vigorous biography, is simple: was Duras’s life her best novel? It began in colonial Indochina, where Henri Donnadieu, her father, died when she was seven, leaving Marguerite, as Adler calls her, at the mercy of her neurotic mother, a tough-minded teacher who haunts her daughter’s life and works. Duras’s novels and plays relentlessly probe the family saga, mixing memory and fabrication, and omitting any reference to her two half-brothers, who have been muscled out of her overcrowded unconscious. Her childhood and precocious adolescence were spent in the petty colonial atmosphere of prewar Indochina, where minor civil servants, poor whites and planters looked down on the ‘natives’ and up to the bigwigs. It may be that Duras was raped when she was four; in any case, sex came into her life early on and it was a nasty business, although Adler refrains from any obvious psychoanalytical interpretations.
From Cambodia the family moved to Cochin China, surviving on Mme Donnadieu’s salary. She wanted passionately to acquire land – a common expatriate aspiration – and to amass savings. Only the first ambition was fulfilled. In the process MD, as she liked to be called in the days of JFK and JJSS, was supplied with the plot of a highly readable and moving novel, Un barrage contre le Pacifique. One of the traumatic ‘events’, real or imagined, of her adolescence was her encounter with ‘the Chinaman’ in 1929. She was 15. He became her very rich and much older lover, and later cropped up in at least two pieces of fiction and a film with Catherine Deneuve. As Adler puts it, ‘Marguerite was on sale’ to Leo the Chinaman; in French it sounds better: ‘Marguerite était à vendre.’ The girl was her mother’s property. (Years later, Duras, a taker rather than a giver, would turn her lovers into her own property with much ranting and raving.) The affair with the Chinaman lasted almost two years.
After the popular romances of Delly and the novels of Paul Bourget, Marguerite delved into Shakespeare and Molière. Her biographer suggests that the ‘purity’ of her style derives from her study of Madame de Lafayette and Racine, but this is hard to reconcile with the alleged influence of Bataille and Blanchot. With Lewis Carroll, it was love at first sight, but the infatuation was short-lived: humour was not Duras’s strong point. She laughed a lot, it is true, but never at herself.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 21 No. 8 · 15 April 1999
Olivier Todd clearly trusts Laure Adler on Marguerite Duras (LRB, 4 March). Her biography is ‘the best so far’, providing the reader with ‘a competent guide’ to MD’s turbulent life. ‘Adler clearly admires the writer’ but manages to write about how Duras ‘tortured [Delval] with gusto’; her admiration for Duras’s writing is even undiminished by the discovery of a ‘very unpleasant person’.
Adler’s book has been dismissed by Duras specialists all over the world, who regard it as a piece of hack journalism, replete with unsubstantiated (and theoretically unsustainable) allegations, sloppy research, factual inaccuracies and uncredited borrowings from another biography by Alain Vircondelet, not to mention a very fragile knowledge (after seven years’ research!) of Duras’s oeuvre.
But how much does Todd know about Duras and her work? He claims Duras ‘omits any reference to her two half-brothers’: on the contrary, they form an intense subtext in a number of her novels, most particularly in Agatha. Duras’s father did not die in Indochina, but in France. The evocation of Duras’s childhood in which ‘minor civil servants, poor whites and planters looked down on the “natives” and up to the bigwigs’ receives no qualification; the avid lay reader is left to infer Duras’s colonialist upbringing, with no suggestion of the deep (again tortured and contradictory) ambivalence which led her on occasion to see herself as more Asian than European.
To whom did Duras become ‘notorious for her cut and dried, often unintelligible style, made more unintelligible by the “essential” pauses in the dialogue – her assumption being that, between text and silence, a level of emotional truth is disclosed’? This is pure caricature. I suspect MD would have had a good laugh.
Todd’s insistent references to Duras’s alcoholism are clearly intended simply to denigrate and to disqualify. Never mind the pain and the suffering; she was a ‘difficult’ woman and so can be dismissed. I wonder, has Todd spoken to Yann Andréa about Duras being a ‘taker rather than a giver’? Giving and taking are complex and interrelated words, as Duras well knew. To give the whole of yourself, as Duras did, contradictions, alcoholism and all, is perhaps the greatest gift possible. Todd’s patronising remarks about Duras ‘forgetting’ Andréa (‘a kind, rather innocent homosexual’) in her will betray arrogant assumptions about friendship, power and property. Were Andréa and Duras playing by Todd’s rules?
As an unreconstructed structuralist (well, some of the time anyway), I would like to insist on the primacy of Duras’s literature (and films). Her work (still, posthumously) constitutes a groundbreaking, challenging and breathtaking oeuvre. Marguerite Duras – like so many of us – was a complex, contradictory person. So what? If I have objected at length to Todd’s piece, it is not because a deity has been found to have feet of clay: it is because of the fact that he can refer to the Adler book as ‘this well-researched work’.
I refuse to take sides in the continuing guerrilla between ‘hack’ journalists and hack academic ‘experts’. Dr Udris is entitled to give an opinion and so am I. As a matter of fact, however, I did meet Yann Andréa. Did Duras leave him anything or not? As another matter of fact, I made the inexcusable error of confusing Alain Robbe-Grillet and Duras in connection with Alain Resnais. No doubt it was all to do with my ‘subtext’.