Mon Charabia

Olivier Todd

  • 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 Donnadieu clan returned to France in the Thirties and MD casually embarked on a law degree. In the golden triangle of Montparnasse, Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the Latin Quarter, she began to lead an amusing, somewhat wild life, skimming through the left-wing weeklies, Vendredi and Marianne, going to the races, buying a car, scrounging money from men, which she often handed to her family. She hardly noticed the Popular Front marching forward to social conquests and economic disasters. She first dabbled in politics via Robert Antelme, a charming man with a reputation for generosity, a ‘saint’ according to his friends, who were never inclined to say the same of Marguerite. After much toing and froing in an I-love-you-but-can’t-marry-you vein, Marguerite and Robert had a party for their wedding. For Antelme, sainthood, and a touch of masochism, were the prerequisites before, during and after the marriage. Marguerite landed a job as a press attaché at the French Colonial Office in 1938, producing L’Empire français, a piece of imperialist propaganda to which she didn’t put her name. In those days, almost 50 per cent of Frenchmen polled were ready to die for France and the Empire.

During the German occupation, Antelme worked as a civil servant at the Préfecture de Police in Paris. His wife wrote novels with one eye on Hemingway, the other on Fitzgerald. Raymond Queneau advised her to look elsewhere for models. In 1942 she worked for the Book Organisation Office, an institution that sieved manuscripts to make sure they gave no offence to the Germans: she was, in other words, a cog in the censorship machine. This was not like joining the Waffen SS or the Gestapo, but it was collaboration of a minor order. Adler argues that, if this sort of menial work amounts to collaboration, then most Frenchmen were collaborators, but this is nonsense. Working for the censors was not an ordinary job, like serving drinks or driving a bus. In France, intellectuals have often awarded themselves or their colleagues special exemptions when they get into a tight moral corner. Céline is forgiven his anti-semitism, Drieu his half-baked Fascism and Aragon his Stalinism, merely because they are considered original or important writers.

In 1942 MD met Dyonis Mascolo, an employee of Gallimard, which, along with Minuit and POL, published most of her books. While Antelme gazed on dreamily, she had a long and highly charged affair with Dyonis – in the best vaudeville tradition, a friend of Robert’s. The episode was glossed over in the name of Being, Nothingness and class struggle. Mascolo later brought out a lengthy essay on Communism in which he argued, ponderously, that an intellectual could not escape being a Communist, though at the same time it was impossible to be one. It was a heart-rending and sorry situation, as Sartre would have put it – or a fashionable dilemma in Paris in the Fifties. MD and her crowd took a little Stalinist flak and there are still some unexploded shells lying around.

Marguerite’s life is a labyrinth and Adler a competent guide. Previous Duras biographies, generally of the lyrical sort, failed because MD covered her traces and lied with aplomb. Sometimes, like Malraux, she believed her own contradictory tales. In his superb book, Une jeunesse française, the first to examine François Mitterrand’s past as a young Vichy functionary, Pierre Péan also dug into the 1940-45 period of Duras’s life. Adler goes a step further to reconstruct the shadiest aspects of her character. Three interconnected episodes had been skirted around before Péan and Adler: Duras’s involvement with the Resistance, her relationship with the French Communist Party and what was coyly alluded to as the ‘Delval problem’. In 1943 and 1944, MD, like Mascolo and Antelme, belonged to the Resistance. Antelme was arrested and sent to Buchenwald. (He later wrote L’Espèce humaine, one of the most poignant books produced about the camps.) Trying to discover his whereabouts, MD started an ‘ambiguous’ liaison with a full-time Gestapo informer, Charles Delval (Rabier in her novel La Douleur). After the Liberation, she took part in Delval’s interrogation and tortured him, apparently with great gusto. He was tried and shot. To cap it all, Dyonis Mascolo became Delval’s wife’s lover and had a child with her. When all this surfaced in Péan’s research, the critics took it calmly: great writers have their quirks – il faut bien que jeunesse se passe. Yet it’s too easy to ascribe all this to youthfulness or the excitement of the Liberation. How muddled, how bored, how sadistic do you have to be to get into entanglements like these? MD needed them. Adler also asserts – and this is new – that Duras was reported to Party headquarters by Jorge Semprun, another member of the PCF, for poking fun at Aragon.

From the Fifties onwards Duras wrote and published frantically. The titles of her books were mesmerising: Les Petits Chevaux de Tarquinia (1953); Des journées entières dans les arbres (1954); Le Boa, Madame Dodi, Les Chantiers and so on. Even after her riveting Moderato cantabile (1958), she refused (quite rightly) to be associated with the Nouveau Roman. She felt much too superior to Claude Simon, Robbe-Grillet and Michel Butor. Nathalie Sarraute was almost the only living French writer she approved of. These were the years of Sartre’s ascendancy. MD, however, steered clear of the arch-guru and despised Camus. At the same time she tried, unsuccessfully, to publish short stories in Les Temps modernes, but Simone de Beauvoir, the de facto editor, didn’t care for Duras. Apart from mutual hatred and a shared lover, Jacques-Laurent Bost, the two women had nothing in common.

Duras became 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. Some readers find this subtle and far-reaching, others feel it’s part of what Julien Gracq called ‘la littérature à l’estomac’ – literary terrorism. MD’s gift for dialogue pushed her towards plays and films, where she was best served by Alain Resnais. In 1959 they worked on Hiroshima mon amour and in 1961 on L’Année dernière à Marienbad, which restated MD’s familiar obsessions – with mysterious sequences leading to the heart of ‘the human predicament’, with unattainable love, self-consuming desire, the intertwining of past, present and future. The protagonists never know what has actually happened to them. Nor, frequently, do Duras’s viewers or readers. When she got control of a camera herself, her films became self-indulgent and obscure, with the exception, perhaps, of India Song. She ploughed on, never afraid to improvise, and little by little convinced herself (and quite a few groupies) that she was a prescient director, whose work would be properly understood in the third millennium. She was also an alchemist. Anything she did was automatically transformed into art. She recycled her novels into films and her scripts into récits. Her films, she said, were not there to be watched, they had to be listened to.

Like many Paris intellectuals Duras was opposed to the Algerian war and she tiptoed out of the Communist Party in the late Forties after years as an ineffectual Stalinist who had sold L’Humanité-Dimanche at street corners. The poet Jacques Audiberti fondly called her ‘my little Chekist’. She went on militating on the left in her own unpredictable way, out of a combination of conviction and radical chic. She had a son, who worked with her for many years and remained in her formidable shadow. She doted on him and stifled him. In interviews, she talked about him constantly as if she needed to be reassured that she was a good mother, knowing she hadn’t had one herself. ‘Ever since he was born,’ she said, ‘I have been living in madness.’

As time wore on, her life declined into a mixture of violence, eroticism and booze. Her work fed on her affairs, with the writer Gérard Jarlot and many others, while at the same time becoming more elliptical or simply pretentious. Adler clearly admires the writer, yet finds it harder and harder to make us like MD; and we may begin to wonder whether her talent was inversely proportional to the amount of drink she put away. Not brandy, whisky or pernod, but ordinary red wine, or jaja, as it was called in the Army. Duras certainly had stamina and could have drunk Malcolm lowry or Papa under the table. Les Petits Chevaux de Tarquinia and Moderato cantabile were good, hand-made books with a tone of their own. But then MD took to pastiching herself: Savannah Bay (1982) and La Pluie d’été (1990) are pretty thin, whatever aficionados may say. There was at one time a flourishing MD cult, and the publication of No More suggests that, in New York as well as Paris, Durassisme remains strong. Every relic and jotting is now being collected, which is fine for biographers, but these ephemera are also published as if they were unknown fragments of the Upanishads. No More is a minimal bilingual text with the two versions separated by an afterword which asserts that the book is ‘a door opened on infinity’:

16 February
Odd that I still love you
even when I don’t love you

19 February
I know that I am going to undergo: death ...
What awaits me: my face in the morgue.
What a horror, I don’t want that.

These doodles were piously collected by Yann Andréa, MD’s last companion, a kind, rather innocent homosexual who looked after her for many years. Adler suggests that MD’s relationship with homosexuals was

complicated. At one point she only had gay men around her. Nobody could understand her, even poor Yann who thought he did. ‘Our hell is exemplary,’ she told him. ‘You don’t understand what I say. Not a thing. Not once did you understand me. No gay man [aucun pédé] can understand what a woman who has a homosexual lover says. Myself, I’m upset. There is something secret, religious about this.’

MD often spoke as she wrote. Typically, she forgot Andréa in her will, leaving him only a small room facing the flat where they had lived together in the rue Saint-Benoît. Adler chronicles the last years through which Andréa nursed Duras, from Paris to Neauphle-le-Château, where she owned a beautiful house, from Trouville to the posh American hospital in Neuilly, plunging in and out of alcoholic frenzies, after varying intervals of sobriety. In the end, she went back to eight litres of red wine a day. Adler says that Duras was faithful to one lover – alcohol. The price she paid, besides cirrhosis, was semi-madness. She took to talking about herself in the third person, like Callas or General de Gaulle, and suffered the solitude of megalomania, especially after she became famous: ‘I don’t know where I am, I merely know I’m not there. I left my own society about twenty years ago. I don’t have a real social insertion, I’m living among strangers. My main relation with my country comes through the income tax authorities and television.’ It was her mother who had encouraged her to drink – beer at first, because skinny girls put on weight that way, at least in Northern France. According to Duras, who talked and wrote about the problem, she drank because she knew that God didn’t exist. A striking proof of His non-existence and one up on Dostoevsky. Yann Andréa was more fortunate – he believed in God. Alcohol, Duras asserted, allowed her ‘to get in touch with her spirituality’. In that mood, she would wolf down litres of Scotch while reciting passages from Ecclesiastes. She was, among other things, an extraordinary actress. Not on stage or in her films, but in life, where she was both director and leading lady and could get away with anything. Other people orbiting around her were assigned the minor parts. ‘After all,’ she mumbled, as she was dying, ‘it so happens that I have genius. I’m used to it now.’

Adler met Marguerite Duras in prose before meeting her in person and her admiration for the writer remains, even though she discovered a very unpleasant person. At the same time, she builds elegant bridges between the life and the works, which is one reason structuralists and assorted Barthesians will not be happy with this well-researched work. It still leaves me sceptical about MD’s place in 20th-century French literature. She was, however, a superb cook. Having lived through the Occupation, she was able to concoct exquisite dishes out of almost anything. Her queues de porc will certainly survive.