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.

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