To interview Marguerite Duras, you had to speak Duras. ‘Durassien’ stood, then and now, for inscrutability. Her novels consist of a succession of paragraphs entire of themselves; in her plots everything happens at once or nothing happens. Her movies were about giving the viewer as little to see as possible, and all the better if that meant the screen went black for up to half an hour at a time. Everyone knew she drank, that she’d nearly died from it, and that she loved recklessly, and that she refused to be counted as a Nouveau Romancier, or part of the Nouvelle Vague, or an habituée of the Flore, or the Deux Magots, or wherever else it was fashionable to go that season. But she was in the habit of leaving the door of her apartment on the Left Bank open from dawn until dusk. Home, she thought, ought to be open to the outside: to her friends Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot, to Alain Resnais and Delphine Seyrig, to those who simply rang the bell on the rue Saint-Benoît, like the Italian journalist Leopoldina Pallotta della Torre. (It helped that she had brought a hunk of Parmesan; it was noon, the 73-year-old had just got up, and there was nothing to eat in the house.) Pallotta della Torre came on commission from La Stampa, and stayed for long afternoons of talk over two years. The result, a book-length interview called La passione sospesa, came out with a tiny Italian press in 1989 and was unknown in France until it was translated in 2013. It now appears in English as Suspended Passion (Seagull, £17) and it shows Duras at her most scrutable.
Marguerite Donnadieu was born in 1914 in Gia Dinh, French Indochina, to a teacher mother and civil servant father who died when she was seven. Her mother’s attempt to raise the family out of poverty – the purchase of a paddy field in the Mekong Delta that constantly flooded and so produced nothing – ruined them. The teenage Donnadieu, with heart-shaped face and lips as glossy as tar, attended lycée in Saigon and it was there that she began an affair with an older, richer Chinese man. At 18 she escaped to Paris, and at 36 she had her first success with The Sea Wall, based on her Indochinese adolescence.
Three years before Pallotta della Torre turned up in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Duras had published The Lover, a short, elegant novel that returned once more to her memories of the affair in Saigon. ‘I’d rather you didn’t love me,’ the 15-year-old Lolita says to her lover, ‘but if you do, I’d like you to do as you usually do with women.’ Duras adopts the smoky tone of The Lover’s narrator to Pallotta della Torre: ‘Love, I’m told, is a subject that guarantees success’ – the novel sold more than two million copies, was translated into 43 languages and won the Prix Goncourt. She would keep returning to the subject because her experience of love, in particular a ‘violent, highly erotic love affair’ she had in the late 1950s, had shattered something in her: ‘It made me want to kill myself and that changed the way I produced literature – it was now about discovering the gaps, the blanks I had within me, and finding the courage to express them.’ In moments of respite – ‘I grew to like the empty space men left when they went out’ – she found a style. Her simple stories of love found and love lost, or vice versa, allowed for experimentation: paragraphs floating in white space, blacked-out film screens, memories that tessellate rather than succeed each other. ‘You destroy me. You’re so good for me,’ as the woman says in Hiroshima mon amour, the film Resnais made from her screenplay.
One reason love is terrible is that men are terrible, ‘only prepared to understand those who are like them. A man’s true life companion – his real confidant – can only be another man.’ The men Duras had known had not wanted her to go on so much about her difficulties with writing or the obtuseness of her critics (who would?) and instead to clean and cook and help them rest from their work. ‘Each time in my life when I stopped living with a man, I rediscovered myself. I wrote my finest books alone,’ she says. The insufferableness of men was a theme: ‘We have to love men a lot. A lot, a lot. Love them a lot in order to love them at all. Otherwise it’s impossible; we couldn’t bear them,’ she says in an earlier book of conversations, Practicalities, which was translated by Samuel Beckett’s lover, Barbara Bray, who put much of Duras’s work into English. In The Lover, the young French woman in her mother’s silk dress is contemptuous of her lover’s failure to defy his rich father and marry her, though he is the one who will phone years later to tell her ‘that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he’d love her until death’.
Duras liked other women if they were actresses; she loathed Simone de Beauvoir but counted Nathalie Sarraute as one of her closest friends. She was wary of feminism as one of ‘all these rather obtuse forms of activism that don’t always lead to true female emancipation’. (She’d left the Communist Party in the late 1950s and saw Marxism as having ‘set itself up to censor experience, desire’.) She read most nights until three or four in the morning – ‘daylight dissipates the intensity’ – returning time and again to The Princess de Clèves, The Man without Qualities, Moby-Dick. Her contemporaries? ‘Who reads them? My suspicion is that they’re boring … at any rate, none of them will ever write a book like The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein’ (by one M. Duras). She blamed Sartre for the ‘cultural and political backwardness of France’ and although Lacan made much of Lol, she didn’t read him: ‘Quite honestly I can’t understand much of what he wrote.’
If she’d earned the right after two wars, two marriages, a divorce, many love affairs, an addiction to alcohol and a million-selling novel, to talk of passion and men and other writers with a certain weariness, she could also now talk of her mother – ‘she lived inside me to the point of obsession’ – with generous curiosity. Her mother was ‘exuberant and mad, as only mothers can be. In existence, I think one’s mother is, generally speaking, the strangest, most unpredictable and elusive person one meets.’ Late in The Lover, the mother tells her daughter: ‘I wasn’t like you, I found school much harder and I was very serious, I stayed like that too long, too late, I lost the taste for my own pleasure.’ In life, Duras’s mother objected to her writing. In the novel, the mother is happiest when the doors of the house by the Mekong are open.