1943 - 1949
Marguerite Duras
Linda Coverdale

(New Press)
Marguerite Duras was born in French Indochina in 1914. Her father was a school administrator who died when she was young. Her mother borrowed money to buy a 2,100 acre plantation "thirty-seven miles along a dirt track from the nearest French outpost."

It consisted of "lowlands and forests at the back of beyond in Cambodia, between the Elephant Mountains and the sea." It was so close to the ocean that several plantings of rice were destroyed by salt water when the storms came.

There was scarcely money for food, much less the workers imported from Cochin China to plant the ever-failing crops. Marguerite and her mother and two brothers survived by slowly selling off the family jewels and furniture.

Duras is famous among the literary set for her novel The Lover but, perhaps even more, for the screenplay of Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Almost a half-a-century after seeing it at the old Studio and Guild in Berkeley, I can still remember Eiji Okada's cool voice, narrating, in French, as we view a series of black-and-white documentaries of operations on faces, arms, legs, and bodies of those burned by the radiation from the atomic bomb.

§     §     §

Duras' growing up in Vietnam was unusual. After her father died, her mother took to beating her with a stick. Her oldest brother, newly returned from France, "picked up the habit of beating me as well."

    When he didn't like the way mama was beating me, he'd tell her, "Wait," and take over. But soon she'd be sorry, because each time she thought I'd be killed on the spot.

As he beat her, her brother would insult her, calling her "crab louse," "dirty slut," "bitch." She was fourteen year old at the time, so slender that her mother --- when not beating her or watching her brother beat her --- called her "my little waif."

What stands out in Duras' retelling of this casual violence are not the beatings but her view of them from later, as she is writing these memoirs. "'Stinker,' 'shit-ass,' 'ass-wipe,' or 'whore' did not require backing up by blows, they were already everyday expressions."

    There were others and I'm greatly saddened not to remember them. I cannot hear them without feeling in my very soul the true taste of my youth; they have the aura of summers gone forever, of the raw, vivid angers of my fifteenth year.

"Greatly saddened" ... "the aura of summers gone forever." These are seldom what most people would associate with violent beatings. "My brother was perhaps the first to inculcate in me that tendency I still possess to prefer the work of inspiration to absolutely any other, and to hold human intelligence in disfavor," she concludes.

Her writing is thus one of contraries, reminding one of Camus, Genet, Robbe-Grillet. It is also a writing that can be violently funny. At fourteen, she is courted by a rich Vietnamese, Léo. One evening, in his car, "I felt a cool and moist contact with my lips. The revulsion I felt truly cannot be described. I shoved Léo, I spat, I wanted to jump out of the car."

    I slid over to the end of the seat as far from Léo as possible. And there I spat into my handkerchief. I kept spitting, I spat some more. "Do I disgust you?" he asked. I could not reply.

"I was remembering his face, what was at that moment in darkness: his pockmarked face, his large, soft mouth ... I was thinking: that the mouth, the saliva, the tongue of that contemptible creature had touched my lips."

There are twenty-six notes, essays, unfinished drafts, thoughts, ephemera and parts of novels included here, drawn from four notebooks: the "20th Century Press Notebook," the "Hundred-Page Notebook," the "Beige Notebook," and the "Pink Marbled Notebook." It has the air of hagiography.

Duras is good writer, perhaps, at times, a great one. She certainly was inspired. But it may be overdoing it to devote a whole page to a complaint about the noises of the night-clubs on rue Saint-Benoît ("We cannot sleep anymore"), or a sentence on the discomfort of sitting at a round table ("Your elbows aren't resting on anything"), or the text of a want-ad that may or may not be part of a story, "Seeking lady with child-care experience..."

--- Lolita Lark
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