There is a certain kind of narrative style – of which the French are particularly fond – that is pared down to just less than the basic essentials. It’s a style characterised by blanks, silences, ellipses, and its consequence, unsurprisingly, is to emphasise the enigmatic dimension of the story being told. This kind of dimly-lit world is the favoured territory of Marguerite Duras, one of the great icons of literature in France. She became prominent in the 1960s, her work attached to a number of different experimental schools without ever truly adhering to any of them. She took a decade out of writing novels to make films, but please, unless you are particularly fond of European arthouse or can’t sleep nights, don’t rush to take these out of the video library. Ambiguous silence is one thing in a book, but quite another when relentlessly thrust on screen. Whether Duras ever realised this or not is a matter of conjecture, but in any case she ended her literary drought with arguably her greatest novel; The Lover was published to widespread acclaim in 1984 and won the Prix Goncourt, France’s most important literary accolade. She then became a darling of the media, regularly wheeled out, a diminutive figure with big spectacles, perky hair and a wrinkled net of a face, to snap brusquely at pretentious anchormen on arts programmes. She enjoyed the kind of twisted private life the French always seem to take in their stride; a ménage à trois with the author and Holocaust survivor, Robert Antelme and his friend Dionys Mascolo, and at the end of her life an unorthodox platonic relationship with a homosexual man, Yann Andrea Steiner, about whom she wrote a great deal. But by the end of her life the French would have published her knitting patterns, such was her literary prestige.
It seems odd to talk about Duras from the perspective of reading her novels purely for pleasure as, for me, she was such a good writer to analyse critically. Her themes are immense: transgression, trauma, the extremes of desire, death, fantasy and breakdown. The Lover is set in the Indochina of Duras’s birth and recounts, fictionalised, the story of her adolescence. It is a story that Duras would tell many times. Her family had taken advantage of a government incentive to emigrate to Indochina but her father, never a well man, was repatriated to France for health reasons where he died. Her mother was left in Saigon to raise two elder sons and a daughter, supposedly on the proceeds of a piece of farming land (the incentive) that was flooded every year and thus unmanageable. Not realising they had needed to bribe the Indochina officials to receive decent land, Duras’s mother was justifiably incensed and spent the rest of her life in bitter dispute with the authorities. Her children, poor, hungry and neglected, were abandoned to this unequal struggle.
Against this backdrop, Duras recounts the story of her transgressive sexual affair, aged 15 with a Chinese man. In essence, that’s all there is to it, but the way Duras writes it is extraordinary. One of Duras’s favourite questions is: how do we manage to retain the most intense and vital experiences of our lives? How to write about those most significant events when their powerfulness meant that we were not wholly present to ourselves when living them? Often her works start with a trauma that has occurred before the start of the narrative, which the protagonists then seek to re-enact, to see if this time they can experience it fully and work out what’s going on. On this occasion Duras writes memories as if she could defy the passage of time, moving in and out of the present tense, sometimes referring to herself in the first person, sometimes in the third, occasionally permitting the vividness of the past to overwhelm the writing present and recounting events as if they were happening all over again. Except of course they are not, for in the meantime, Duras has become a writer, and that very process of development is woven into the fabric of the tale. She wants to return to this definitive experience to locate the origins of her desire to write, knowing that it has sprung out of these disparate elements – her mother’s madness, her experience of awakening sexuality, her displacement as a poor coloniser in an alien land.
I don’t have The Lover in English translation, but I do have a copy of another of her novels, The Vice-Consul. This story, set in Calcutta, revolves around two transgressive figures: the French Vice-Consul who has been suspended after violent and inexplicable attacks on the native population (he went out one night and shot at the beggars and dogs in the street), and the French ambassador’s beautiful and dangerous wife, Anne-Marie Stretter (who features in several other novels too – she is supposed to drive men to death with desire for her). The will-they, won’t they love affair is interwoven with the more desperate story of a mad beggar woman, haunted by the loss of her baby. Duras’s interest here is in the (im)possibility of explaining people who have committed terrible acts. The following section is taken from a diplomatic social event at which both the Vice-Consul and Mme Stretter appear:
‘Neither the little girls [her daughters] nor anyone in Calcutta knows what she does at the villa in the Delta. It is said that she has lovers, Englishmen, who do not move in diplomatic circles. It is said that the Ambassador knows. She never spends more than a day or two at a time at the villa in the Delta. On returning to Calcutta, she at once resumes her well-regulated life, tennis, drives in the car, an occasional evening at the European Club. So much, anyone can see. And the rest of the time? No one knows. All the same, she must occupy her time somehow, this woman of Calcutta.
People are saying:
‘It’s beyond words!’
People are wondering:
‘Did he do those things because he had a blackout, or what? Did he lose self-control?’
‘You must seen how difficult… How can one put into words what he did in Lahore, what he did with himself in Lahore, if he himself didn’t know what he was doing?’ ‘
By failing to include the usual signposts as the faceless discussion switches from Anne-Marie Stretter to the Vice-Consul, Duras aligns them together as people who fascinate because of their supposed demonic depths, but about whom we can frustratingly know nothing. We can make up stories, we can assume and embroider, but is there such a thing as the ‘truth’ to be uncovered? The truth of the carnal – desire, violence, madness, will always be damaged and distorted when put into the rational discourse of the everyday, Duras suggests, and so her narratives revolve around these figures in ever decreasing circles, letting the silence speak for her. Duras is not an easy writer and she’s not everyone’s cup of tea. She’s been accused of a grinding, halting style that verges on the outright ugly. Yet her great books, The Lover, The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein, Moderato Cantabile, The Vice-Consul transcend their intended awkwardness to produce something beautiful in its purity and intensity. For novels that are unusual, unique and strangely powerful, her work is well worth a try.