Waiting is an important element in stories about women. They are often obliged to demonstrate their patience in the way that men in stories are called upon to demonstrate their physical or mental strength. Women must wait until men are finally able to declare themselves romantically, they must wait for the sick to heal, and for children to grow, putting their own cares and concerns in second place. One of the most powerful waiting narratives is the story of the woman who waits for her man to return from war. Penelope in the Greek myths rather sets the bar high on this one. For ten years she waited faithfully for Odysseus to return from his wanderings, each day working on her tapestry, each night unpicking it so that there should be no leverage on her to marry one of the many suitors piling up at court. Penelope’s fate was joined to her husband, and it was unthinkable and unethical that she should move on in his absence; the story frames her as remarkable, admirable, but not as productive for her own sake. It would have got in the way of her genius for waiting.
The story I want to tell you about today is another example of a woman waiting for her man to return, but it is a much more unsettling tale than Penelope’s. It’s 1945 and the French author Marguerite Duras is waiting to hear whether her husband is dead or alive. He has been a prisoner of war in Germany and all she knows is that the camps are finally being liberated as the Allied Forces sweep through the land. Finally a little news is beginning to trickle back home and it is most disquieting. Duras spends most of her days at a government repatriation center in Paris, questioning men as they are deposited from the convoys in the hope of sending news to their families and enacting reunions. It’s a way of keeping in the frontline of information herself, but some of the men who return, emaciated, on the brink of death, only terrify her. To say that she is in a bit of a state is a wild understatement. She can’t eat or sleep and knows not a moment’s peace. Her friend, D., comes to visit her regularly and help pass a few hours. They pool their information, what little it is. It’s a visceral account of the near-madness of waiting, with Duras detailing the half-hallucinations that take over her mind, showing her all the ways her husband, Robert L., might have died.
Finally, she has some ambiguous news. Other prisoners from the same camp have made it back but not Robert L. He broke out of the line he was marching in, in a bid for escape (not realizing that they were headed for freedom at last). No one knows what became of him. It turns out he was returned to the camp and left there, effectively to die. Duras’s friend D, steps in. He and another friend drive over to Germany and find Robert and bring him home. When he gets back, Duras runs away, screaming. To have an outcome after all those dreadful months is almost as bad as not having one. And Robert is so ill and destroyed by his experience that he is almost unrecognizable to her; against all the odds, however, he continues to survive. There follows a remarkable testimony to the extraordinary strength of the human spirit (even if it is gruesome one) as Robert is coaxed from the brink of starvation and back to life.
And then, unobtrusively slid into the narrative, as part of a list of things that Robert gradually regains sufficient strength to hear, Duras tells him their marriage is over. She wants to leave him for D., with whom she desires a child.
This is, as you might have guessed, a story that we often teach as part of the course on twentieth century French literature. My friend, Kathryn, has been teaching it just recently and we discussed it on the phone. ‘That part has the most enormous impact on my students,’ she said. ‘They all loathe Duras from then on in. Never mind the Holocaust, that ceases to be the source of all evil. They simply can’t get over the fact that she wants to leave him.’ The events detailed in the diary have a counterpart in reality, too. Duras was married to Robert Antelme, who was rescued from Dachau by François Mitterand, and she left him for their mutual friend Dionys Mascolo with whom she went on to have her son. It all actually happened.
What are we to make of this most un-Penelope-like behaviour? The shock, I think, comes from the emotional temperature of the narrative, which is mostly hysterical. Duras is lost to Robert’s sufferings, she cannot eat when he cannot eat, almost starves herself in an act of what looks like self-negating loyalty. The reader is in no way prepared for the outcome. Is this, then, an act that we can judge? Has Duras betrayed her husband in the most despicable way, or has she fulfilled every possible duty towards him by being part of his rescue and nursing him back to health? Are we morally obliged to be overjoyed to have our loved ones returned to us, even if they have caused us unimaginable suffering? Are women allowed to move on, make changes, follow their own desires, or is the ability to wait trauma out, to display saintlike patience one of the prime virtues that is far more valuable?
I haven’t told you the name of this because it is only available in French, and if I’d told you that up at the start, chances are you might not have kept reading. But the story is in a volume entitled La Douleur (Pain), and is preceded by another strange yet seemingly authentic statement. Duras writes that she discovered her diary in a cupboard in a house that regularly floods in the springtime, and that she had no recollection of having written it, although it was indeed in her handwriting and recounting events she had lived. It is a text steeped in ambiguity and that challenges the reader on any number of levels, asking us to read what is intolerable, to question what is ethical and to believe what is incredible. It is a remarkable 80 pages.