The Prisoner’s Return

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.


17 thoughts on “The Prisoner’s Return

  1. Actually, La Douleur was published in English translation by Flamingo in 1987. I remember lots of people (such as Philip Roth) choosing it as their book of the year. For some reason the translation kept the original French title.

    There are copies on Abebooks. I haven’t read it but I’ve read Robert Antelme’s The Human Race which tells his side of the story.

  2. Thanks for that, Steve. Having now had a quick look, I can see that it is not at all easy to get hold of, but yes, Abebooks have some. Duras’s and Antelme’s accounts are interesting read together as they embody opposing philosophical views in the light of their experiences, Antelme embracing the positive, Duras the negative (roughly speaking, inevitably things are not quite so clear cut on close analysis). So if you haven’t read it, I would urge you to do so.

  3. Wow, what a story–to live through that and then be able to make that choice. I couldn’t even think about passing judgment on her and what she decided, since it seems like these situations are never black and white only many shades of gray. But I wonder if this happened a lot during/after WWII since it was such a traumatic experience for those who lived it? I suppose the shock comes from hanging on the edge to see whether her husband lived and she waited for him, only to choose someone else. My library has this, but only in the French edition. But I wonder who was happier in the end–Penelope or Marguerite.

  4. How interesting–the reactions to that story. I was surprised at the end, and it cheered me that she was un-Penelope-ish. So un-Bella-ish too, so unTwilighty. I’m curious to read both memoirs, since it’s possible, this being nonfiction and both people having written about it. Can you say more about his perspective?

  5. This seems as good a reason as any to brush up on my French – I am slightly rubbish in French right now but that could change. I love what you say about women and waiting. It reminds me of this line from Coriolanus, a play I otherwise really hated, where one of the women says to another: “You would be another Penelope; yet, they say, all the yarn she spun in Ulysses’ absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths.”

  6. Amazing and I think students reactions shed such a knowing light on the almost superhuman expectations placed on women when it comes to waiting and acceptance. I think this almost sounds like a response to the many, many novels where on returning from war men recoil from the well meaning women who meet them because they can not understand how changed they are. It’s often ignored just how the expereince of waiting and imagining your husband dead may have changed the women.

  7. I’m sad to say that my French is not good enough to read this in the original, but maybe I’ll pick up the translation that Steve mentions in the first comment. It would be amazing to read Robert Antelme’s story together with hers. I love your questions about how women are expected to behave in such circumstances–hmm, much to think about!

  8. I am not surprised that students respond the way they do to this story, and I like Jodie’s point that the reaction shows the expectations placed on women. And it also shows how much we have invested in the idea of never-ending love. It’s frightening to think that there is so much that can threaten even the closest relationships, and that sometimes life events make it nearly impossible for people to keep their feelings for each other. This sounds really good — I like writers that are willing to take a close look at really difficult truths.

  9. This reminded me of working with alcoholics and seeing wives who so badly wanted their husbands to get over their drinking problems and get their lives back on track. They felt that they couldn’t leave their husbands until they had shown that they could recover. Of course there’s a big difference between suffering the traumas of war and having a drinking problem though. Seeing those students’ reactions, my first response was to think that my own response would be different. Very interesting post, Litlove.

  10. What a shock to be quoted! Jodie, I am interested in your point about women and waiting – it had never occurred to me that this must be a gendered reaction from students. I had always taken it as students seizing the part of the story they do understand (ie marriages in crisis) and turning that into a black and white issue, because the wider background story is too terrifying. But you are right – they never judge D, for instance, the best friend of Robert L who is the father of his wife’s baby.


  11. What a sad and fascinating story. My library only has it in French unfortunately. I can be completely sympathetic to Duras and I admire the fact that she was able to be honest with herself and her husband because really, what good would it have done either of them for her to stay with him if she didn’t love him anymore? Both of them would have ended up being miserable.

  12. My French is non-existent, so only the English translation is a possibility for me… it does sound like a riveting read, LL. As Danielle says, who could think of judging this woman? The entire situation was unthinkable. I think it probably did and does happen quite a bit in post-war scenarios. Everyone is changed by the experience, which is a complete misnomer, of course, as that suggests there’s only one. Nothing could be further from the truth.

  13. Fascinating — though the idea that it is gendered response is tricky, because I think I for one would also judge a man who left a woman in a similar situation. (Should I, I don’t know, but I do experience that urge.) I haven’t read this among the Duras I’ve read and taught, but it sounds fassssscinating.

  14. Danielle – I think you’re right and this happened a lot after WWII – I think a lot of marriages never recovered because the couples involved had been through such different, traumatic experiences and were so busy trying to deal with their own suffering they had no capacity for coping with each other’s. That is a most interesting question, whether Penelope or Marguerite did better out of their choices. Probably they both got what they wanted, in their way, but neither was what you’d call a happy ending.

    Lilian – absolutely – Robert Antelme wrote an account of his experience in the camps called L’espece humaine. It was his story, but he wrote it in a very distanced fashion – he’s an observer mostly, rather than the main protagonist. But he draws more positive conclusions out of it than most camp survivors, and claims that the experience reduced the prisoners to the lowest common denominator of their humanity, but that it WAS humanity, the vital spirit that cannot be destroyed even in the most abject conditions. All this being said, it is a deeply harrowing read as he spares the reader nothing about the reality of the camps. Duras’s writings about the war were much more ambivalent and ethically disordered – she was keen to point out the places where no reparation or coherence was possible. You can sort of see why a marriage between them would not have worked after the war!

    David – I am quite confident you could read it – I think Duras’s French is very clear and accessible. She’s one of the first authors I read in the original. That being said, having both side by side is a fantastic way to learn vocabulary! I’d love to know what you think – I have great respect for her work.

    Jenny – as I just mentioned to David, Duras’s French is really accessible and thus a very encouraging return to reading in a foreign language! I’ve had to brush up mine on several occasions after taking time out of practising, and it has always come back just fine. That line from Coriolanus is just brilliant – exactly what I was trying to say!

    Jodie – that is a brilliant observation. That’s exactly right – the opposite of Duras’s position is not the man who walks away but the returning soldier who cannot connect to his loved ones. Duras gives this extraordinary account of the real horror of waiting, trapped with one’s worst fears. I really like the way she is an emotionally fearless author – she’s never less than honest, even when it puts her in a bad light.

    Gentle reader – they are both truly harrowing accounts, but the kind of literature that ought to be out there in the world, reminding us exactly how things were, not how we want to remember them. I’d love to know what you think if you read either of them!

  15. Dorothy – have you ever read Duras? She is a strange author, using very European kinds of experimental structure, but she is always honest and always trying to get as close to the reality of emotion as possible, and has no time whatsoever for moral conventions. She’s disturbing in a really good way! You’re right about the dominance of never-ending love. We’re probably going to do better if we let that go and just do the best we can with what we’ve got.

    Pete – that’s a really good analogy, I think. Wives of alcoholics probably have to go through very similar anxieties, wondering just when their husbands are going to do something terrible from alcohol abuse and nursing them through the worst consequences of binges. Duras was herself an alcoholic for many years, actually. Students are very moralistic, usually – being young enough to have avoided the worst of the compromised and cloudy emotional experiences of later life!

    Kathryn – you are eminently quotable! Yes, Jodie makes a really good point. And it’s true that D just disappears from sight at the end of the narrative and no one thinks to pin anything on him! But I really like the way that Duras never bothers how she comes across in her writings – she is always ready to take the unpopular position as she seems to think it’s often the most interesting and emotionally charged one.

    Stefanie – well, that IS what I think. Duras is not a one for pretence in any form. She was always ruthlessly honest, even when it meant putting herself in a bad light – gotta admire that.

    Di – I think you’re right and that it happened a lot in the aftermath of war, only a lot of couples struggled on for financial or family reasons, or just because divorce was so hard and still stigmatised. But Duras was a woman who had no truck with what people were ‘supposed’ to do. I don’t think that woman ever wrote a modal verb in her life! That’s one reason why I like her so.

    Jenny – I did think of that and thought that more people would say the same thing – that they would judge the man. But it is true that when I recount the story, the question of blame or lack of it tends always to revolve around Duras’s position and her friend, D., falls out of people’s view. But I do think people are a bit more gender-neutral when it comes to relationship breakdown. Well, a bit. Do read this if you can get hold of it – it’s Duras on top form.

  16. Pingback: Marguerite Duras, La Douleur (1985) (English title : The War) « Smithereens

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