I do love the reading at the start of the year; it always seems fresh and inspired to me, buoyed up by new resolutions and new books and adventurous perspectives. Adventure has, in fact, been on the literary agenda these past few days, even if my actual self has been pretty much tied to an armchair. Or at least, I’ve been reading about people who have pushed themselves to the extreme, one way or another.
I’ve been reading the biography of Marguerite Duras, an iconic French author and one half of my PhD, many years ago. I knew she was a bit of a tartar because I’d been warned how difficult it would be to interview her. You were supposed to make contact with dissertation authors if they were still alive, and I dreaded the encounter. She was well-known for disliking any interpretation of her work – ‘dislike’ being an English term of understatement here, masking various aspects of fury, resentment and stubborn denial. I was, frankly, somewhat relieved when my mother rang me up after reading the morning newspaper, saying, ‘Dear, I think one of your authors is dead.’ Given that Colette had been in her nationally honored grave for several decades already, I knew that Marguerite Duras must finally have managed to finish herself off with alcohol poisoning – a project she’d been working on for some time. I breathed a big sigh of relief, studied her works, and never thought much more about her as a person.
So it’s been extremely interesting to read the fascinating and sensitive biography written by Laure Adler. What’s brilliant about it is that she leaves the reader in no doubt what a monstrous person Duras was, whilst managing to maintain our sympathy and interest, and in some places even our admiration. How much does a terrible childhood count, I wonder, in assessing the later person? Duras’s childhood was undoubtedly hard; she was the product of two unprepossessing parents, a weak father who died young, and her mother, fierce, critical, cold, perpetually worried about money, full of obsessive love for her first-born son who was a thoroughly bad, brutal lot, and eventually driven mad by the twists and turns of fate. She was a teacher out in Indo-China (Vietnam nowadays) but gave it up for a while, lured by the promise of riches into purchasing land to farm. Only the land was a con organized by the government and was inundated by floods for half the year. Duras’s mother tried to stand against nature and build a seawall, but the effort, and its futility, reduced her to despair and depression, as well as poverty. The 15-year-old Duras unwittingly attracted a much older, Chinese admirer, and her mother encouraged the match purely and simply for the money he gave to the family. It was a story that Duras would write over and over, providing the basis for some of her most successful books.
As Duras grew older, she grew more like her mother, a difficult person, a good hater, always falling out with friends, fierce and intransigent in her judgments, money-grabbing and scarily narcissistic. But she was a great lover of men, playful, funny, utterly entrancing when she wanted to be. It was unfortunate that her relationships almost always held a transgressive or self-destructive element, and whilst they often contributed significantly to her writing (she was one of the greatest writers on the madness of desire that the twentieth century would ever see), they often placed her in situations that seem inexplicable or ludicrous to the outsider. Duras was no victim, though. The trials and tribulations of her life were ones she sought. It was the same with her writing; never, in her novels, is the reader intended to worry more about a character than when she is living a wholly conventional life. It is in extremis, in the depths of tormented love, or thwarted desire or violent confusion that Duras’s protagonists really touch the essence of existence.
I’ve been loving this book, but I find I need to lighten non-fiction with something short and sharp and sassy. I had a holiday-motivated yen for something jolly and so read, in a matter of hours, The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope. Completely different sorts of adventures here, or at least, still dalliance with the powers of the dark side: desire, violence and revenge, but written from the entirely different perspective of the swashbuckling romance. Red-haired Rudolf Rassendyll is a born and bred Englishman, but an amorous indiscretion a couple of generations back in his family means he bears a more than passing resemblance to the descendents of the royal house in Ruritania. Rich, idle and needing to kill some time, Rudolph decides to head across Europe to see his namesake crowned fifth King. Only of course he stumbles upon a plot to prevent the King from taking the throne, conducted by his nefarious brother, Black Michael. Rudolph, with his stunning likeness to the King (I had such trouble NOT writing, ‘with his nose so bright’, that’s what comes of writing reviews in the Christmas aftermath) gallantly steps into the breach, pretending to be the heir to the crown who is at that point languishing in the castle of Zenda, a prisoner of Black Michael. But little does Rudolph realize what a terrible emotional conflict he will place himself in, when he falls in love with the King’s intended wife, Princess Flavia.
Oh it’s all rip-roaring stuff, with men driving swords through one another whilst still maintaining the social niceties, and keeping stiff upper lips whilst casting knowing glances with glints in their eyes at mortal enemies. It had been a long time since I’d read the exclamation ‘By thunder!’ in print, and I got a little kick out of seeing that out and about again. I must try to work it into general conversation more often. I actually enjoyed this a great deal, although if I had been in a different frame of mind I might have found it a bit silly and inconsequential. But it holds up its pace and plots very neatly and the character of Rudolph Rassendyll is engaging. There is tremendous pleasure to be had in reading about characters who are perfectly sure of themselves, who act decisively, on instinct, asking no questions. That’s the pull of this sort of bravehearted novel. And yet, it is the same kind of behaviour that Marguerite Duras indulged in – and it was a sort of mad indulgence in her case. Her certainties are scary ones, redolent of desperate vanity. And it made me think that what we read about admiringly in fiction often makes for a deplorable reality. Doubt and uncertainty, cowardice and banal niceness, choosing the safe, mundane option are so often the healthy things to do, even if they lack the glow of romance.