Adventures in Reading

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.

15 thoughts on “Adventures in Reading

  1. Rudolph, with his stunning likeness to the King (I had such trouble NOT writing, ‘with his nose so bright’,

    That … was a great way to start my day.

    On another note, I love the parallel you draw here between two books which, at first blush, have nothing in common. Although I do wonder whether the final conclusion is exactly true … I tend to think, rather, that in real life, bravery and certainty are less obvious … that the huge archetypal acts of heroism we see in art are, in fact, externalized versions of the hugely brave things that can be done in utter silence. The problem, of course, is that people chase after the archetypal externalized acts, and fail to see the courage of quiet endurance, for example … or the courage of drawing a verbal boundary. We would much rather draw the sword and build the moat; there is, as you say, romance in that. But perhaps even more seductively, there is an audience for that. The hardest *real* things in a person’s life are rarely witnessed.

  2. “And it made me think that what we read about admiringly in fiction often makes for a deplorable reality.”

    What an inspired conclusion to draw… Duras sounds fascinating, as does her writing. Thanks for this post!

  3. Oh, Litlove, this made me laugh! I enjoyed both reviews thoroughly as well as the way you brought them together.

    One of the benefits of writing fiction set in earlier times was that I didn’t have to do any live interviews. And there was nobody who could say “I was alive then and it wasn’t like that” (though a couple of people trie!). I did interviews for my last, which was challenging and so left it till the last minute, and my next is going contemporary, too. So even though I have no intention at the moment of talking to anyone, I probably will have to!

    I like what David wrote about heroism being real and externalized in those tales. Yes, I see heroes every day. Their heroism is just the sort you say, David.

  4. I’m thoroughly intrigued by your thoughts on the Duras bio, and on Duras in general. I read L’amant de la Chine du nord last year & was very impressed; I’m now interested in reading more of her work, and after I’m more well-read no doubt a biography would be fascinating. She sounds like a very difficult but complex person. (My partner & I also just watched Hiroshima, mon amour, with which I was VERY impressed, further kindling my Duras fascination.) Your story about being saved by her death from having to contact her for your PhD thesis is funny!

  5. I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed The Prisoner of Zenda as I have that one on my shelf. It just LOOKED and SOUNDED like so much fun from the front and back covers and took place in a period that I really enjoy, so I had to buy it. Usually I regret those decisions, but hopefully not this time. I’ll keep in mind that I need to be in a light mood for it.

  6. I read Frédérique Lebelley’s Duras ou le poids d’une plume and had a pretty strong reaction. I really have to put away everything I read about the person Duras to still be capable of liking her work. I wouldn’t have wanted to meet her, because I don’t think self-destructive people are interesting. Maybe oddly fascinating but ultimately not interesting. It is so repetitive and the excuses are repetitive as well. What would have become of your Ph.D if you had met her, would you have altered anything I wonder. Since I read the biography I never touched any Duras again… Creativity without spirituality… A very destructive path for many.

  7. Interesting conclusion, although it is always context and culture or period of history specific – the certainty can be that of the saint going to martyrdom or the terrorist or the knight errant, the heldback or banal that of the wise or the one just following orders. Good to get the brain ticking a little after the festivities with a cracking post. [Tempted to finish with By Thunder!!!]

  8. Wow, what a sharp turn this post took!

    Have you ever been halfway through reading something when it suddenly became familiar? I was on the 3rd paragraph above before I connected Duras to the film The Lover, which I enjoyed many years ago.

    And then we veered abruptly into Zenda! The Rudolf lookalikes made me think of The Prince and the Pauper. Am glad you had a riproaring good time.

    There’s a sadness to how often Duras returned to the theme of her mother selling her out to an older man, as if there is no escaping those formative experiences. No matter how much we all want a Zenda now and again.

  9. David – that’s a beautiful comment. Yes, you’re quite right – ‘real life’ bravery and courage is exactly how you describe it. And probably symbolised, or fantastically embodied in the act of drawing out a sword or confronting a murderous enemy. I’m thinking that it’s when fantasy and reality are blurred, when people live their lives as if they were novels, that it all goes wrong, and this might happen out of failing to understand the chasm that separates fictional happenings from real ones. I so agree that the real is obscure and opaque – and that’s why we need blunt, overly-expressed figurative gestures to stand in for, or evoke, that shadowy realm.

    Melissa – you are so welcome! And I find Duras always interesting – sometimes frustrating, sometime pretentious, but there’s always a point at which I engage with her writing and feel moved to consider a very different dimension to existence.

    Lilian – I remember you doing those interviews! Yes, I’ve never tackled research in a hands on, face to face sort of way. I’m both intrigued and terrified by the thought! I’d love to know more about the interviews you did, unless you are sworn to confidentiality about them…?

    Emily – I love the fact that you are reading more French literature. If you like Duras and are interested in trying someone modern, try Marie NDiaye’s Rosie Carpe, which I found amazing, or Marie Darrieussecq’s Naissance d’un fantome. As for Duras, my favourite is The Lover, but having just read her rewrite of that story, you might consider Moderato Cantabile, L’Amante anglaise or Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein. I wish I had her to discover all over again!

    Aarti – I really enjoyed it! It’s a perfect romantic, adventurous read, light and fast-paced and fun. I’d love to know what you think of it when you find the right moment to pick it up!

    Jenny – I’d forgotten there was a sequel, but it’s about the dastardly Rupert, isn’t it? If I can get hold of it, I will. The one red rose – sob! – it IS perfect, isn’t it?

    Caroline – I was very interested by your reaction. I found my reading of Duras subtly altered by the biography, but not my response to her as a person. I guess that whilst I agree that she was self-destructive, it wasn’t her only dimension. Like all our bad parts, it came to the fore the more alone and abandoned she felt, the more troubled by her work. Later in life she claimed that everything she’d written had been about God, so she felt there was spirituality in her writing, even if it’s not fully articulated. Well, readers can make their own minds up about that, I guess.

    Bookboxed – do not hold back on the By thunders! I will surely appreciate them. Absolutely true that certainty looks very different in different guises, but it always trails with it a breath of madness, whether saint or terrorist, don’t you think? Delighted to have given you something to think about!

    Ombudsben – I thought about The Prince and the Pauper when reading Zenda – they are very alike (well, as far as I know having never actually read The Prince and the Pauper). I often only wake up to the fact I’ve read something or seen it, halfway through. Alas, this makes me sad too, as I feel my own swashbuckling days are over – in reading terms, at least!

  10. I am totally with you on not wanting to interview the author you worked on. Thank goodness my people were all 18th century ones! I suppose some people would have loved to interview the authors they wrote on, but it would just make me a nervous wreck.

  11. Duras sounds fascinating to me. I always wonder about the background/childhodd of an author and how it influences their writing. Good that you didn’t have to endure an interview with her. I have a feeling the whole thing would have been a nightmare for you.

  12. I remember when I read The Lover and then later saw the movie that Duras seemed like such an interesting person and wondered how much of the book was autobiographical and wouldn’t it be interesting to read more about her. Maybe I’ll stick with her fiction. I think I would have been completely overwhelmed to have had to talk or interview her–sorry for her, but talk about lucking out on your part! And The Prisoner of Zenda sounds like fun–I do love a good swashbuckling story now and again.

  13. Lucky you that Duras died when she did😉 It is so interesting I think how some people with the most chaotic of lives can write such beautiful and often lyrical stories.

    The Prisoner of Zenda sounds like great fun by thunder! I think I’m going to have to look that one up.

  14. Pingback: Laure Adler, Marguerite Duras (1998 ; English 2000) « Smithereens

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