I find myself wondering whether it is a help or a hindrance to know about an author whose work you love. Can we ever properly understand what authors are doing without the benefit of biographical knowledge, or does it somehow reveal the magician’s trick, undermine the power of the mystery, to see a novel’s composition unravel under the influence of autobiographical data? These questions have come to mind whilst I’ve been reading the biography of Marguerite Duras, provoked in part by a comment on the previous post from Caroline, who had such a strong emotional reaction to reading about Duras that she says she would never go near her work again, and in part from a much milder reaction of my own but one in which I do feel my understanding of Duras’s novels changing in the light of what I’ve read.
The thing is, Duras was one of my dissertation writers and it’s hard to find the words to explain the depth and complexity of that relationship. For three years, in a doctoral thesis, you live, eat, sleep, dream the work of your authors. Their imaginative world is your playground; they get under your skin and into your perspective. Their concerns become your concerns, their fears start to bother you. After a while you see the ghostly outline of their preoccupations, their obsessive storylines, everywhere you look. And because you choose the work of authors towards which you are instinctively drawn, you often find parts of yourself disconcertingly reflected back, in ways that are quite unexpected. Now, where I did my graduate studies, we were not concerned with biographical material, in fact it was something of a no-no to get involved with it. The English department was well known for chucking everything into the melting pot of interpretation, but in Modern Languages we followed a more rigorous and theory-based model that meant we considered nothing but the text. So I ended up deeply enmeshed in my authors, knowing everything about their fantasy worlds, but knowing nothing about their lives.
When I read about Colette’s life (my other dissertation author), I had a sort of emotional double-take. I thought she was an admirable person and was almost shocked to find out she was…, well, let’s say human. With Duras I wasn’t expecting her to be a saint (and indeed no!), but again I found myself feeling uncomfortable at places, this time because of the way I had read her books. For instance, The Lover, one of her last, and certainly one of her greatest, novels is based on Duras’s childhood in Indo-China, but should not be considered autobiography – well, I’d had no problem with that, given the context in which we studied. But it wasn’t until I was reading about the writing of that book, when Duras was old, and very ill, and yet bound up with another difficult relationship, that I could see how much idealization had gone into it. It was already the third or fourth time Duras had told the story, but somehow I didn’t see the imaginative progression so clearly as when I realized what she had wanted that story to do for her, for her memories of herself and her evaluation of her life. I felt I understood that book better, saw it more clearly, felt it more acutely, for knowing how and when it was written.
I’m not talking about authorial intention here. I still think that’s something to steer well clear of. After all, Duras is a perfect case in point. A few years after writing The Lover she turned against the book and more or less disowned it, saying it was an airport novel, written when she was drunk (not that that distinguished it from any of her other works). Her favourite piece of creativity was a completely bonkers film entitled Le Camion (The Lorry) which she wrote, directed and starred in, alongside Gérard Depardieu who played the part of a long-distance lorry driver, picking up an old lady and giving her a lift out of the kindness of his heart. All Duras did was sit in a mock-up of a lorry cab and pontificate endlessly, philosophically, talking a lot of twaddle basically, and that’s the plot. Duras adored this film and thought that her improvised chitchat was pure brilliance (wrong!) and that the film was one of the best articulations of her art (wrong!). Trust me on this: do not go near Duras’s films, well with the exception of Hiroshima mon amour which is really Alain Resnais’s film whatever Duras subsequently said, unless you are having serious trouble sleeping at night or are a committed cinema buff and into the experimental stuff. But if you want to read Duras, start with The Lover; it’s by far and away her most accessible and engaging novel.
I found I had a new appreciation of The Lover, having read about Duras’s life. But at the same time, that biographical information had entered into my reading of the book and was not about to go away. I felt my responses to it settle down and solidify. You can read a book multiple times and feel differently about it on each occasion, but somehow, once the context of a book’s production informs the reading, it eats into the flexibility of the imagination. I feel myself more tempted now to say ‘Ahhhh, so that’s what it means!’ and yet I am sure this is a fallacious belief. There is no absolute and definitive reading of any book, for we rely on their internal ambiguities to keep us interested over decades and eventually centuries. So am I glad or not to have read the biography? Glad, I think, because it was so interesting. But at the same time, I will have to think carefully about how to moderate its powerful influence on the way I read her novels.