NOVEMBER 29, 2019
MARGUERITE DURAS never went out to lunch. She believes that to love everyone as the Christians proclaim is a joke; that publication is prostitution; that God’s absence is “irreplaceable and magnificent”; that she is unworthy of what she has discovered in cinema and will be long dead before the audience understands it either; that making art will not in the least help you live; that women have a real wildness in them while men, though she loves them more, are plagiarists sick with masculinity; that suicide is idiotic for attributing meaning to life; and that “all the world’s masterpieces should have been found by children in public landfills and read secretly unbeknownst to their parents and teachers.”
Sometimes she believes in all these things in the span of a single page, a phenomenon on display in Me & Other Writing. Translators Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan have compiled a neat collection for Dorothy, a publishing project, intended to be a “guidebook to the extraordinary breadth of Duras’s nonfiction.” This description is a little ironic. While it is true that she has written in a variety of mediums, even when you only consider the nonfiction, her voice takes priority over the ostensible constraints of any particular form. That is to say, it all sounds exactly like Duras. “People say I never respond to the questions I’m asked,” she writes in the essay “The Men of Tomorrow,” but, “It doesn’t matter.”
Duras was a whirlwind from the publication of her first popular novel, Moderato Cantabile, in 1958 until her death in 1996. She wrote screenplays and directed films that defined the French New Wave, authored some of the first autofiction, led and rejected the Nouveau Roman movement, and wrote sensational true crime journalism, essays, and public comments. One reason she was able to move between mediums with such ease was because her work often considered the same themes: thwarted or illicit desire, society’s opprobrium, the violence of passion. Formally, they eschew the standard trappings of plot and exposition. A dense psychological charge electrifies the blank space, and the story unfurls like a hothouse bloom. The work in Me & Other Writing varies from essays to journalism to the beginnings of the autofiction she would make famous with L’Amant, for which she won the Prix Goncourt in 1992, but they are completely alike in their didacticism, humor, pessimism, and intelligence. Her voice is so strong that she dissolves boundaries to create a single oeuvre, a composite but unified body of work.
Critics in the 1950s called her writing virile and hardball. They were right, although they didn’t mean it as a compliment. The pieces in Me & Other Writing showcase Duras’s thoughts on reading, writing, motherhood, and politics, but the subject of any piece is Duras herself, something the title of this compilation brings to the fore. Essays move forward based on the obscure and often brilliant pattern of Duras’s thoughts, not through a rhetorical rubric. Though the unmistakable quality of a voice is a popular mark of genius, it is because of its very indomitable quality that her writing tends to provoke polarized reactions. She maintains a complete lack of meaningful boundaries between subject matter, and the bold refusal to be elided into a neutral, authoritative voice can register as petulant. Yet, her writing is fiercely intelligent and vulnerable. She was capable of remarks of great prescience, as when she seemed to predict the domestic outsourcing of the 21st century in an essay from 1985: “Everything seems to be done in order to spare man the effort of living, both in his work and his daily life. It’s terrible.”
The titular “Me” is only a page and a half long, and it is a microcosm of her ability to swerve from one topic to the next. It opens with the US bombing of Tripoli in 1986 but becomes a discourse on why she writes: “What moves me is myself,” she concludes. It’s nearly appalling in its narcissism, but also breathtaking. There’s something about her fascination regarding the tension between the individual and the collective that can feel indecent, but Duras has no interest in being a perfect person. “I stand by every part of myself, that is how I get by. Different from you.”
This is the timbre of Duras’s voice: equal parts liberating and exasperating, tender and self-centered. She radiates a tacit compassion for other people that is embodied in her unwillingness to talk down to them by making anything easier. “What I write makes me want to die, it’s only natural it makes others want to die too,” she writes in “Flaubert Is…” In a sentence prior, she states that people killing themselves over her work won’t stop her writing. “If people turned into reactionaries, political assholes after reading me, yes, that would stop me writing, but not if they killed themselves.” Individual sentences can be crushing, most of them are in fact, as when she writes in “My Mother Had…” of her abusive parent: “In my everyday life, I don’t do anything that she didn’t do.” With another writer this would be the denouement of an essay, but Duras simply leaves it on the page, neither more nor less relevant than any other heartbreak.
A certain kind of personal-meets-political writing has saturated contemporary literature, wherein the author introduces a number of topics and impressions that seem disparate but are woven together over the length of the work so that meaning is suggested rather than announced. As a style, it sometimes prioritizes clarity of form over clarity of sentiment. It also tends to decry “identity” as rigid posturing, and the faux-looseness of the style is supposed to degrade such boundaries.
Duras couldn’t be further stylistically from this bad-faith insouciance. She’ll start with one topic and end somewhere radically different, with no effort made to “tie it all together.” Everything is left resolutely open-ended; she effectively opens any historical event onto a continuous present. All the while, she skips between striking statements about herself, about art, about meaning, morality, and love. There are no boundaries. It bears remembering that the great tragedy of Duras’s early life was that her mother’s carefully accrued savings were wasted on a bad piece of farm land on the coast, which flooded routinely. Her mother attempted to build a sea wall, but the crabs would destroy it. There was no keeping back the deluge.
The longest piece in Me & Other Writing is “Summer 80,” which was commissioned by the newspaper Libération in 1980. Every week for three months she wrote a column for the newspaper. “Summer 80” is a truly unique piece of journalism, combining descriptions of the mournful seaside town where she vacations with meditations on current events, most prominently the labor movement of Gdańsk; her longing for her partner Yann Andréa Steiner, obliquely referred to as “you” in some dense, erotic passages; and an ongoing confabulation regarding a camp counselor at the beach and one of her charges. It all swirls together in her hot little room by the seaside, where Duras writes alone. “And I brought them back to me as I do with you, with the sea and the wind, and I shut you all in that bedroom lost above time,” she writes. Another time: “I placed my mouth on Gdańsk and kissed you.”
As with “Me,” these conflations can feel reckless, even unseemly. This was Duras’s great audacity, to create art that makes us bear witness to the terrifying flimsiness of the walls of our character, of being “an osmotic and physical phenomenon, of being soluble,” as she writes of how she feels under the eye of the painter Robert Lapoujade. For all the accusations of Duras as narcissistic, she’s actually painfully aware of how our fates are bound up with others. “Do you believe that human nature is fundamentally good? No. Do you believe that evil can be minimized? Yes,” she writes, as part of a long dialogue with the Gdańsk protestors in “Summer 80” that takes place only inside her head.
This radical coexistence of terms within her writing was predicated on another coexistence, which was between Duras the writer, Duras the alcoholic, and Duras the woman. These identities were mutually dependent. “I drank because I was an alcoholic,” she told The New York Times in 1991. “I was a real one — like a writer. I’m a real writer, I was a real alcoholic.” She became a writer so early in her life that she’s unable to pinpoint when it began, though it never became easier. In “Flaubert Is…,” the masterful opening essay of the collection, she writes, “Writing, everywhere, among all peoples, still provokes horror. Where there is nothing, there is a piece of paper. It’s the dawn of the world. There’s nothing, it’s blank. And then two hours later, it’s full. You compete with God. […] It’s completely terrifying.” One knows that she is serious because she drank every day, often vomiting in the morning and then continuing until she passed out in the evening.
So many of us write into our pain, or try to write out of it. Of course, not all writers have as abject a primal scene as Duras, whose body was exploited in her adolescence to ameliorate the family’s destitution. She would return through many guises to her mother’s lunacy, her family’s poverty, and her first sexual experiences, some of these versions mutually referential. “I’ll say it again, it’s never the same. You have to say things again.” She writes with only a vague gesture to what “it” is, on the first page of Me & Other Writing. But anyone who reads her will find out soon enough.
The dissolution of boundaries in Duras’s work, however, is also predicated on love. As much as she was a writer and an alcoholic, she was a woman who loved:
The most important experience you have is to write. I have never had another experience so violent — except, yes, the birth of my child. In fact I can’t discern a difference between the two. Writing is wholly equivalent to life. Sometimes it occurs outside of writing, sometimes it occurs inside of writing.
Also, from “I Thought Often…”: “I have spoken a lot of maternal love because it is the only love I know to be unconditional. It is the love that never ceases, sheltered from every storm. It can’t be helped, it’s a calamity, the only one in the world, marvelous.”
Desire is always pulling disparate things into relationship with one another. Any one thing can be connected to any other thing within the void of the beloved’s absence. It collapses the usual boundaries; time is only measured as waiting, and space as “near” or “far.” Love is of such density that it rends a hole in space-time. While recounting her miscarriage in “The Horror of Such a Love,” Duras continually mentions the acacias that were outside her hospital window. The density of love swallowed up the acacias when the nurses admitted that Duras couldn’t see her stillborn child because “they burn them.”
Duras’s devotion to writing was as unconditional as love, and sometimes she was similarly powerless before it. “It’s absolutely horrible to find yourself before a book you can’t write,” Duras says. “I was alone with myself. No one could help me.” Maurice Blanchot, a lifelong friend of Duras, wrote in his book L’Espace Littéraire (in English, The Space of Literature) that writers often keep journals for the purpose of anchoring themselves to the real world and to real time while they enter the void of writing. It’s a line back to a shared existence. “I thought to myself that we are always writing on the dead body of the world, and, similarly, on the dead body of love,” Duras writes, in “Summer 80.” “That it is in these states of absence that writing rushes in.” Time, which is left behind in love and in writing, can only be felt in its fullness as the present by someone who is suffering. Duras exits the suffering of time by entering into the non-time of work. She was very jealous of her hours. When the initial commission for “Summer 80” came, it was for a daily column: “I almost yielded, and then no, I was afraid, always that same panic at not having the entirety of my days at my disposal, opening on to nothing. I said: No, once a week.”
Duras spent her life like this; writing, writing. She can remember periods where she stopped writing, but not ever when she began. A funny thing happens when one writes, which Blanchot notes in The Space of Literature: once one has completed something, it becomes unfamiliar. So, if you write about your life, what becomes of it? Does it vanish into the books? As Duras writes, “The unknown in my life is my written life. I will die without knowing this unknown.” She is one of the most personal authors in the literary canon, the maître of autofiction, but she maintains that this body of work is unrecognizable. There are some things she will not risk giving over to this unknown, however. In “The Men of Tomorrow” from 1985, she writes: “Happiness is unattainable. It’s extraordinarily mysterious, brilliantly mysterious. Let us never utter this word again.”