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Duras: the searing art of disintegration

File photo of writer, filmmaker, playwright and screenwriter Marguerite Duras, in her youth.
By Fernando Piragine
For the Herald

France, world mark 100 years this month of the birth of celebrated author

PARIS — Inconspicuous stems sprout from the cobblestone lanes of the Montparnasse cemetery, from a fringe fading away into the greyness where only the outline of two consonants stands out from a gravestone. No one would dare conceive that this is what remains of Marguerite Duras’ unbridled existence, from the unruly moment stretching between the blood-red lipped girl in a felt hat crossing the Mekong river on a ferryboat and the frayed old woman, her features devastated by alcohol abuse, who had long replaced her obedient eroticism with straight-lined skirts and turtle neck sweaters. It is not only an ontological disintegration of what fades away into dissolution but rather an inner agitation leading to extraordinary moorings — to its latitude: the patient mockery of the human project (like a piercing shard of metal bursting through the world’s mental seams, and carving, little by little, through the might of words, until reaching the unfleshed surface where nothing would prevail without the whimsical joining of signifier and signified).

Duras’ life is a warm reflection of each and every one of us, a heart-wrenching force weaving the odyssey of a return to a sense-deprived space where life and death converge. Just as a person awakening from a dream clings to its withering recollection, each word that Duras uses is a subtraction tool obliterating the middle ground between writing and silencing, in order to keep writing silently, yielding before the muffled howl as an extreme display of that hushed voice.

Freud would draw the line between a painter and a sculptor’s work: the former creates by adding layers of colour while the latter extracts chunks of matter. “Then you will see,” Duras would say, “that I write as one must, or so it seems to me: I write for nothing.”

She wrote and loved what she would write. Shedding history, mental reservations and destiny, she would also obsess over how those other people — who didn’t write — spent their time. She had even reached the point of sifting any and all experience through the inevitable sieve of literature, even the most sombre of occurrences. For her, writing had managed to inhabit a parallel universe oozing its interchanging flow in the here-and-now.

Marguerite Duras, whose true name was Marie Donnadieu, was born in 1914 in the Vietnamese town of Gia Ðinh, in a province which, at the time, was part of the so-called Indochinese Union: an annexation of protectorates belonging to the French colonial empire. Her father, a settler who had devoted his life to teaching mathematics, had to return to France following a severe bout of infectious fever when Marguerite was only four years old. He died very young, without getting to see his children grow up — which they did, albeit caught in the maelstrom of endemic poverty, irremediably free and scampering like vagrants through the blindly thick forests of South-East Asia. Almost like forest beasts. If one opens for a moment Duras’ Le Square, about the middle of the book one finds a peddler telling the story of how, three years before, he ended up wandering into a zoo in another city. What he felt was an instant of happiness: a sudden sense of freedom, a savage inkling of liberty spurred by his immediate kinship with the others.

Duras’ mother never ignored Guizot’s command: enrichissez-vous! She played the piano at L’Éden-Cinéma in an attempt to rub two cents together; a widowed schoolteacher, she latched on to her meagre possessions and struggled with all her strength against penury. After saving money for almost 20 years, she managed to buy a piece of land in Cambodia, which was unfortunately not suitable for cultivation, throwing her on the path to ruin and madness.

Duras’ first-hand knowledge of poverty will take on Promethean proportions in the sensible makeup of her world. At 18, Duras arrived in Paris, where she would graduate in Law, Political Science and Mathematics. She filled her life with husbands and lovers. Her first son died in 1942, the same year Marguerite met Dionys Mascolo, with whom she had another child. About that time she became involved in the French Resistance, alongside her first husband, Robert Antelme, and joined the Communist Party. Following an ambush, Antelme was indicted and sent to the Bachenwald concentration camp, from where he would return in pitiful shape, in 1945, when Marguerite decided to take care of him without further ado. They would get divorced a year later.

Around that time, Duras began her literary journey. Her first novels — Les impudents (1943) and La vie tranquille (1944) — are exploratory attempts of certain Anglo-Saxon inspiration which she kept on reshaping until reaching the form of the nouveau roman, a literary and artistic avant-garde movement that emerged in 1950s France. The nouveaux romanciers stood out through their restyling of the traditional notions on characters, anecdotes, time, space and even the writer’s point of view, undermining the structures of the language as a homogenizing vehicle.

With Duras, the thorough shift from the established linguistic norm would have as inevitable corollary the expression of her rejection of the egalitarian wasteland of the surrounding society, although she would follow through with her fertile need to create a certain space and writing that would be genuine for women. The increasing erotic tension never reaches the point of satisfaction and dramatizes the femininity paradigm throughout her work.

Duras wrote about 40 novels and several plays, chief among which: Un barrage contre le Pacifique (1950), Moderato cantabile (1958), Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein (1964), Le Viceconsul (1966), L’amante anglaise (1967), L'Amour (1971), L’amant (1984), and La douleur (1985).

Her stories are like intersected archipelagos surrounding a void which the sterile memory is unable to rebuild. Her prose breaks apart in disjointedly overlaid images of discordant scraps which follow one another without any sense of rational order. The images stop, wrap around each other or merely vanish off stage through descriptive mechanisms leading to a diagnosis of a painstakingly detailed, detachedly confuse and ever-implausible nihilism. The disintegration of the written word is a concept which seems rather plastic instead of conceptual: the word becomes subdued by the image, an effect she would later manage to reproduce in her filmmaking.

Duras’ images burst forth in a parade whose discontinuous chronology annihilates them one by one. Her characters are also built around a void of her own making, as part of a fragmentary, caved-in reality bereft of space-time references. Her words are a cry, a call, and a frustrated attempt at elucidating an irretrievable past or a haphazard destiny.

Devoid of physical appearance and psychological soundness, the beings inhabiting Duras’ pages are evanescent and laconic figures, fleeting as foam marionettes, shrunk and depersonalized to the point of retaining only a name as their mark of identity. These sealed and self-distanced realities confront the tragic and unhinged experience of intersubjetivity where, like voiceless orphans, they turn to broken phrases and silences as the best means of saying what they are.

In Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, there is no dialogue between the characters; feelings are used to refract a capsular and inaccessible orb which they rarely struggle to permeate. Music and other sounds unfold in a wide-sweeping range of polysemic functions, pursuing a cardinal goal in the expression of the impossibility to communicate. They are interwoven in the threads of Duras’ writing, evolving and alternately pulling apart. The silence is torn by reverberations which vanish just as swiftly as the dramatic settings inflicted on the characters themselves.

Filmmaking made a flamboyant entrance in Duras’ life in the 1970s, as if the unmerciful device of the seventh art had been born to serve her communication needs and wants. Duras’ filmic work does not skew away from her literary path. Détruire, dit-elle (1969), Natalie Granger (1972), India Song (1975), Agatha et les lectures illimitées (1981) or Les enfants (1984), as well as the script of Hiroshima, mon amour, explore the intense potency of a fragment materializing in a pure present time which is, just like music, a perpetual variation on a trauma, litany and repetition, control and waywardness.

Whichever the scale, be it universal or private, Duras’ work has been a trite ceremonial whose sacrifice is the founding wound of the human condition. She found the way to dismantle it all until presenting us with that water-surrounded place from where we can behold the poignancy of what it means to live as human beings.

Duras died from throat cancer on March 3, 1996, shortly before her 82th birthday.

@ffpiragine

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