Posts Tagged ‘Dan Gunn’

“A writer of extremes”: Dan Gunn on Marguerite Duras in the TLS

Saturday, November 15th, 2014

Busy man in Paris.

I met Dan Gunn several years ago. He’s a professor of comp lit at the American University in Paris, and one of the editors of Samuel Beckett‘s letters – an excellent mind and an excellent scholar; I wrote about him here. (He’s also editor of the superb Cahiers Series – which I’ve written about here and here, so he’s a very busy man). Fortunately, he’s been able to pull away from the Irish maestro long enough to write a masterful retrospective on Marguerite Duras in the current Times Literary Supplement, in time (but barely) for the French writer’s centenary. Dan Gunn takes on the question on every reader’s  mind as she explored the genre of “autofiction”: “But … but… but…did it really happen?” (As you may recall, Duras was the featured author at one of last year’s “Another Look” events – here.

He concludes:”Duras was a writer of extremes: extreme tensions, extreme conflicts, extreme non-resolutions; extremely fine texts, and some – fortunately much rarer – extremely embarrassing ones.” Astonishing technique, rather than truth, is why we turn to her novels: “Duras’s works often operate by way of incantation, by repetition of key terms, names, phrases, gestures,” he writes. Besides the centenary as an occasion for writing, Open Letter Books are republishing Duras for a new generation of readers, and Gunn points out some of the pitfalls of translation.

A few excerpts, the first on the novel featured last year at Stanford, The Lover:


Iconic self-portrait

“Few Duras enthusiasts would place L’Amant quite at the centre of the canon. Yet it is hard to imagine the degree of attention Duras is currently commanding in France, or the fascination with every detail of her biography, without it. Three pages into L’Amant, the narrator announces: ‘L’histoire de ma vie n’existe pas. Ça n’existe pas’. The remaining pages serve to qualify this assertion, establishing a life recollected not as a continuum but as a series of pulsations, with crucial moments vividly returning, almost like the snapshots which Duras claims were the novel’s instigation. The intervals between the moments disappear, as does continuity, allowing the early experience to spurt back into the present. By 1984, when L’Amant was published, the elements of that life were already well known, not least through the first of Duras’s great autobiographical fictions, Un Barrage contre le Pacifique (1950): the colonial childhood in French Indochina; the early death of the father with the consequent indigence of his wife and children; the hopeless attempt to revive the family fortunes through purchase of a disastrously infertile piece of land; the two brothers, the elder of whom was violent and criminal, the younger of whom needed protecting; above all the stark emotional unavailability of the mother, wrapped up as she was in her financial woes, her loss of social status, her infatuation with her abusive first-born son.”


“Also included is a hitherto unpublished piece in which Duras writes of the intoxication of believing herself to be watched by so many. ‘On a su’, she writes, ‘que ça écoutait bien, les millions.’ Duras seems to have become entranced by her fantasy of the ‘millions’. … It is the autobiographical impulse, when combined with successive blurrings of the autobiographical lines, that has stimulated an insatiable public appetite for ostensibly objective corroborations of the life.”


Lamour-front“Yet she too, opening the first of her five biographical sketches, admits, ‘Je ne sais plus qui est Marguerite Duras’. … In an article reprinted in La Vie matérielle (1987) and included in the Pléiade Volume IV, Duras alludes to her own loquacity – a loquacity henceforth enshrined by the thoroughness of her editors and biographers: ‘Dans le train’, she writes, ‘je parle pour parler avec des inconnus, je parle de ce qu’on voit, du paysage, du temps. J’ai souvent un désir de parler, très vif, très fort’. Though we are much more familiar today than we were thirty years ago with the way that celebrity sanctions surfeit, there remains a sense, for this reader at least, of disappointment that so wonderful a writer could have been encouraged to talk so much and to commit to print so much tosh; writing so embarrassingly pretentious that it justified Patrick Rambaud’s cruel parody, Virginie Q (1988), which contains, for example, a hilarious interview between “Marguerite Duraille” and an imaginary middleweight boxer.”

Read the whole essay here.