Posts Tagged ‘Marguerite Duras’

Steve Wasserman: “The world we carry in our heads is arguably the most important space of all.”

Monday, September 25th, 2017

Back home in Berkeley

We’ve written about Steve Wasserman before – here and here and here. On Saturday, he gave the keynote address at the 17th Annual North Coast Redwoods Writers’ Conference at the College of the Redwoods, Del Norte, in Crescent City. The subject: “A Writer’s Space.” He’s given us permission to reprint his words on that occasion, and we’re delighted. Here they are:

Not long after I returned to California last year to take the helm of Heyday Books, a distinguished independent nonprofit press founded by the great Malcolm Margolin forty years ago in Berkeley, my hometown, I was asked to give the keynote speech at this annual conference. I found myself agreeing to do so almost too readily—so flattered was I to have been asked. Ken Letko told me the theme of the gathering was to be “A Writer’s Space.”

In the months that have elapsed since that kind invitation, I have brooded on this singular and curious formulation, seeking to understand what it might mean.

What do we think we mean when we say “a writer’s space”? Is such a space different than, say, any other citizen’s space? Is the space of a writer a physical place—the place where the writing is actually done, the den, the office, the hotel room, the bar or café, the bedroom, upon a desk or table or any available flat and stable surface?

Or is the “writer’s space” an inner region of the mind? Or is it a psychological place deep within the recesses of the heart, a storehouse of emotions containing a jumble of neurological circuitry? Is it the place, whether physical or spiritual, where the writer tries to make sense of otherwise inchoate lives? In either case, is it a zone of safety that permits the writer to be vulnerable and daring and honest so as to find meaning and order in the service of story?

Early Babylonian shopping list

Perhaps it will be useful to begin at the very dawn of writing when prehistory became history. Let’s think, for a moment, about the clay tablets that date from around 3200 B.C. on which were etched small, repetitive impressed characters that look like wedge-shape footprints that we call cuneiform, the script language of ancient Sumer in Mesopotamia. Along with the other ancient civilizations of the Chinese and the Maya, the Babylonians put spoken language into material form and for the first time people could store information, whether of lists of goods or taxes, and transmit it across time and space.

It would take two millennia for writing to become a carrier of narrative, of story, of epic, which arrives in the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh.

Writing was a secret code, the instrument of tax collectors and traders in the service of god-kings. Preeminently, it was the province of priests and guardians of holy texts. With the arrival of monotheism, there was a great need to record the word of God, and the many subsequent commentaries on the ethical and spiritual obligations of faithfully adhering to a set of religious precepts. This task required special places where scribes could carry out their sanctified work. Think the Caves of Qumran, some natural and some artificial, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, or later the medieval monasteries where illuminated manuscripts were painstakingly created.

First story

Illiteracy, it should be remembered, was commonplace. From the start, the creation of texts was bound up with a notion of the holy, of a place where experts—anointed by God—were tasked with making Scripture palpable. They were the translators and custodians of the ineffable and the unknowable, and they spent their lives making it possible for ordinary people to partake of the wisdom to be had from the all-seeing, all-powerful Deity from whom meaning, sustenance, and life itself was derived.

We needn’t rehearse the religious quarrels and sectarian strife that bloodied the struggle between the Age of Superstition and the Age of Enlightenment, except perhaps to note that the world was often divided—as, alas, it still sadly is—between those who insist all answers are to be found in a single book and those who believe in two, three, many books.

The point is that the notion of a repository where the writer (or religious shaman, adept, or priest) told or retold the parables and stories of God, was widely accepted. It meant that, from the start, a writer’s space was a space with a sacred aura. It was a place deemed to have special qualities—qualities that encouraged the communication of stories that in their detail and point conferred significance upon and gave importance to lives that otherwise might have seemed untethered and without meaning. The writer, by this measure, was a kind of oracle, with a special ability, by virtue of temperament and training, to pierce the veil of mystery and ignorance that was the usual lot of most people and to make sense of the past, parse the present, and even to predict the future.

A porous epidermis

This idea of the writer was powerful. It still is. By the time we enter the Romantic Age, the notion of a writer’s space has shed its religious origins without abandoning in the popular imagination the belief that writers have a special and enviable access to inner, truer worlds, often invisible to the rest of us. How to put it? That, by and large, artists generally, of which writers are a subset, are people whose epidermises, as it were, are more porous than most people’s. And thus they are more vulnerable, more open to the world around them, more alert, more perspicacious. Shelley put it well when he wrote that, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Think Virginia Woolf.

By the end of the nineteenth century, writers in their person and in their spaces are widely celebrated and revered, imbued with talents and special powers that arouse admiration bordering on worship. It is said that when Mark Twain came to London and strode down the gangplank as he disembarked from the ship that had brought him across the Atlantic, dockworkers that had never read a single word of his imperishable stories, burst into applause when the nimbus of white hair atop the head of the man in the white suit hove into view. Similarly, when Oscar Wilde was asked at the New York customs house if he had anything to declare, when he arrived in America in 1882 to deliver his lectures on aesthetics, he is said to have replied: “Only my genius.”

Applause, applause

Many writers were quickly enrolled in the service of nationalist movements of all kinds, even as many writers saw themselves as citizens in an international republic of letters, a far-flung fraternity of speakers of many diverse languages, but united in their fealty to story. Nonetheless, the space where they composed their work–their studies and offices and homes—quickly became tourist destinations, sites of pilgrimage where devoted readers could pay homage. The objects on the desk, writing instruments and inkwells, foolscap and notebooks, the arrangement of photographs and paintings on their walls, the pattern of wallpaper, the very furniture itself, and preeminently the desk and chair, favorite divan and reading sofa, lamps and carpets, all became invested with a sacredness and veneration previously reserved only for religious figures. Balzac’s home, Tolstoy’s dacha, Hemingway’s Cuban estate, are but three of many possible examples. Writers were now our secular saints.

Somehow it was thought that by entering these spaces, the key to unlocking the secret of literary creation could be had, and that by inhaling the very atmosphere which celebrated authors once breathed, one could, by a strange alchemy or osmosis, absorb the essence that animated the writer’s imagination and made possible the realization of native talent.


“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.


Marguerite Duras: the Vietnamese still speak of her “with their eyes full of tears”

Saturday, May 10th, 2014

pantheon-coverA few days ago we challenged Marguerite Duras’s handling of the facts in a long post “But, but, but … did it really happen?” A few days earlier than that, we announced the May 12 “Another Look” book club event celebrating the author’s centenary with a discussion of her short, iconic classic, The Lover.  But The Lover wasn’t the only autobiographical novel she wrote. The Sea Wall (1950) is another. The earlier book, which takes place in Indochina of the 1920s, tells of her mother’s desperate fight against the sea. Tricked by the local administrators into purchasing a useless concession of land with her life’s savings, the mother builds a sea wall to prevent the annual monsoon from flooding the land – but the wall is swept away with the first rains.  In Laure Adler’s Marguerite Duras: A Life, the biographer describes one unintended consequence of the widow’s hopeless struggle. Duras is greatly admired in Vietnam:

vietnam3“Even today in Ho Chi Minh City learned old Vietnamese men will speak to you of Marguerite’s book The Sea Wall with their eyes full of tears. They’re moved not so much by the mother’s despair as by the passion with which Marguerite pays tribute to the men who died in the blistering heat, cutting and laying roads through the swamps for France. The men were chained together. Ordered to work them till they dropped, military leaders, veterans of the French colonial army, rounded up and oversaw political prisoners and poor peasants dying of starvation. Numerous testimonies speak of having seen groups of them dragging dead bodies around. This orally transmitted historical fact has never been properly recorded. Marguerite paid tribute to these unsung heroes who gave their lives for France. There are students in Vietnam today who still tremble with gratitude towards Marguerite Duras. She was the only one to speak of the children of the plain who the moment they were born were condemned to die of hunger, cholera or dysentery. ‘The children simply went back to the land like wild mountain mangoes, like the little monkeys from the mouth of the lagoon.’”

Marguerite Duras’s The Lover: But, but, but … did it really happen?

Sunday, May 4th, 2014

duras3We’re gearing up for the next “Another Look” event a week from tomorrow – that’s Monday, May 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Stanford Humanities Center. The Book Haven wrote about the upcoming event here.  It’s going to be a lot of fun – fans of The Lover are coming out of the woodwork and writing to me. Anyway, Blakey Vermeule will lead the discussion, with Paula Moya and Stephen Seligman, who is a psychiatrist and professor from UC-San Francisco. After doing a little digging to answer the eternal question – “but did it really happen?” – I think a shrink might be just the ticket. But hey, that’s just my opinion. Here’s what I found out from my digging:

“I swear it. I swear all of it. I have never lied in a book. Or even in my life. Except to men. Never.”

With these words, Marguerite Duras penned a categorical denial of any fanciful invention in her many autobiographical novels and films. One ponders the odd qualification: admitting she “only” lied to men implies she was willing to deceive half the human race.

The denial invites the question: Did she ever tell the truth? She says she was ostracized for her reckless teenage affair with an older Chinese millionaire – yet one classmate remembers Marguerite as secretive and well-behaved, though she boasted mysteriously of leading a double life. The former student clearly recalls Duras appearing at school, flaunting a diamond ring, saying she knew a rich man. This incident represents one contact point between her fiction and the truth. Yet another lycée classmate said, “I just don’t understand this story about a Chinese lover. It wasn’t like today. There were no lovers, especially not Chinese lovers.”

One boarder at the Duras domicile described the mother as a strict teacher able to keep order among her unruly charges; she took him to mass every Sunday. A school counselor described her mother as a great teacher:


The mad queen of desperate poverty? With kids in 1906

“They worship her in Indochina because she’s so dedicated to her profession. She has educated thousands of children … They say she has never given up on a child, not until he could read and write. She would hold classes late into the evening for children she knew would someday be workers … when students lived too far away to go home in the evening, she had them sleep at her house on mats in the living room, or in the school’s playroom…”

The mad queen of desperate poverty? Not quite. And yet the counselor’s account comes from Duras herself, documented in a later memoir. Duras herself is telling the other side of the story, the side that undermines and argues with her own earlier versions.

She didn’t always reverse herself. Duras portrays her mother as crazy and desperate, frozen in time and literature as the tenacious colonial mother struggling to save a disastrous investment in 1950′s The Sea Wall, or the seriously depressed and abusive mother in 1984′s The Lover. But the mother wasn’t only a naïve victim of the French bureaucrats in the Land Registry of Cambodia. Far from languishing in her misfortune, she had become a wealthy woman by the time she returned to France in 1950, sending lots of money to her children. She had launched an upper-crust Saigon boarding school and purchased five houses which had proven to be a lucrative investment. She also trafficked in the Indochina piastres that all whites in the colony went in for, according to Duras’s biographer Laure Adler. She was a resilient self-made woman, more than able to get on her feet again after an economic disaster.

Did the Chinese lover exist? It appears so, but the story changed greatly over the years. InThe Sea Wall, Duras told the story of the teenage Suzanne courted by “Monsieur Jo,” the unattractive, depraved son of a wealthy planter. In this version he is white, not Chinese, and courts his prey in a seedy nightclub. By 1984, he would morph into the more alluring, nameless Chinese millionaire in The Lover.


Is he the “real” lover?

The lover has been identified as Huynh Thuy Le. The mansion with the blue tiles exists: his family home, 140 kilometers southwest of Saigon in Sadec, is now a tourist attraction and welcomes 1,000 visitors a month. The photo shows the gentle, wispy man she describes in the lover, a little wan and eager to please. By the time of her next book on the subject in 1991, The North China Lover, the hero has changed again, and Duras insists that this version is the once-and-for-all “truth”:

The man who gets out of the black limousine is other than the one in the book, but still Manchurian. He is a little different from the one in the book: he’s a little more solid than the other, less frightened than the other, bolder. He is better-looking, more robust. He is more ‘cinematic’ than the one in the book. And he’s also less timid facing the child.

Her trademark gold lamé down-at-the-heel party shoes had turned to black with rhinestones. Overall, the second book is a longer, weaker effort – the result of Duras’s quarrel with film director Jean-Jacques Annaud as they collaborated on the 1992 film of the book. Duras retaliated with The North China Lover as a way of reclaiming her story, she said.

In The North China Lover, the reader hears the sound of coins clinking in the background. The girl admits to her lover:

“On the ferry I saw you covered in gold, in a black car made of gold, with shoes made of gold. I think that’s why I wanted you so badly, right away, on the ferry – but it wasn’t just for that, I’m sure of it. Or maybe it was the gold I wanted, all the same, without knowing it.”

When the lover’s father insists that the affair is finito and that the son negotiate the payment of the family’s debts, the mother and lover talk money in a congenial tête-à-tête. She is not selling her daughter’s sexual services, but bargaining the payment for her departure.


The Mekong ferry boat existed, anyway.

The discovery of an undated notebook after Duras’s death in 1996 sheds new light on the affair. The notebook, most likely written during the war and not intended for publication, discloses a very different version of what happened. The lover, Léo, is no longer Chinese, but Annamese – native Vietnamese, socially a cut below the Chinese, who were a cut below the French. If the affair created a scandal, this greater social distance would have exacerbated it. In this telling, the lover is ugly – Duras is blunt about that. His face is badly scarred by smallpox. “He was much uglier than your average Annamese,” she wrote, “but his taste in clothes was impeccable.” She came to like him, but resisted his sexual overtures. After two years, they had sex, once, and she was revolted.

The hints of prostitution in the other books become even more open here. The mother is waiting for her after her sexless assignations, to see how much money she had been given. The girl learns to ask for more. Léo is on to the game and finds it squalid and distasteful


The lover’s house with blue tiles … now a tourist attraction.

It’s hard to square the elegant Chinese wastrel who described in The Lover with the ugly, pockmarked Vietnamese Léo she describes in these private writings. While some have doubted that the lover existed, perhaps no one so far has asked if there might have been two, entwined into one character in her fiction. After all, in The Lover, the Chinese man prophesies that the girl will never be faithful to one man. In The Sea Wall, the patient Monsieur Jo is juggled with another lover, Jean Agnosti. Could there have been another lover? Perhaps one before and after the trip to France in 1931? Duras died in 1996; we may never know the truth, and we don’t need to.

With her books, the adult looks back on the skinny teenager who was little more than an economic bargaining chip. She creates instead a powerful alter ego and heroine – one who, at 15, could take control over a much older and more sexually experienced lover, determining when the relationship would begin, and how it would proceed, touch by touch, kiss by kiss. Duras turns a sordid affair, with the smell of money in the background, into a tale of timeless eroticism.

pantheon-coverBiographer Adler writes, “The lover fails to separate mother and daughter, or to make the girl exist apart from her brothers. But he does offer her another life: that of writing. For the lover is the first to hear and believe that the child wants to become a writer. The affair with the lover disconnected Marguerite from the family group. While she was living the experience, she was thinking it, already selecting words so that she could write about it later. All her life, in one form or another, Marguerite never stopped telling the story of the lover.”

In the end, The Lover is a work of art more than it is a memoir. And the bigger creation is the one in Duras’s head: the invention of a deathless love that reverberates through a lifetime.

Stanford’s “Another Look” spotlights Marguerite Duras’ The Lover

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Stanford’s book club honors the famous French writer’s centenary with a May 12 discussion of The Lover, her autobiographical tale of her scandalous teenage affair with an older Chinese millionaire, set in her native Saigon. Read more below.


pantheon-coverLong before most Americans could find Vietnam on a map, the French ruled Indochina, and its Chinese, French, and native Annamese denizens lived in an unequal colonial stew. So when a 15-year-old French schoolgirl had a passionate affair with a wealthy 27-year-old Chinese lover in Saigon, it created a scandal. The affair eventually became a book, and the book became a masterpiece.

The writer, Marguerite Duras, would tell the story again and again, throughout her lifetime, but never more compellingly than in The Lover, which received a prestigious Prix Goncourt when it was published in 1984, and sold two million copies.

Now, in Marguerite Duras’s centenary year, the “Another Look” book club is celebrating the author and her book at 7:30 p.m., Monday, May 12, at the Stanford Humanities Center’s Levinthal Hall. The panel will be moderated by Blakey Vermeule, professor of English, with her colleague Paula Moya, professor of English, and Stephen Seligman, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco. The event is free and open to the public.

Vermeule had read the short novel as a high school student, but on rereading it, “I was gobsmacked,” she said. “It’s one of these masterpieces that gets rediscovered again and again. It’s a very intense book, so powerful it had slipped my mind what a truly great and subtle work of art it is.” With the centenary, she thought it was an excellent moment to revisit the book the New York Times Book Review had called “powerful, authentic, completely successful … perfect.”

Duras’ simple, terse writing style reads “as if language itself were merely a vehicle for conveying passion and desire, pain and despair,” wrote British author and journalist Alan Riding. “The mysteries of love and sex consumed her, but she had no room for sentimentality in her works, or indeed, in her life.”

“I write about love, yes, but not about tenderness,” she had told him in a 1990 New York Times interview. “I don’t like tender people. I myself am very harsh. When I love someone, I desire them. But tenderness supposes the exclusion of desire.”


A presidential pal

Duras was born in Gia Dinh, near Saigon. Her father fell ill and returned to France, where he died. Her widowed mother, a teacher, was bankrupted in a shady land deal. The family struggled as impoverished colonials in a small tight-knit, gossiping community. Duras recalls an abusive mother who had severe bouts with depression, a drug-addicted brother who beat his sister fiercely and stole from the family (and even its servants), and a beloved younger brother who died young. When she met a Chinese millionaire on the ferry crossing the Mekong River, the teenager saw a doorway to a different world. The affair continued until Duras returned to France to finish her education at 18.

In France, she worked in the French Résistance in a team under the direction future French President François Mitterand, who remained a lifelong friend. After the war, she became a member of the French Communist Party. Duras is often categorized with the writers of the postwar “nouveau roman,” a movement that loosened the grip of plot- and character-driven narrative, blurring the boundaries of time and space, but Duras resists easy categorization. She experimented with novels, plays, films, essays, journalism, and memoir. She was fascinated, in particular, by the possibilities of film, most notably writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais‘s 1960 classic, Hiroshima, Mon Amour.

She wrote The Lover at 70, when she had become a tiny old woman, her body wracked by alcoholism and cigarettes, giving interviews often read like a parody of what a French avant-garde writer is expected to sound like. She told the story in different ways with widely divergent details, so much so that until the discovery of an unpublished diary, there could be doubts that the affair had happened at all.

“She had an intensive, almost anti-social capacity to tell the story the way she wanted to tell it, in all its violence and ugliness,” said Vermeule. “The need to be utterly solitary, and socially antipathetic – very rarely does one see it in women writers. It’s not a pose they claim,” she said.

“This book is so very psychoanalytic. She’s clearly under that spell. Look at the nonlinearity of the story. As narrrator, she is almost dissociated from herself, moving from first to third person and back.”


The 1992 film that irked her…

Duras quarreled with film director Jean-Jacques Annaud as they collaborated on the 1992 film of the book, and retaliated with 1991’s The North China Lover, as a way of reclaiming her story. But no version before or since had the luster of The Lover. According to Stanford scholar Marilyn Yalom writing in How the French Invented Love, “She could transform a somewhat sordid affair into a mutually passionate romance and project into posterity her vision of love as an irresistable force that penetrates through the skin, regardless of its color.”

That vision continues to transfix readers, and The Lover continues to draw fans, decades after its first publication. In The Independent, South African playright and novelist Deborah Levy wrote in 2011, “The Lover does not just portray a forbidden sexual encounter of mind-blowing passion and intensity; it is also an essay on memory, death, desire and how colonialism messes up everyone.”

“Marguerite Duras was a reckless thinker, an egomaniac, a bit preposterous really. I believe she had to be. When she walks her bold but ‘puny’ female subject in her gold lamé shoes into the arms of her Chinese millionaire, Duras never covertly apologises for the moral or psychological way that she exists.”


The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the website is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.