Duras, Marguerite (1914–1996)

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Duras, Marguerite (1914–1996)

French author and filmmaker born and raised in French Indochina whose work crosses traditional boundaries of fiction and autobiography, blurring the lines between self and other, reality and imagination, absence and desire. Name variations: Marguerite Donnadieu. Pronunciation: du-RAS. Born Marguerite Donnadieu on April 4, 1914, in Gia-Dinh, near Saigon, in French Indochina; died in Paris, France, on March 3, 1996; daughter of French colonial settlers Henri Donnadieu (taught mathematics and made a brief career for himself in the colonial government) and Marie Legrand Donnadieu (trained as an elementary school teacher in France and taught at a school for indigenous children in Indochina);

completed high school in Saigon; studied law and political science in Paris; married Robert Antelme, in 1939 (divorced 1946); children: (with Dionys Mascolo) son, Jean Mascolo (b. 1947).

Grew up in Indochina; returned to France with family (1932); chose name Marguerite Duras when her first book, Les Impudents, was published (1943); entered the French Resistance movement; joined the Communist Party (1944), which she then left (1950); actively protested against the war in Algeria (1955–60); published over 40 novels as well as numerous essays, stories, plays, films, and interviews; awarded the Goncourt prize for literature for her novel The Lover (1984).

Selected novels:

Un Barrage contre le Pacifique (1950, translated as The Sea Wall, 1986); Moderato Cantabile (1958, translated as Moderato Cantabile in Four Novels by Marguerite Duras, 1965); Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein (1964, translated as The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein, 1986); L'Amant (1984, translated as The Lover, 1985); La douleur (1985, translated as The War: A Memoir, 1987); Yann Andréas Steiner (1992).


Hiroshima mon amour (1960), Nathalie Granger (1972), India Song (1974), Le Camion (The Truck, 1977).

Her life focused on her writing, her writing delved into her life: fiction and autobiography are virtually inseparable in the works of Marguerite Duras. Her many books and films refer back to her youth in Indochina, the wartime years in France, the relationship with her mother and brothers. Intimate, personal experience surfaces like a favorite literary trope as the author probes for potential meanings and new understandings. Marguerite Duras remains, however, an elusive figure for potential biographers: chronologies of her life vary from source to source. During her lifetime, Duras rarely spoke of the dates and facts related to her own biography and conflicting references to her life's events dot several of her novels. How, then, can we reconstruct the life of Marguerite Duras? Weaving together Duras' childhood in Indochina and her adult life in France with the literary and ideological currents of her fiction, a telling picture can be painted of one of the most successful and important French literary figures in the second half of the 20th century.

The story of my life doesn't exist. Does not exist. There's never any center to it. No path, no line. There are great spaces where you pretend there used to be someone, but it's not true, there was no one.

—Marguerite Duras, The Lover

Marguerite Duras was born Marguerite Donnadieu on April 4, 1914, in the French colony of Indochina (modern-day Vietnam and Cambodia). At the time of her birth, the French still held multiple colonies all over the globe—colonies typically exploited for their natural resources. Indochina was certainly no exception: in search of petroleum, rubber, and arable farm land, the French brought their colonial organization, the Catholic religion, and Western traditions to Southeast Asia, coolly displacing thousands of years of rich cultural heritage. In the French colonial society of Indochina, white men typically controlled money and power, embedding the notions of class and race into the social hierarchy. Marguerite Duras' parents enlisted separately as foot soldiers in this proverbial colonial army: both had been lured to Indochina by French propaganda for the colonies. Marguerite's mother Marie Legrand Donnadieu went to Indochina to teach indigenous children, a low-level position within the colonial establishment, and there she met her husband Henri Donnadieu. A math teacher who went on to a more important position in the colonial establishment, Henri Donnadieu did not live long enough to earn his family the fabled wealth of the colonies. Named to a governmental post in Phnom Penh in 1918, he soon fell ill and returned to France where he died shortly thereafter. The family went to France to settle his estate and, two years later, returned to Indochina where Marie Donnadieu took a teaching position.

As members of a poor, white family in Indochina, Marguerite, her two brothers, Pierre and Paulo, and her mother, did not fit neatly into the colonial hierarchy. Their poverty alienated them from the colonial elite, yet their white skin entitled them to certain privileges in the eyes of that same government. As a child and adolescent in this society, Marguerite Duras was doubly marginalized: a white girl with no money and an uncertain future, she had neither power nor position. She spoke Vietnamese and played with indigenous children, but was not Vietnamese; at the same time, little more than the French language and her parents' families connected her to France. Indeed, the sense of privilege instilled upon her by her French nationality ran contrary to the sense of exclusion from the community that grew out of her economic and gender status. Her Creole origins thus became fundamental to Duras' literary search for self.

This constant conflict fueled by class, race, and gender manifested itself in the family's daily life and in Duras' work: sometime between 1924 and 1926, Duras' mother bought a "concession," or farmlands, from the colonial government with her savings. Naive and unaware of the corruption that riddled the colonial bureaucracy, Marie Donnadieu did not know that good land could only be bought by bribing the proper officials. With all of their money invested in the purchase of their bungalow and the lease of the surrounding land for rice farming, the family soon discovered that the land was flooded by the China Sea every summer and thus unsuitable for cultivation. The mother briefly reassured Marguerite and her brothers that all would be remedied by the construction of a series of dikes along the perimeter of the property: when these collapsed, the family was forced to acknowledge that the land was worthless, and that they would never recover their investment.

This episode is recounted in detail in several of Duras' books, including The Sea Wall and The Lover. Stylistically very different, these two novels examine and reexamine the plight of an adolescent girl in a poor, white family in Indochina. The Sea Wall, with its realistic account of Suzanne, Joseph, and their mother, details their desperate and somehow pathetic struggle to save a concession doomed to failure: "Then, in July, the sea had risen as usual, in an assault on the plain. The sea walls had not been strong enough. The logs had been eaten through by the dwarf crabs of the paddies. In one single night the sea walls had collapsed." The struggle against nature has already been lost, and what remains is a struggle against time, an eternal wait for something to happen, for the savior to arrive. Suzanne waits for a man, Joseph waits for a woman, the mother waits for death. The Lover comments more obliquely on the same story, abandoning realist tendencies for a select series of images that piece by piece construct the unnamed narrator's story. The doomed concession, the eternal wait, and the forbidden love all return in a changed context. Even the crumbled sea walls of the concession are present, yet transformed: "All around her are wildernesses, wastes. The sons are wildernesses, they'll never do anything. The salt land's a wilderness too, the money's lost for good, it's all over. The only thing left is this girl, she's growing up, perhaps one day she'll find out how to bring in some money." Returning to the same events, reconstructing mirror images, Duras gradually colors in the dimmed lines of childhood through her fiction.

At 16, Marguerite went to Saigon to study, and around this time she met the Chinese man who would become her lover and the unnamed protagonist of her novel, The Lover. Two years later, at age 18, she and her family left for France: Duras would never return to Indochina again. In France, Duras began studying politics and law, and during this time met Robert Antelme, a fellow law student. They married in 1939 and lived in an apartment on the rue Saint-Benoît in Paris, where Duras remained until she died. In 1942, she learned of her brother Paulo's death in Saigon; during that same year, she lost a child at birth, in part because a doctor could not reach her in time because of the German Occupation. In 1943, Duras and her husband joined the French Resistance movement: a year later, Robert Antelme was arrested and deported by the Nazis to Dachau for his participation in the Resistance. Duras explores the trials of the long wait for Antelme in her book The War: A Memoir. During her husband's absence, Duras joined the Communist Party, a decision that she attributes in The War to a personal need for connection rather than to specific political ideals. Indeed, she left the party six years later. Upon Antelme's return to Paris in 1945, Duras nursed her husband back to health but had already decided to divorce him in order to have a child with her companion, Dionys Mascolo. Despite this change of heart, she and Antelme remained friends and continued to collaborate on projects. Duras' son Jean Mascolo was born in 1947.

During this period of political and personal commotion, Marguerite Donnadieu became Marguerite Duras with the publication of her first novel, Les Impudents. Following the war, Duras received major critical acclaim for The Sea Wall and embarked upon a literary career that would span six decades. With the publication of Moderato Cantabile in 1958, she assured herself a certain degree of financial stability and established herself as one of the premier novelists in France, often categorized with the "new novelists" like Nathalie Sarraute . Duras' minimalist style, developed in The Square and Moderato Cantabile, remains more difficult to define according to genre and style: novels may read like theater or scenarios, the subjectivity of the "I" is ever vacillating. Indeed, through her innovative use of narrative, she created a unique niche for herself on the literary stage.

During this time of literary development, Duras' political activism is well-defined. She protested actively with French intellectuals against the war in Algeria, where the French fought to hold onto their colony. She wrote for the leftist paper Libération, as well as for France-Observateur and the feminist journal Sorcières (Witches). Her position on feminism, however, proves difficult to pinpoint: Duras wrote and rewrote women's stories, giving them voices where they had previously gone unheard; yet these female voices often completed male paradigms of love and desire. Duras is hailed by some as a feminist, as a master of écriture féminine, and labeled by others as a conservative, unable to disengage her narratives from the confines of Western, heterosexual discourse. Take, for example, Moderato Cantabile, the story of Anne Desbaresdes, told by an unnamed narrator loosely associated with the protagonist. Anne Desbaresdes is the wife of a wealthy factory owner and the mother of a young boy, whose care is entrusted uniquely to her. Bored and depressed by her bourgeois lifestyle, Anne searches for distraction and ultimately liberation, which gradually evolves from a singular event: after accompanying her son to his piano lesson, she witnesses the aftermath of a crime of passion. Anne watches in fascination as a man cradles the head of his lover in his arms while blood trickles from her mouth. Anne then enters a nearby café, embarking on the first step in her own passionate love story, one that she is about to create. She and Chauvin, an unemployed factory worker, meet daily in the café to recreate the crime verbally, to fill in the gaps that they did not witness. They create their own violent, albeit bloodless, affair that terminates in Anne's narrative death; the development of Duras' narration proves to be as dangerous as the opening crime scene. As Marilyn Schuster writes in Marguerite Duras Revisited: "Fiction in Moderato Cantabile becomes an instrument of desire and death. Anne does not tell this story with Chauvin's help in order to understand or to escape the person she had become but to kill her, to live as fully as she can the story of fatal passion that she discovers when she witnesses the crime." Duras thus crafts a novel that is stylistically fascinating and innovative. At the same time, she repeats the age-old tale of the lover's quarrel, culminating in the death of the woman. This complex configuration of narration, at once daring and conservative, characterizes much of Duras' fiction.

Duras' novels go on to shape and express her views on feminism and the world throughout the 1960s. In particular, The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein presents an excellent example of écriture féminine, as the author displaces traditional chronological narrative with one characterized by its gaps, absences, and holes. Indeed, in order to read the story, the reader must invent the missing details and slowly reconstruct the story of Lol. V. Stein. As such, the reader functions much like the biographer who must continually fill the empty spaces in the life of the author, Marguerite Duras.

In the 1970s, Duras the writer engineered another twist in her personal story, turning to filmmaking as a primary occupation. In 1959, she had already written the scenario for Alain Resnais' Hiroshima, mon amour: this experience had introduced her to the production process and assured her a small but serious following in the cinema. Her 1970s' productions, including Nathalie Granger, India Song, and The Truck, appeared in print and on the screen, and met with mixed critical reviews. India Song, considered by critics to be her finest film, revisits the Lol V. Stein narrative, bringing together all of its diverse elements. Duras' cinematic productions, like her narrations, are characterized by innovative approaches, such as the stark separation of soundtrack and visual images.

The 1980s and 1990s were marked by health problems and various detoxification treatments related to Duras' long-term addiction to alcohol. In October 1988, she was hospitalized in the American Hospital in Neuilly and, for reasons that the doctors were unable to determine,

went into a coma that lasted for five months. She remained hospitalized until June 1989; a tracheotomy left her with a breathing apparatus in her throat. Despite her failing health, Duras returned to writing: she had become a worldwide celebrity in 1984 with the publication of The Lover, for which she won the prestigious Goncourt prize. During this time, Yann Andréa, a homosexual student from Caen, became her companion and helped her through the difficulties associated with her illness. She details the story of their meeting in her last book, Yann Andréas Steiner. In this narrative, she merges the identities of Yann Andréas and Aurélie Steiner, the Jewish, female protagonist of her film Aurélie Steiner. In the process, Duras confounds gender and sexuality, once again blurring the lines between fiction and reality.

Marguerite Duras continued to inspire interest and debate throughout her later years. In particular, an article written for the Libération in 1985 proved especially controversial: in the article, Duras accused a mother of murdering her young son but went on to declare the woman's innocence, claiming to recognize in the woman's gaze the look of insanity caused by an abusive marriage. Duras was ridiculed by critics for having termed the murder sublime: some criticized her for having condemned a woman who proclaimed her innocence, others for having arrogantly spoken in the name of all women. Duras stood by her interpretation of the events, despite these reproaches. Throughout her career, her staunch disregard for public opinion permitted Marguerite Duras to express herself in any situation. No doubt that this self assurance also allowed her to put forth the narrative innovations and interpretive strategies that characterize her work.

Marguerite Duras died on March 3, 1996, in Paris, one month before her 82nd birthday, bringing to an end 50 years of authorship and publication. The literary and cinematic world mourned the passing of one of their most lauded yet controversial figures. An astonishing woman, she never strayed from her vision of living and writing. Indeed, with each novel, film, and article, Marguerite Duras inscribed the pages of her very being, one in which life, love, and writing prove to be integral elements of a single story.


Duras, Marguerite. The Lover. Translated by Barbara Bray. NY: Pantheon, 1985.

——. Moderato Cantabile in Four Novels by Marguerite Duras. Translated by Richard Weaver. NY: Grove Press, 1965.

——. The Sea Wall. Translated by Herma Briffault. NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1952.

——. The War: A Memoir. Translated by Barbara Bray. NY: Pantheon, 1986.

Schuster, Marilyn R. Marguerite Duras Revisited. NY: Twayne, 1993.

suggested reading:

Hewitt, Leah D. Autobiographical Tightropes: Simone de Beauvoir, Nathalie Sarraute, Marguerite Duras, Monique Wittig, and Maryse Condé. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1990.

Hill, Leslie. Marguerite Duras: Apocalyptic Desires. London: Routledge, 1993.

related media:

Duras, Marguerite. Hiroshima mon amour. Translated by Richard Weaver. NY: Grove Press, 1961. Film made by Alain Resnais in 1959, distributed by Zenith International Film Corporation.

——. India Song. (120 min.) color film, 1974.

Sara Steinert Borella , Assistant Professor of French, Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon