by J. S. Porter

Voice. Mood. A moody voice. A style so elliptical that the voice and mood don't always conjure a character or tell a story. Instead: murmurs, whispers, secrets.

Wound. Memory. A wounded memory. Is that all you need for writing? Duras writes as if she is remembering things even though she may be inventing them. You can't read her confidently. She's elusive. You read her for ambiguity and ambivalence, elegy and evasion, beauty and sadness, for words that aspire to silence.

What a critic says about her play Agatha applies to many of her studies in minimalism: "an empty house, its walls bare, a window open...a deserted beach..." That's the Durassian mindscape - emptiness, bareness. Desertion.

What Duras writes to an actor friend who is about to play Madeleine in Savannah Bay also applies to Duras herself when you substitute the word write for play: "You don't know who you are, who you were, you know you have played, you don't know what you played, what you are playing, you know you have to play, you don't know what, you play."

Duras writes, she dreams writing, she obsesses writing, she performs writing, she's a writer.

Sometimes she lies. "[I]t's difficult to find the untruth, the point where the book lies, and on what level, in which adverb. It may lie in just one word. I don't think it lies about desire." The Lover may lie about some things, The North China Lover may lie about other things, but the reader needs to believe, as perhaps the author does too, that neither book lies about desire. "[I]t upsets me so much to write untruthfully, even slightly, it must be because it doesn't often happen," Duras says. Why don't I believe her? I want to.

Duras' books bring to life Stanley Kunitz's lines in "Touch Me."

What makes the engine go?

Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance

stirs in the buried life.
One season only,

and it's done.

Desire, the only motive of the world, desire, the only rigor humans must be acquainted with...," André Breton writes in L'Amour fou.

Duras knows about desire. "You didn't have to attract desire. Either it was in the woman who aroused it or it didn't exist. Either it was there at first glance or else it had never been. It was instant knowledge of sexual relationship or it was nothing. That too I knew before I experienced it." The girl looks at the man and desires him. The man looks at the girl and desires her.

My Duras is small:

The Lover (novel and film)
The North China Lover (the same story as The Lover but retold from a distance)
"The Bible" (short story published in The New Yorker, also available in Wartime Writings)
Hiroshima, Mon Amour (the screenplay and film)
The Malady of Death (novel)
Practicalities (a potpourri)
Two by Duras ("The Slut of the Normandy Coast" & "The Atlantic Man")
Yann Andréa Steiner (novel)

In her world: the mother, the lover, brothers, the sea, death, sex, memory, writing.

Marguerite Duras: author of novels, screenplays and plays, director of theatre and film. Her real name, Marguerite Donnadieu. Imagine having God in your name. Donne à Dieu. She took from her earthly father the less godly name of Duras, near Pardaillan, the costal wine-growing district where he was born. She took the name, in part, to avoid having the same surname as her elder brother.

Duras' family romance reads like a fairytale: the overburdened mother, the cruel older brother, the pure younger brother, the ambitious daughter, the dead father. The narrator-author describes her relationship with her family in The Lover with one wave of a wand: "It's in its aridity, its terrible harshness, its malignance, that I'm most deeply sure of myself, at the heart of my essential certainty, the certainty that later on I'll be a writer." You write or you're written on. Duras seemed to know that early on. In her fiction, as in her life, Duras seeks the mother's love. The mother beats her, the elder brother beats her, she can't save or protect the younger brother, she writes.

She uses her life in her fiction, the lived part and the dreamt part, the part she needed to believe in and surround herself with. Are The Lover and The North China Lover about desire and falling in love - or are they about penury and the prostituting of a daughter to keep a disintegrating family solvent? Does necessity negate love or make it inevitable?

Originally published in Hamilton Arts & Letters, Spring/Summer 2011

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