A Short History of Marguerite Duras's Life and Work

Marguerite Duras (real name Marguerite Donnadieu) was born on April 4, 1914, in Gia Dinh (Vietnam), a town near Saigon, which at that time belonged to French Indochina. This is her biography.

A Short History of Marguerite Duras's Life and Work
French novelist and screenwriter Marguerite Duras.

Marguerite Duras was born on April 4, 1914, in Saigon -today Ho Chi Minh, in Vietnam- and lived in French Indochina during her childhood and early youth. This period marked her to the last bone: her books reflect this. At the age of 18, she started living in France, and between 1935 and 1941 she worked as a secretary at the Ministry of the Colonies.

During World War II, Marguerite managed to escape after the fall of her group, but her husband, Robert Antelme, ended up in a concentration camp, imprisoned and hopeless. A year later, however, he returned, and Marguerite cared for him even though she no longer loved him as she would have liked. Incidentally, The Pain is much more than the title of the novel in which she recounts this grayish period. The writer herself said that after childhood her only fears were the German police during the war, and perhaps some French political party.

The writer Marguerite Duras came to light with her magnificent novel A Dam Against the Pacific published in 1950, an autobiographical work and written portrait of her mother. With this publication, she approached the Goncourt Prize without winning it, because - in the author's own words - those in charge of awarding it did not want to give it to a leftist writer, to a communist.

The Prize was awarded to her thirty-four years later for her novel The Lover, which was translated into more than thirty languages and sold millions of copies. Marguerite further said that this was the work in which she absolved everyone in her family, including her older brother and mother.

Marguerite Duras wrote screenplays for cinema, including the film Hiroshima my love (1959) directed by Alain Resnais. She died of throat cancer on March 3, 1996, and all that remains today is her art and her bones in Montparnasse.

"To write is to try to know what one would write if one were to write". - Marguerite Duras

Two lovers are lying without looking at each other on a bed of white sheets. Their silhouettes can barely be distinguished by the light coming through the blinds; the nostalgic atmosphere of intense desire is perceived. This is one of the recurring images in the work of Marguerite Duras, whether in theater, film, or literature, disciplines in which she was prolific and outstanding.

Daughter of French parents, but born in Saigon, Duras was characterized by living with a bang. She was very poor in Indochina and a communist in France survived chronic alcoholism and an induced coma. She overcame the death of one of her children. She had two marriages and an infinity of idylls from which she emerged practically unscathed until a throat cancer ended her existence.

Duras's written oeuvre includes about fifty novels, film scripts, essays, and plays. Some of her novels are no longer than a short stories, where minimalist prose and energetic heroines are common. One of these novels is The Evil of Death, in which Duras writes a story of about fifty pages narrated in the second person, referring to the protagonist as "you". It includes short dialogues and the repetition of both words and actions is recurrent. The story also relies on the play on the word "death", which in the world of lovers is synonymous with not being able to love.

The work that received the most attention, though not necessarily the best, was The Lover. In this novel, she creates or perhaps recreates, the story of a love affair between a poverty-stricken French teenage girl and a wealthy 27-year-old Chinese man. Duras returned to this novel seven years later and, in a kind of rewrite, added new details and polished others, resulting in The Lover of North China.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of this rewrite is the cinematographic annotations in the text, in which Duras suggests to the potential director a parsimonious atmosphere with long shots that help prolong the lovers' pleasure. These indications are sometimes found in footnotes or simply as descriptions within the text: "the camera would leave the bed, go to the window, stop there over the closed blinds".

Before becoming a writer, Marguerite Duras studied mathematics, which she abandoned to study political science and law.

Another theme in Duras' work is the clash of cultures that cannot understand each other. In her work, it is common for a French woman, who often has no name, to have lovers of other nationalities. The bodies may touch, kiss, and merge until they occupy a single space, but their histories and cultures do not even come close to touching. The lovers never delve into or even show interest in the traditions to which the other belongs.

Anonymity is preserved between the two intimates often because of the superficiality with which they talk about their past or future, which is nonexistent in the relationships Duras presents because of the impossibility for the couple to build something together or simply not to talk about it. This can be seen in her acclaimed screenplay, which became the cult film Hiroshima, MyLove (1959), where the writer proposes a romance between a Japanese and a French woman, whose names are never mentioned, but they even come to love each other.

Film adaptations of her novels include Peter Brook's Seven Days... Seven Nights (French: Moderato cantabile, 1960), Tony Richardson's The Sailor from Gibraltar (1966), and The Lover (1992) directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, the latter being a film with which Duras was very dissatisfied.

In her maturity, she chose to write and direct her works. The first film she directed was The Music (1967), whose title may serve as a preamble to the style she later developed in her cinematographic works, characterized by the impeccable handling of the soundtrack that accompanies and models the images.

Her only surviving son, Jean Mascolo, was the offspring of a relationship she had with her lover, the intellectual Dionys Mascolo, in 1947.

Duras also focuses on the language of lighting to create atmospheres that embrace the story. In the film India Song - screened at the NYFF and Cannes in 1975, and starring Delphine Seyrig and Michel Lonsdale - the writer shows a clear interest in the composition of paintings and introduces the viewer to an exhibition of pictorial works that can move, where she often appeals to the lighting of static sequences for several minutes to show mood changes. This style is framed by "voice-over" dialogues that sometimes coincide with the actions of the actors.

The stories of Marguerite Duras remain current and make us react because of their unusual languages and styles, or simply because they are driven, like good lovers, by desire.

Sources: Sandra Sanabria, Luis Pere,  Radio UNAM