After the Second World War, a succession of French novelists—most famously Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Michel Butor—developed a kind of fiction which, though influenced by American writers like Ernest Hemingway, nonetheless took on qualities distinctly its own. The features which characterize what came to be known as the “nouveau roman” include, in the words of one (amazingly) sympathetic literary historian, “plotless stories from which motivation, the stock property of the traditional novel, is absent; nameless hero-narrators; banalities expressed by disarming clichés; absence of psychological verisimilitude.” Much of this fiction is addressed to the reader in the second person singular and takes place in the present tense; what action there is transpires in cinematic, non-chronological quick-takes; the thought, often tinged with Marxist ideology, tends toward an inscrutable abstraction, a tricky relativism, a fretwork of paradox, in which life is found to be a death sentence, or silence a more telling form of speech. In the work of writers like Maurice Blanchot, Georges Bataille, or Marguerite Duras, the deliberate banality of tone and obliqueness of narrative are used to describe bloodcurdling violence and extremes of sexuality.

The impassive surface and affectless protagonists that marked the French novel of the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies held a special social significance: they were intended to mimic the doomed mediocrity of modern life, and in particular, to signal the bankruptcy of bourgeois society. It is no accident that some of these French novelists were members of the Communist Party, although being littérateurs, they inclined more toward nihilism than toward political activism. Thus, the nouveau roman—which has been called by some the “anti-novel”—served after the War as an eminently appropriate literary form for a demoralized nation.

In recent years, however, while its Marxist cousins in the field of critical theory have gained popularity abroad, the nouveau roman has fallen on hard times. Indeed, in the last several years, such pioneers as Nathalie Sarraute have turned instead to triumphantly readable semi-autobiographical blockbusters. Of those French intellectuals who have long been associated with the nouveau roman but who have emerged—at least intermittently—from its cryptic toils into a new accessibility and forthrightness of narrative, none is more famous than Marguerite Duras, today the leading lady of French letters, whose latest novel, The Lover (1984), won her the Prix Goncourt and became a best-seller both in Europe and in the United States.

Marguerite Duras was born in 1914 in Indochina, the daughter of two French schoolteachers. Her colonial upbringing provides inspiration for the sinister and exotic images that trail through her books—it also forms the subject both of an early novel, The Sea Wall (1950) and of its recent and more celebrated reworking, The Lover. Duras came to Paris in 1931 and obtained a law degree four years later. She worked as a secretary in the Department of Colonies—a post she left when the Germans occupied France in 1940, at which time Duras joined the Resistance. This experience is described in a recently published diary, The War (1986). She was also for a decade a member of the French Communist Party, about which she writes today with laconic contempt. Duras has led a full career both in print journalism and in television—she gained renown for her investigation of the Ben Barka affair of 1965, in which an exiled Moroccan leader was kidnapped and murdered in Paris, possibly with Gaullist complicity. Until recently, however, she has been best known abroad for her screenplays, of which the most celebrated is the 1961 Hiroshima, Mon Amour, directed by Alain Resnais.

Duras is at once a prolific and a parsimonious writer.

Duras is at once a prolific and a parsimonious writer. She is the author of some fifteen novels, most of which are as brief as short stories and many of which she has converted into movies, plays, or other novels. Characters, place-names, lines of dialogue, incidents, and situations persistently recur throughout Duras’s work, creating an atmosphere of claustrophobic self-referentiality. Thus, at the beginning of The Lover, when the teenaged heroine meets a Chinese millionaire in a black limousine, the author interjects, “Yes, it’s the big funereal car that’s in my books. It’s a Morris Léon Bollée. The black Lancia at the French embassy in Calcutta hasn’t yet made its entrance on the literary scene.” In this manner, like a hostess who won’t let her guests talk among themselves, Duras continually dins upon the reader the reminder that this is not life but fiction (in the more derogatory sense of something “made up”) and, what’s more, her fiction. This feeling of characters and events not experienced or truly believed but only fantasized infects even—or perhaps especially—those works which are the most “autobiographical.”

Duras’s novels in essence are meditations on the theme of an erotic love that leads to enslavement or death. Though there is much violence in her work, it is a violence of which her characters are not agents but rather complicit observers. In her first novel, Les Impudents (1943), the heroine covers up her brother’s probable murder of his girlfriend. In her second novel, it is his murder of an uncle that she conceals. (The boy then kills himself.) In a skilled and energetic novella, 10.30 on a Summer Night (1962), a woman on vacation in Spain engineers the escape of an unknown local who has just murdered his wife and her lover. The heroine dreams of starting a new life with the stranger and is offended when he repays her solicitude by committing suicide.

In contrast to the Gothic explosiveness of the subject matter, the atmosphere that pervades Duras’s work is one of alcoholic lassitude, sloth, hypnotic passivity, boredom, and self pity—or, conversely, the dolce far niente that comes from feeling one has nothing left to lose. It is no coincidence that most of the action in these novels takes place while their protagonists are on (extended) vacation. Duras’s men and women sleep, drink, and wish they were dead: they are lackluster dolls who exercise no control over their destinies, and thus prime candidates for manipulation by a bossy author with much to say (though never directly) on the subjects of death, solitude, and nothingness.

In place of action is sensation in Duras’s novels: the twin passions are narcissism and a longing to suffer. This longing frequently is sated by sexual voyeurism: the typical Duras heroine prods her boyfriend or husband into seducing her best friend so she can watch—a theme whose raciness may help to explain why Duras’s work should have reached an audience wider than that usually attracted by experimental French fiction.

The absence of action, plot, or character development in Duras’s fiction is not accidental but programmatic. Though her heroes are awash in capricious impulses and dull discontents, they are nonetheless not individual men and women at all, but rather generalized and allegorical stand-ins for concepts or psychological states. Thus, the French actress and Japanese architect who star in Hiroshima, Mon Amour—two characters who seem continually to be shivering on the brink of an intense and genuine individuality—are constrained by their symbolic functions as the “reprieved” witnesses of man’s inhumanity to man, here represented by the American atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. “Hi-ro-shi-ma. That’s your name.” “That’s my name. Yes. Your name is Nevers. Ne-vers-in France.” These, the couple’s parting words at the end of the film, permanently relegate character to geography.

Marguerite Duras is frequently commended for her beautiful prose style.

Marguerite Duras is frequently commended for her beautiful prose style. The literary manner of these slender and oblique tales of heat, languor, and betrayal is simple. The sentences are short, dialogue is reduced to an exchange of obsessively repetitive soliloquies, scenes are brief and surreal. At its best, her prose achieves an incantatory insistence and a precision of incidental detail that can be arresting. (French readers have complained, however, about her involuted syntax and her shaky hold on grammar.) She is adept at summoning up locale and custom: a summer night’s downpour in a Spanish village, underwater fishing in an Italian river, Chinese family photographs as a form of ancestor worship, or “the frightful loneliness of serving in outposts upcountry, stranded amid checkered stretches of rice, fear, madness, fever, and oblivion.” In her finest pieces, moreover, Duras displays a certain gay tenacity which stands in defiant contrast to the haplessness of her characters, to the cryptic mumbo jumbo they utter, to the lack of narrative momentum, and indeed, to the portentousness of the authorial message: that only through a criminal “love unto death” can one escape from the truly fatal banality of human life.

This gay tenacity, which keeps her best books afloat, is evident, for instance, in an early novel, The Sailor from Gibraltar. The Sailor tells of a menial employee in the Department of Colonies who abandons job and mistress to sail the seas on the yacht of a rich woman in search of a seafaring murderer she once met. This book manages to cover in three hundred pages most of Duras’s perennial themes: obsession, masochism, alcoholism, tropical torpor, sexual betrayal, sympathy for the murderer as the ultimate innocent. But for all its potential darkness of theme and lack of narrative purposiveness, in its second half The Sailor from Gibraltar winds up a tale of fantastic travels, which is as cheerful and absurd as a chapter from The Adventures of Doctor Doolittle.

The Sailor from Gibraltar was published in 1952. Since that time, Duras has mostly abandoned its note of high spirits and occupied herself with flat, stark narratives after the existentialist manner, such as the highly praised The Square (1955), in which two strangers on a park bench reveal the futility of their lives in sixty pages of poker-faced monologue. In this vein, too, is the execrable Malady of Death (1982), which has just appeared in English1—a short story about a doomed autistic stranger buying sex from another stranger eked out to sixty pages of elephantine print and addressed to the reader in the second person, subjective mood.

The Lover, which was published in France in 1984, heralds a return to more purposeful storytelling.2 Though short on suspense and long on self-pity, it has the makings of a penny dreadful. Narrated in the first person and advertised as “semi-autobiographical,” this novel tells of an impoverished French family—a widow schoolteacher and her three children—living in desperate gentility in upcountry Indochina in the late 1920s. The fifteen-year-old daughter, a fragile and precocious child, takes up with a Chinese millionaire, a misalliance which scandalizes the colony but one which the daughter pursues in order to save her mother from destitution. The Lover’s black limousine picks up the little girl from school every day and brings her back to his seedy Saigon apartmerit, where he ravishes her with feminine delicacy. The Lover—as he is referred to throughout—worships the child hopelessly and ruinously; he wants to take her away with him, but his father “won’t let his son marry the little white whore.” Nor does the heroine herself care for the Lover: rather, she joins with her family to exploit the wealth of this patsy of inferior race. Toward the end, the heroine sails for Paris, leaving the Lover a weeping and emasculated wreck. Back in France, she hears of his marriage to a Chinese girl of suitable family, and fantasizes that he will be unable to consummate the union for love of the little white whore. Years later, when the heroine has become a famous French author and intellectual, the Lover telephones her and confirms in a trembling voice that indeed “it was as before, that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he'd love her until death.” End of novel.

The Lover is the most elegantly written of Duras’s works.

The Lover is the most elegantly written of Duras’s works, and it has been well-served by its translator, Barbara Bray. Its prose is crisp and delicate. Moreover, the manic-depressive mother—a particularly French type of woman, at once hard-boiled and utterly impractical in her schemes—is portrayed at times with a rueful compassion which is markedly absent from Duras’s previous work. But for all the novel’s felicities of style, there is something essential that is very wrong with The Lover. Although it has been hailed by many critics as a work of eroticism and even grand passion, The Lover on the contrary is eroticism’s very antithesis: a monument of brutal, blind, and unremitting feminine narcissism. The author is adept at capturing a lonely fifteen-year-old’s rapt self-absorption: her yen for vampish clothing, her fondness for being lusted after by strange men, her hunger to test her sexual powers, and above all her desire to make an older man (preferably of inferior station) her love-slave, to incapacitate and destroy him for life. What is astonishing is that the author, fifty-five years after the “semi-autobiographical” events described, should record these deliciously self-gratifying dreams of conquest without distance, without qualm, without a hint of irony or self-knowledge. Astonishing, too, is that such a work should have been greeted by American reviewers—all female—as a true portrayal of (in the words of one of these) “the confounding nature of passion.” (Some of the book’s more sympathetic French critics have suggested gallantly that although the story of the affair with a Chinese millionaire must surely be imaginary, nonetheless it has validity as an allegory or as a Freudian fantasy.)

Nineteen eighty-six saw the American publication of The War, which appeared in France last year under the more accurate and revealing title La Douleur.3 This is a collection of disparate sketches, some fictional, some detailing Duras’s experiences in a Resistance network headed by François Mitterand. Of the “texts” that make up this volume, Duras instructs us: “Learn to read them properly: they are sacred.”

Sacred or not, the most compelling is the title story, a 1944 diary which Duras tells us she recently discovered in a cupboard. The diary records Duras’s weeks of waiting to find out if her husband has survived a Nazi concentration camp where he had been a political prisoner; it records her watching his slow recovery from hell, and her informing this silent stranger that their marriage is over and that she has left him for his best friend. This tale of sleepless nights, of rationing, of waiting, and of nursing “Robert L.” back to life is delivered in a somnambulist’s voice that muffles all distinctions between the trivial and the monumental. Much space and attention are devoted to analyzing ever)' fluctuation and varying shade of the author’s apathy, her headaches like malignant tumors, her wishing she were dead. Although at times the diary is electrifying in its cold precision, its self-dramatization expresses perfectly what one might call the tyrannical insensitivity of the neurasthenic. “No-one can know my struggle against visions of the black ditch,” a typical passage runs. Another: “I feel very close to the death I wished for. It’s a matter of indifference to me. I don’t even think about it’s being a matter of indifference. My identity is gone . . . . Sometimes I’m amazed I don’t die.” When her boyfriend reprimands her for self-indulgence, the author breaks into the “diary” to express parenthetically her enduring amazement at his insensitivity. Such passages alternate with descriptions of the husband that are at once tender and clinical, including a day-by-day catalogue of his bowel movements, detailed with an exhaustiveness worthy of the most fastidious anthropologist—a catalogue which surely exceeds a self-respecting man’s worst nightmare of what his ex-wife the novelist might do to him in print.

The War, along with Hiroshima, Mon Amour and, to a lesser degree, The Lover, contains the most explicit declarations of Duras’s political vision, which might best be described as a kind of aristocratic and aestheticized misanthropy: an attitude which in an earlier age would likely have attached itself to right-wing politics, but which in our own day is often to be found on the Left. As mentioned earlier, Duras was a member of the French Communist Party for some ten years. Her writing about the war and about politics—though littered with references to class consciousness, collectivism, racism, and “the people”—betrays the curious intellectual dodginess, the unwillingness to call things by their proper names, the reliance on opaque universalities, that mark the imagination of the fellow traveller. One of the most interesting features of Duras’s writings on World War II, for instance, is her reticence on the subject of Germans and Nazism. As it happens, The War treats French collaborators with sympathy and tact; it is also blistering in its denunciation of De Gaulle, whom Duras excoriates for toadying to the United States by publicly mourning Roosevelt’s death, and for his reluctance “to credit the people’s suffering with a share in the victory.” But the book is almost silent on the subject of the enemy against whom the war was fought (or, in France’s case, not fought). The exception is an account of her role as the “girlfriend” of a Gestapo officer, later executed—an account which Duras tells us in her introduction she had suppressed for forty years out of consideration for the man’s family, and that she was persuaded by friends to publish only for its utility in illustrating “the illusion that a person may exist solely as a dispenser of reward and punishment.” (A high-sounding phrase which universalizes this particular member of the Nazi secret police out of existence.)

This same reticence is most apparent in Duras’s screenplay, Hiroshima, Mon Amour. The film follows a twenty-four-hour love affair between a Japanese architect and a French actress who is working on a peace film in Hiroshima. Its theme is the banality of evil, as illustrated in flashbacks to World War II—but Duras’s twin symbols of that war’s barbarity are willfully selective: the American bombing of Hiroshima and the shaving of the heroine’s head when she was a young girl for sleeping with a German soldier. Just in case the audience does not understand Duras’s purpose here, she spells it out in The War: “If Nazi crime is not seen in world terms, if it isn’t understood collectively, then that man in the concentration camp at Belsen who died alone but with the same collective soul and class awareness . . . has been betrayed. If you give a German and not a collective interpretation to the Nazi horror, you reduce the man in Belsen to regional dimensions. The only possible answer to this crime is to turn it into a crime committed by everyone. To share it. Just like the idea of equality and fraternity.”

Duras’s world outlook over the last forty years has changed remarkably little.

Duras’s world outlook over the last forty years has changed remarkably little. Although today she writes of the Communist Party with scorn, it is a scorn consistent with the notion of a collective guilt which frees the individual—in this case, her—from responsibility for his beliefs and actions. In The Lover, Duras describes a charming and urbane couple she knew during the war who collaborated with the Nazis. “And I, two years after the war, I was a member of the Communist Party. The parallel is complete and absolute. The two things are the same, the same pity, the same call for help, the same lack of judgment, the same superstition, if you like, that consists in believing in a political solution to the personal problem.” Duras is quite right in seeing an identity between French Communists and French collaborators: both were accomplices to a murderous foreign power. But in reducing this complicity to its psychological causes or to appealingly waif-like motives, Duras once again skirts the duty of an artist and an intellectual to answer for his ideas and what comes of them. To this picture of an artist-intellectual as a cuckoo hatching young that others must cope with, one might usefully compare that of a Czechoslovakian novelist raised under Communism. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera reminds us through his hero that Oedipus Rex, on learning that he had unwittingly killed his own father and slept with his mother, put out his own eyes and became a wandering beggar. A similar demand of consciousness, writes Kundera, is placed upon an intellectual who from whatever noble or sympathetic motives has wished upon his-country a murderous and tyrannical political system and lives to see what he has done. This fidelity to consciousness, one of the hallmarks of the serious artist, contrasts dismally with those twin demons of narcissism and self-ignorance that dance attendance on even the most elegant of Duras’s fiction, and leave her a purveyor of pretentious and empty fancies.

  1.  The Malady of Death, translated by Barbara Bray; Grove Press, 60 pages, $9.95.
  2.  The Lover, translated by Barbara Bray; Pantheon, 117 pages, $11.95.
  3.  The War: A Memoir, translated by Barbara Bray; Pantheon, 183 pages, $13.95.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 1, on page 79
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