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Marguerite Duras – the writer sparked by a single moment

EXPERT WITNESS: Marguerite Duras outside a court room in January 1966. She was a witness in a case linked to the disappearance of Mehdi Ben Barka, a Moroccan politicians who vanished the year before - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY profiles Marguerite Duras, an author whose career was profoundly influenced by a fleeting glance at a stranger.

In 1924 a new regional governor arrived at Vinh Long, a small city in the Mekong River delta in what is now Vietnam but was then part of French Indochina. He came from a previous posting in Laos with his wife and two children, the family taking up residence in the colonial governor’s mansion and, unwittingly, helping set the literary course of one of Europe’s greatest 20th century writers.

Another new arrival that year was Marguerite Donnadieu, ten years old, born and raised in French Indochina and as comfortable in Vietnamese as she was in French, just returned to the region with her widowed mother and two elder brothers after two years in Paris. Her parents had emigrated from France before Marguerite was born, attracted by the combination of a colonial lifestyle and the teaching opportunities provided by a slew of newly-established schools. Then her father Henri died in 1921, leaving the family in dire financial straits, eking out a meagre, fragile existence that was a long way from the sultry luxury of the posters and brochures that had convinced Henri and Marie to settle halfway around the world and raise a family in the first place.

The remaining Donnadieus were outsiders in Vinh Long, seen as part of an oppressive colonial regime by the people while their reduced circumstances excluded them from the snobbish local colonial hierarchy. For Marguerite the isolation was exacerbated at home where Marie showed little affection towards her daughter, openly favouring her eldest son over her other children.

The girl found solace in the cinema, a place where she could escape the squabbles and struggles of home and immerse herself in a magical world viewed on the big screen through curls of tobacco smoke. She adored the films of Charlie Chaplin in particular, staying in her seat for showing after showing, empathising with the pathos of his Little Tramp character scarred by the vicissitudes of fortune yet never losing his faith in the world and its people.

One afternoon, making her way to the cinema, Marguerite was waiting to cross the street when a shiny black limousine eased past her. In the back seat, gazing out of the window at nothing in particular, sat Elizabeth Striedter, wife of the new regional governor.

For Marguerite the world seemed to shift slightly on its axis at that moment. Striedter looked impossibly beautiful, her hair and make up immaculate, an oasis of calm perfection among the dust and noise of the street. Marguerite had heard the gossip, that the couple had been transferred from Laos after a young man committed suicide when Striedter ended their affair, knowledge that only heightened the impact of that passing vision framed in the car window. There was something about Striedter’s mix of otherworldly beauty and fatal feminine power that had a profound effect on the girl in the patched dress standing at the side of the road.

Versions of Striedter would appear regularly in the novels and screenplays of the future Marguerite Duras, most notably in Anne-Marie Stretter from the 1975 film India Song, in which the wife of the French ambassador to China embarks on a string of affairs out of boredom. She also appeared in three novels. “Many times I have said to myself that I am a writer because of her,” said Duras in an interview five years before her death.

Most of Duras’ 30 novels, 19 screenplays and many more plays, short stories and essays were inspired by her extraordinary childhood. She drew on experiences brutal and romantic, loveless and loved, detached and absorbed, spending the rest of her life trying to process and express the impact of her early years. “Childhood plagues me and follows my life like a shadow,” she said. “It holds me not through its charm, for it has none in my eyes, but through its strangeness.”

In addition to Striedter and Chaplin there were two more defining threads to Duras’ childhood. First, there was her mother’s disastrous attempt at farming, using every penny of her savings to buy a piece of land close to the Mekong where she could feed and support the family on top of her teaching commitments. Between them the Donnadieus built a rudimentary one-storey house then planted enough rice to keep themselves fed until the next growing season. When the rains came the river rose, flooding the field with salt water and ruining the crop. Every year Marie would try to fight the Mekong, building dykes and defences. Every year she failed.

Marguerite learned later that while her mother’s meagre savings might have been enough to purchase a small piece of land, they didn’t cover the significant bribe required to secure a location where crops could thrive. That’s when she truly learned, she said in later life, how the world ran on injustice. “Everyone’s heard the story, her failure, her fury at having been duped,” she said of her mother in 1991. “We no longer had anything, the loan sharks were after us and I witnessed it all. I would think, is this really what life is?”

Duras – she adopted as a nom de plume the name of her father’s home village in Gascony – turned the experience into Un barrage contre le Pacifique, ‘The Sea Wall‘, a novel published in 1950 and subsequently adapted twice for cinema. Like everything else Duras produced, every success, every award, it failed to impress her mother. “Whatever I wrote, my mother didn’t like, not at all. She would tell me non-stop, ‘you, you were made for business, you must get into business’.” Marie was, she said, “exuberant and mad, as only mothers can be. I think one’s mother is, generally speaking, the strangest, most unpredictable and elusive person one meets”.

The other landmark event of Duras’ south Asian childhood was her relationship with Léo, a Vietnamese heir to a business fortune, that began with the encouragement of her mother when Duras was 15 and the man in his late 20s. It took until she was 70 to turn the episode into fiction, but her 1984 novel L’Amant, ‘The Lover’, in which a French teenager from a poor family and an older, wealthy Chinese man have a passionate relationship in Saigon, proved to be her greatest success. The book became an international bestseller translated into 43 languages that won France’s Prix Goncourt and sold more than two million copies. When Duras confirmed the novel was almost entirely autobiographical her fame and literary reputation was enshrined.

The relationship with Léo had ended when Duras moved to France at 17 in order to complete her education. She graduated in law and political science, taking a job in the Ministry of Colonial Affairs just before the war. While from 1942 she was working under the Vichy regime, Duras joined the Communist Party and from 1943 was active in the Resistance as part of the same cell as Francois Mitterand, who became a lifelong friend. She married fellow Resistance fighter Robert Antelme, who was captured and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, returning emaciated in 1945 to be nursed back to health by his wife before the couple divorced.

It was almost as if Duras was shedding distraction to concentrate on her prodigious literary output. She’d moved into an apartment on the Left Bank during the war and stayed there until her death, delving into her own experiences, tirelessly producing an extraordinary volume of work from L’Amant to the screenplay for the classic 1959 New Wave film Hiroshima Mon Amour. “In my life I am more of a writer than someone who lives,” she wrote, “That’s how I see myself.”

After the end of her marriage Duras retained only two significant companions for the rest of her life. One was the actor Yann Andréa, with whom she spent her last two decades as close as lovers despite his homosexuality. The other was alcohol, on which she was dependent for much of her literary life. “I drank because I was an alcoholic,” she said in the early 1990s. “I’m a real writer, I was a real alcoholic. I drank red wine to fall asleep. Afterwards, cognac in the night. Every hour a glass of wine and in the morning cognac after coffee, and afterwards I wrote. What is astonishing when I look back is how I managed to write.”

Whatever the alcohol inured her to, her writing was always clear and precise, the sharpness of her pen slicing through the wispy caverns of memory and chasing a childhood in which she grew up too fast while never really growing up at all. As she wrote in the opening line of L’Amant: “Very early in my life it was too late”.

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