On Marguerite Duras | Kate Zambreno | Granta

On Marguerite Duras

Kate Zambreno

The silence that must fall when the baby naps, still on me. The stack of Marguerite Duras books on the couch, a slim paper notebook. I reread The Lover, written when Duras was seventy, which I’ve read countless times, then The Easy Life, the first translation in English of her second novel, written in her twenties, which is new to me. I take notes on Duras with my breast still out. The baby’s father and her sister are in the kitchen, making hot chocolate, tofu for soup. It is February. There was just a snow squall – heavy winds, snow falling like paper.

Besides her nap, which lasts only an hour, two at the most, the baby has not been sleeping. It’s unbelievable, this sleep regression. She wakes up every two hours in the night; I contort my body, give her my breast. She refuses the crib. In the morning her father lets me sleep for an hour, the way I did as a child, on my stomach, one leg hitched up, the other stretched diagonally across, comforter curled around me, the utter abandonment of this, of the way I used to be allowed to sleep.

I wake up to the children mewing like cats.

How tired I am. The fatigue is almost gilded. I pass by the bathroom mirror. I see myself as a smeared woman. My exhaustion makes me ancient. My face has completely fallen. Later while allowing myself a break, I will look up inexpensive eyelash curlers, as I have read that it might make my eyes look more awake. I order one online.

There is that photograph of Marie Legrand, the mother of Marguerite Donnadieu (before she changed her last name to Duras, the town of her father’s birth, when she published her first novel). Her mother who dresses as a widow or a nun, face lined and tired, her hair in a bun. She is surrounded by her three children, a four-year-old Marguerite, her two older brothers. Tiny Marguerite has an old woman’s face. They all have the same face. Funny how family does this. Reading The Lover this time, I recognize the deep fatigue of the mother. How she manages to clothe her children. How her children are constantly outgrowing their shoes, the gold heels subbing in for the regular white canvas shoes that could get filthy, definitely purchased on final markdown. Duras writes these early scenes in The Lover as someone who has been someone’s mother as well. Even in The Easy Life, the narrator takes care of her baby nephew, the beautifully strange passage of him suckling on her, of the tenderness and brutality of caretaking. ‘The suction sound he made while suckling, so slight, revealed to me that I had a body that was still very young despite my thick and ancient fatigue. I felt it coursing with a series of shivers so new, so morning-like, that I laughed to myself.’ My morning before being on the couch, reading Duras, I go through bags of clothes, trying to see what hand-me-downs will fit the baby in the coming months, what T-shirts and shorts will fit my five-year old’s lengthening body. Their metallic sneakers they are so proud of, purchased on deep discount, are getting too snug. The strange atmosphere of this February – a sudden sixty-degree day, we blink with everything so bright, remember that spring will come eventually, and then this snow squall.

This might be the photograph of her mother’s despair, which Duras writes about in The Lover, taken in the courtyard in front of the house in Hanoi, the inability for the single mother sometimes to clothe or feed them. As she looks at it, from the vantage of old age, Duras does not know who took this photograph. The mother – a category so rarely photographed.

The surprise again, looking at this photograph, realizing my mother also had three young children in the house. That she did the best she could. That I couldn’t be easily controlled. That she had no help. Already I fight with the five-year-old. Her moods and rages. She complains we favor the baby, give her all the attention. She has barricaded herself inside her room, the room that used to be my office, with her private rituals and ceremonies. At night we come together again, I hold her, braid her hair, so it doesn’t tangle, just like the mother of The North China Lover, written at the end of Duras’s life, a retelling again of her childhood in colonial Vietnam. I braid my daughter’s hair at night – silently. In the morning she jumps in my lap and tells me her dreams. I am the mother, not the girl. When reading of the family romance of Duras in all its endless variations, begun with the first novels, so marked in The Easy Life, I think of the three of us small children, the exhaustion and tenderness my mother still no doubt felt for me, even though I was not the favored young brother who could do no wrong.

There is that moment in The North China Lover where the mother of the young narrator wakes up, for a moment, and looks at her – really looks at her with a tender curiosity. There is a variation on conversations recounted between the mother and daughter in The Lover. The mother’s desire for the daughter to pursue mathematics, or business. The daughter wants to become a writer. What will you write about when you write your books? the mother asks. Paolo, she says. You. And Pierre, just so I can kill him off. Her mother, and her two brothers. The family romance. Why, the young girl protests, do you love him so much more than us? The mother cuts her off, lies: I love my three children the same. Earlier in the conversation, the daughter worries over her older brother’s brutality, that he might kill his younger brother. They are always fighting, like Cain and Abel. Here, and in The Lover, it is clear she becomes a writer because of this family, to try to understand them, their poverty, their cruelty, their violence, to try to understand this exclusion.

When she is eighty, possibly while collecting her meditations on writing in Écrire, Duras goes back and rereads this second novel, ironically titled La vie tranquille, translated here as The Easy Life. It was written a year after her first novel, both set not in French Indochina but in Duras country, the rural southwest of France, where her father was from and where she spent some time as an adolescent at the estate he purchased right before his untimely death, a novel of what she called later ‘boundless childhood’, of family melodrama. This second novel was written in 1943 and published one year later, at the end of 1944, the first to be published by the prestigious publisher Gallimard. Her husband Robert Antelme was still a prisoner at Buchenwald then, having been a part of the resistance as was she. The novel was written one year after the death of her beloved younger brother Pierre, just months after her child was stillborn. The incredible pain that made her desire to stop existing, and also made her a writer, as if to write out of this despair, what Duras called douleur.

In 1993, when she read The Easy Life again, Duras remembered that it poured out of her while writing, as if in one breath, in the ‘very banal and dark logic of a murder’. She is impressed by this work, by its intensity, by the force in which it came out of her. This is the first work in which she writes about a desire to murder a brother figure, which she writes about in so much depth later on in The Lover, a novel about the desire to write, and to write her way out of the family, but it begins here, in The Easy Life, along with other marks of Durassian style. Here, the first of many variations on a mother figure, a codependent and brutal older son, a beloved other brother, the tragedy of brother figures and family ties. In The Lover, she writes, ‘I wanted to kill my elder brother, I wanted to kill him, to get the better of him for once, just once, and see him die.’

The book is about a murder, one of three deaths, all of men. It is divided in three parts. The longest part of the book, over an eternal August, tracks the elongated death scene and wake of the at once hated and loved uncle of Francine, killed in an act of vengeance by her brother, at her provocation. Francine is twenty-six, the same age that the author was while writing it, distinct from the memory theater of the later works. What follows, over almost a hundred pages, is the ‘chaos, boredom, chaos’ of rural life, a surreal pastoral of animals and mythical woods, love triangles, including with the adored brother, who here is younger, and a set of parents, farm workers, including a father brought back from the dead, and one of the first of mythical Maman figures, who mostly lie around in bed, silent. Although in this novel the style that has been called dépouillée – the naked, stripped-down, spoken-voice quality of the later works – isn’t as pronounced, there is still the classic atmosphere of lassitude here, and especially later on, a disorientation, the rhythm of an existential crisis that we can recognize as Durassian, as well as flights of her wild lyricism, as translated by Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes:

I was no one, I had neither name nor face. Moving through August, I was: nothing. My steps made no sound, nothing signaled that I was there, I disturbed nothing. At the bottom of the ravines, frogs full of life croaked, educated in August things, death things.

Here there is, off scene, the suicide of the brother, and then the deep melancholic boredom and douleur that results as the narrator, who we recognize even more in the second part as a variation on a Duras woman, takes off for the coastal town of T in order to contemplate her borderless grief, to contemplate the endless sea. This noirish spirit of convalescence with an aloof woman narrator now reminiscent of Destroy, She Said or The Malady of Death. There is the incidental character of a bothersome candy salesman who she later witnesses drowning, leading her to be expelled from the cheap hotel at which she’s staying, but any attempt at action, to shoehorn this into a more conventional novel, feels artificial compared to the pull of the sea, of exquisite boredom and absurdity, the woman’s body passive in the sand. The reading report of Raymond Queneau, who rejected the first novel at Gallimard, critiqued a ‘muddled narrative’ and a ‘lack of control’ in La vie tranquille, but Gallimard published it anyway, finding here a true writer’s voice. Surely this fails in being a more successful, conventional novel, culminating in an italicized, feverish return and even a marriage plot. And yet it is the loss of control of the Duras narrator and her writing of her narrative that is the point, a breaking down that will become her trademark in later works – the instability of point of view, of her sense of self, a woman alone in a room, staring at a mirror, attempting to both disappear and find herself, calling her fragmentation and a fragmented voice into existence.

I find myself, upon rereading The Lover, irritated by the man at the opening who tells the narrator, now elderly, that he likes her face as it is now, ravaged. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young. Reading it this time, I feel even more deeply how both The Easy Life and The Lover are meditations on vanity and aging, on faces, on this currency that the Duras narrator exchanges for being able to write her own narrative. Her face, she tells us in The Lover, in this constant conversation with the reader, took on a new appearance at eighteen, between eighteen and twenty-five, the age in which she began to write novels. She watched this process of her face, like reading a book, the book of her life. She stopped being able to recognize herself then, herself as a child, and it was this distance, perhaps, that allowed her to begin writing. Also alienated from her family, one of her brothers dead, she has the space to write herself into each book, transforming herself along the way.

There is a photograph of myself in my late twenties. Cross-legged on a chair in a London flat, where we were staying with a friend. Exhausted from jetlag. Circles under my eyes like bruises. I think of this photograph, in my mind, I don’t know where there’s a copy, of my first real photograph as a writer.

The suddenness of Francine’s aging is the true story of The Easy Life. In the hotel room, she finds herself staring at a mirror, in an extraordinary passage of existential crisis, seeing herself in the third person as if for the first time, all of the endless variations of her that she might write someday, even thirty years from now. And we know that she does. ‘Here, in my room, it’s me. It’s as if she no longer knows it’s her.’


Image © linthesky

Taken from the foreword to The Easy Life by Marguerite Duras, translated by Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes, and published by Bloomsbury in the US.

Kate Zambreno

Kate Zambreno is the author, most recently, of Drifts and To Write As If Already Dead, a study of Hervé Guibert. Her meditation, The Light Room, is forthcoming from Riverhead. She is a 2021 Guggenheim Fellow.

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