Gretchen Rous Besser

With the encroaching years, Marguerite Duras–now an octogenarian–continues to grind out films, plays, novels, and stories at a fevered pace. Since the appearance of Les impudents half a century ago, her prodigious output shows no signs of abating. Like Nathalie Saraute, fourteen years her senior, Duras writes as though her life depended on it. Perhaps it does.

In Ecrire, like Sarraute in Entre la vie et la mort, Duras addresses the dilemma of the writing process, but in a more seditious and autobiographical vein. For her, solitude–the sine qua non of writing–is bound up with Neauphle-le-Chateau, the house she purchased with royalties from the film version of Un barrage contre le Pacifique. While relishing the independence that Virginia Woolf prescribed, Duras is ambivalent about the writer’s role. Repeatedly, she bewails the impossibility, the travail, of writing; and yet, against her inclination, she never ceases to write. Had she not written, she confesses, she would have been an alcoholic. But writing is a futile task: “Si on savait quelque chose de ce qu’on va ecrire, avant de le faire, avant d’ecrire, on n’ecrirait jamais. Ce ne serait pas la peine.”

The second piece, “La mort du jeune aviateur anglais,” recounts the narrator’s reactions upon discovering the tomb of a twenty-year-old British pilot shot down on the last day of World War II. What she deems most atrocious and unacceptable is his extreme youth. She would like to tell his story, finds she cannot do so, yet persists in telling it. This account is not a book, she claims, not a song or a poem, but a river of tears, a brandishing of political fury stronger than her belief in God.

“Roma” consists of an enigmatic conversation, a kind of filmscript, involving a man and woman in a hotel lobby on the Piazza Navona. The site is clearly defined, the discourse ambiguous and amorphous. In this brief piece historicity is impugned, veracity questioned. Musing on “Le nombre pur” and the resonance of a word leads Duras to lament Jewish suffering in the Holocaust, a consequence of Germany’s doctrine of racial “purity.” She also indicts capitalistic oppression. No written text could counterbalance the “pure number” of workers who have toiled in the Renault factory over the years. In “L’exposition de la peinture” a painter contemplating his first exhibit (“exposition”) in seven years is obsessed by the wish to hang his works in a certain necessary relationship. As he speaks, he “exposes” each canvas in turn. In contrast to his breathless prattling, the paintings speak for themselves.

Using the cinematographic technique at which she excels, Duras undermines the facade of reality. The act of writing is gratuitous, impossible, yet irresistible. By questioning the word, written or oral, the text subverts itself. Casting doubt on memory, historical fact, even numerical accuracy and semantics, it turns to art and to emotion–pity, anger, love–as the sole guarantees of authenticity. Monumental, invincible, Duras once again rings new changes on old themes.

Gretchen Rous Besser New School for Social Research

COPYRIGHT 1994 University of Oklahoma

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning