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Marguerite Duras is best known in America as the screenwriter for Hiroshima mon amour, the haunting stream-of-consciousness film by Alain Resnais, and as the author of the novel The Lover, published in English in 1986 and adapted for film by Jean-Jacques Annaud in 1991. She wrote slender, somewhat cryptic, moody texts on love, loss, and memory.

She did much more, however, as we learn in an enlightening but disjointed biography by French historian and journalist Laure Adler. Marguerite Duras: A Life leapt to the top of French best-seller lists when it came out two years ago. As translated into English by Marie Glasheen, the biography is somewhat impressionistic and awkward, and full of Britishisms verging on Martianisms. Duras, for instance, is at one point described as a “terrible nosy parker” and is supposed, in her mid-’60s nonsense play Shaga, to have been “cocking a snook at the theatre”—which one hopes has something to do with making fun of it.

If Duras’ texts were minimalist, her overall output was anything but. For decades following the second world war, she was the hardest-working woman in the French culture business. As a writer, she published more than 70 novels, plays, screenplays, and other works, not to mention a steady stream of newspaper columns and other journalistic projects. She was also an innovative filmmaker, with 19 titles to her credit.

A leading voice depicting, and criticizing, French colonialism, Duras was also a courageous and effective member of the French resistance, alongside such figures as her then-husband, writer Robert Antelme, and future president François Mitterand. Duras was also a major figure in the French communist party; a feminist on the forefront of describing and celebrating female sexuality and independence; and, later, a gracious if demanding mother/mentor to a bevy of talented filmmakers, writers, and actors. Midcentury, she was a lively and outspoken host of a de facto salon in her Paris apartment on Rue Saint-Benoît, visited by many of the great European humanistic thinkers of her day. A splendid cook, a petite and somewhat exotic beauty with an infectious laugh, she drew great minds and charismatic personalities to her with an easy grace.

Duras, however, was also a mess. Her adult relationships were an astonishingly tangled, sometimes sordid, reflection of the unhappy experiences of her childhood in French Indochina.

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Duras was born in 1914 near Saigon to schoolteacher parents. Her father died when she was 7, so the girl and her brothers, Pierre and Paul, moved with their petulant, impulsive mother, Marie, from town to town. Marie—unpopular with colleagues and subject to the whims of a fickle colonial civil service—scrambled from one job to another, barely keeping her head above water financially. Marie doted on her first-born, Pierre, a maniac who became addicted, at various times, to opium, gambling, and pimping, among other pleasures. Both Marie and Pierre beat Marguerite, and, in her midadolescence, encouraged the girl’s relationship with a wealthy Manchurian-born man named Leo, who would become immortalized, through varying levels of distortion, in both The Lover and The North China Lover.

Duras’ early life was apparently steeped in premature and tainted sexual experiences. It’s hard to separate fact from fantasy, memoir from fiction, but Adler seems well convinced of at least several disturbing episodes. When Duras was 4, for example, an 11-year-old Vietnamese boy brought her to his makeshift shack by a lake to pleasure him. As she would recall in La vie matérielle, “I remember it very well: I felt somewhat dishonoured for having been touched.” As a student, she boarded at a house in Saigon, whose landlady is thought to have languidly and ritualistically exposed herself to the girl in weekly sessions. As a girl, she was also sexually involved with her beloved brother Paul, who would die young soon after she left for Paris for university.

Duras was something of a wild child, barefoot, a huntress, literally, and left largely to her own devices. She drank in her surroundings: Serene river banks. A mad beggar woman screaming, stalking Marguerite. The sight, on a trip to China at age 5, of an adulteress being buried alive. A dead man folded into a dustbin outside a house, “[h]is feet stuck out…mouth open….grey, crawling with lice and as old as an elephant.” Duras the woman would often refer to writing as a way of emptying herself out, and Adler conveys how the intensity of the child’s experiences could easily, perhaps inevitably, become the adult’s preoccupations, phobias, barriers to mature intimacies.

After she left for France, Duras’ personal life became a never-ending sequence of liaisons dangereuses. Consider, for instance, this

twisted scenario: She marries Robert Antelme. When her child by Antelme is stillborn, they become estranged. She takes up with Antelme’s best friend, another literary figure, Dionys Mascolo; both have affairs. Antelme is arrested during the war by a collaborator, Charles Delval, and sent to the camps. In a quasi-sanctioned role as an agent of the resistance, Duras has an affair with Delval. After the liberation of Paris, Delval is arrested; Duras hungrily oversees his torture and is gleeful at his execution. Meanwhile, Mascolo has taken up with Delval’s wife. When Antelme, a starved shell, barely alive, is miraculously brought back from Dachau, Duras helps nurse him back to relative health. Then she has Mascolo’s child and divorces Antelme.

Follow all that? Now, admittedly, others in Duras’ circle seem to have treated each other with an impulsiveness that was remarkable, if not quite equal to hers. Maybe the proper response is just to shrug and say, “Those French!” But add to the evidence: Duras’ subsequent alcohol-drenched, sadomasochistic relationship with journalist and novelist Gerard Jarlot and her hopelessly incomplete, and again self-batteringly alcoholic, ties, in her late years, to a promiscuous, much younger homosexual, Yann Andréa. If her writings seem tortured, think of the torture she was going through while creating them. It was a torture with an especially peculiar cast, given that many of these men were her collaborators and mentors, and a torture compounded by the on-again, off-again love-hate affiliations she had with her editors at the publishing houses of Gallimard and Minuit.

Duras’ art was as obsessive and, in form, as incestuous as her life. Her fiction became scripts for other filmmakers or films that she herself made. Her films became novels or plays. Stories were constantly adapted and reworked. Plots were scarce or unimportant. What mattered was shattered taboos, violence as the underside of love, crime as a manifestation of everyday thought, madness, forests, boredom—these were central themes of which she never grew tired. A playful formalist, she wrote dramas in made-up languages, made films sometimes devoid of characters, with soundtracks divorced from the visible or reused from previous films. Sometimes there was no “visible,” just a black screen with voices and sounds. Her writing was pregnant with ellipses, her films and plays with silences. In both her writing and her films, voices collide, and thoughts have no clear origin or resolution. Places are more mental constructs than geographical ones. She wrote Hiroshima mon amour, for instance, without visiting Hiroshima.

Although the biography does give a good sense of Duras’ work, her obsessions, and the mystique that developed around her, Adler’s disorganized writing interferes with her far-ranging research. It’s as if Adler had become so submerged in Duras’ stylistic looseness that she adopted it.

For instance, regarding the motives Duras’ mother had in going to the French colonies, again and again, Adler asks, rhetorically, variations of “Why go to Indo-China?” The reader is tempted to respond, “You’re the biographer—you tell me.” And Adler actually has some good suppositions on the point. It may have been the lure of adventure, or maybe Marie was starting fresh after a failed marriage, or the move could have been on the recommendation of Marie’s cousin, who had been living in Cochin. All three of those factors probably played a part, but rather than just saying so, Adler offers one hypothesis, takes off on some other point for a while, then comes back with a new possibility.

Adler is also vague on more important matters, such as the nature and depth of Duras’ relationship with her brother Paul. She glances off the subject a few times early on, then again late in the book, without attempting to delve and find out just what the two meant to each other. Are the details unknown? Is Adler being discreet? Understated?

In general, Adler leaves it to us to deduce how Duras’ childhood traumas may have affected her in later life. Armchair analysts can surmise that the braided strands in her relationships of pleasure and guilt, submissiveness and control, may have stemmed from those early experiences. But Adler seems not to have the attention span, or the insight, to help us decipher those elements.

Ultimately, we’re left with a muddy portrait of a sad, brooding obsessive. In her last years, Duras essentially took dictation from the monsters her mind conjured during alcoholic hallucinations. She had always been prey to the voices that peopled her head; now she was simply their slave. When her hand was steady enough, she transcribed those voices herself. When it wasn’t, she relayed them to Andréa, the slave’s slave, stationed obediently at the typewriter.

Duras had the courage to become unglued in public over a lifetime, down to her last gasps. She took her art seriously, maybe comically seriously. Coming out of the first of two comas, both of which were expected to kill her, Duras could not speak; she’d had a tracheotomy. She asked Andréa for paper “and scribbled a few words—she wanted the page of the manuscript she’d been working on the night before she was rushed to hospital. ‘There’s a badly constructed sentence I want to rewrite.’”

It’s because of that kind of sick—and divine—singlemindedness that Duras will remain, always, our seductive but indecipherable riddle, our guilty pleasure, our irresistible, hideous, and haunting lover, spied on a ferry to places most of us will never dare to go. CP