One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place, a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: "I've known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you're more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged."
The Lover, 1984
French writer and director Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) was born in the suburbs of what was then known as Saigon, Indochina. Her father was Henri Donnadieu, a teacher of mathematics, who was repatriated to France for health reasons when Marguerite was four years old. Her mother, Marie Legrand, decided to stay in Indochina with Marguerite and her two older brothers. Henri Donnadieu died shortly after.
To support her family and pay for the children's education, Marguerite's mother first taught French and was a piano player at the cinema. She then sought concession of land in Cambodia, aiming to develop it. But fooled by a corrupt administration to develop unsuitable land, she lost all her savings, as she in vain tried to build dams to protect her rice paddies against annual floodings that destroyed the crop.
Young Marguerite was at least as obstinant and determined as her mother, however she is said to have been a lot less naïve and of course, ultimately, a lot more successful. She arrived in France at the age of 18 to study, got her law degree from Sorbonne and a post at the Ministry of Colonies. In 1939, she married the poet Robert Antelme and in 1942 gave birth to a still born child. She took the name Duras from the village in south-western France where her father died. Her first novel, The Impudents, was published in 1943. Allegedly, she threatened to commit suicide if it wasn't published, as her first book had been rejected.
Her husband and sister-in-law were both deported during the war - while her sister-in-law never came back, Robert Antelme was brought home from Dachau by Francois Mitterrand. Duras joined the Communist party after the war. She worked as a journalist and shared a ménage à trois with Antelme and Dionys Mascolo, while she was nursing her husband who was weak from his imprisonment, postponing her planned divorce until 1946. The novel La douleur (1985) would describe this period and the pressure and pain Duras was feeling. She lived in Saint Germain des Près and was neighbours with Jean-Paul Sartre. In 1947, she had her only child, Jean, by Dionys Mascolo.
The mother is a returning figure in Duras' works, and one version of the story of the flooded paddies is told in the 1950 novel The Sea Wall. (The original title, Un barrage contre le Pacifique, somehow sounds so much better...) This novel was shortlisted for the Goncourt Prize, but did not win - likely because of the author's communist sympathies. This same year, however, Duras left the French Communist Party.
At the end of her life, Duras lived with the 38 years younger Yann Andréa Steiner, who she met in 1980. Steiner was obsessed with her literature and acted as Duras' secretary as well as acting in her films. He appears in several of her literary works from the period, and he also wrote about his life with her in two books.
Duras' most famous novel is probably the mesmerizing, but quite controversial and partially autobiographical novel The Lover (L'Amant, 1984), telling the story of a relationship between a grown man and an adolescent girl. For this novel she finally won the Goncourt Prize. Duras also wrote and directed plays and movies, her best known film probably being India Song from 1975, that won her the Grand Prix of France's Cinema Academy. She is also famous for her screenplay Hiroshima, mon amour from 1959, turned into a movie directed by Alain Resnais. All in all, Duras wrote some forty novels and wrote and/or directed a dozen plays and movies.
In her writing, Duras shows no scorn in using herself and her surroundings. To me, the intensity of her writing, whether fictional or autobiographical or, as so often, both, is a main reason why I am intrigued by her work.
Works by Duras available in English translation:
The Eden Cinema
Blue Eyes, Black Hair
Outside: Selected Writings
Woman to Woman, conversations with Xavière Gauthier
La Douleur (also published as The War: A Memoir)
The Malady of Death
Whole Days in the Trees and Other Stories
The Man Sitting in the Corridor (also translated as "The Seated Man in the Passage" for an anthology)
Suzanna Andler, La Musica, L'Amante anglaise
Destroy, She Said
Three Novels (including: The Square, Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night and The Afternoon of Monsieur Andesmas)
The Sailor from Gibraltar
The Ravishing of Lol Stein
Hiroshima, mon amour and Une aussi longue absence
The Little Horses of Tarquinia
Filmography as actress, composer, director and writer from imdb.com:
The Death of the Young English Aviator (1993) (US title) - herself a
Écrire (1993) - Herself a
The Lover (1991) (UK title) based on her novel w
Les Enfants (1984) dw
Il Dialogo di Roma (1982) d
En rachachant (1982) based on her story w
Agatha et les lectures illimitées (1981) dw
L'homme atlantique (1981) (voice) adw
Aurelia Steiner (Melbourne) (1979) dw
Aurélia Steiner (Vancouver) (1979) (voice) - narrator adw
Cesarée (1978) dw
Les mains négatives (1978) dw
Le Navire Night (1978)dw
The Lorry / The Truck (1977) (Orig: Le camion) - Elle adw
Baxter, Vera Baxter (1976) dw
Entire Days Among the Trees (1976) (UK title) dw
Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert (1976) dw
India Song (1975) - voix-off a dw
La Femme du Gange (1973) dw
Nathalie Granger (1972) cdw
Jaune le soleil (1971) dw
Destroy, She Said (1969) dw
La musica (1966) dw