The Easy Life 
by Marguerite Duras, translated by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan.
Bloomsbury, 208 pp., £12.99, December 2022, 978 1 5266 4865 5
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From the​ 1970s to the 1990s anyone who, like me, was interested in French women writers, feminist theory and Lacanian psychoanalysis couldn’t avoid Marguerite Duras. Lacan himself had said of Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein that ‘Marguerite Duras turns out to know what I teach without me,’ and I remember dutifully trying to make sense of that novel within the Lacanian framework. I now realise that I was treating the text as an intellectual puzzle rather than as an expression of lived experience. Maybe that’s why it never occurred to me to try to read Duras for pleasure. Nevertheless, at the time, it felt impossible to be a feminist literary theorist without reading her, so I struggled on, making my way through the texts and watching the movies, without ever asking myself whether I actually liked her work.

But even in the heyday of French theory, her wartime novels were not part of the Duras canon. We didn’t discuss Les Impudents (1943) and La Vie tranquille (1944), which we thought of as hard to get hold of, even in French. Rumours circulated that Duras herself was preventing publishers from reprinting them. Given that Gallimard republished La Vie tranquille in 1972, and Les Impudents in 1992, this was clearly a myth. Yet I persisted for a long time in thinking of these books as somehow secret, potentially packed with suspect ideas. After all, Duras’s first publication had been L’Empire français, a 1940 propaganda booklet on the benefits of French imperialism, co-written with Philippe Roques, a colleague at the Ministry of the Colonies, where she had worked since earning her law degree in 1937. For a while she was seconded to write copy for an outfit called the Committee for Propaganda for the French Banana. In July 1942, she became the administrative secretary for the Book Organisation Committee, which allocated paper quotas to publishers. Run by the Vichy government, the committee was under the direct control of the German occupiers.

Duras’s shady political past fuelled my suspicion that the early novels must be full of embarrassing, even scandalous, material. But I still didn’t read them. Now I wonder why not. If I really thought shocking revelations were to be found in these novels, why didn’t I just get them out of the library? It was as if I preferred a certain vagueness to the reality of the texts. In any case, the fact that Duras and her husband, Robert Antelme, joined the Resistance in 1943, and that Antelme was arrested and deported to Buchenwald, made any worries about her early novels seem less pressing.

I now think that my own will to preserve the faint aura of mystery surrounding early Duras at the height of the vogue for ‘écriture féminine’ responded to something essential in her late life persona as the grande dame of French letters, namely her constant myth-making, her blending of truth and fiction. Although some of her novels look like autofiction, they aren’t concerned, as, for example, Knausgaard’s My Struggle is, with getting past the tired old moves of fiction-making literature to grasp reality. Nor do they, like Annie Ernaux’s novels, blend accurate historical and sociological analysis with searing descriptions of personal experience. In a novel such as L’AmantThe Lover – Duras’s struggle is quite the opposite, to mythologise herself, to turn herself into literature.

For a whole generation, then, Duras’s real oeuvre began with Un Barrage contre le Pacifique. Published in 1950, when she was 36, this is a novel about a Frenchwoman’s struggle to make money by investing in a rice-growing property in French Indo-China that turns out to be regularly flooded by the sea. In hindsight, Un Barrage contre le Pacifique reads as a first attempt at fictionalising the experiences described in L’Amant, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1984, and went on to become an international bestseller, and the basis for Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 film.

Duras was born in 1914 in what is now Vietnam and was then French Indo-China, the youngest of three children. Both her parents were schoolteachers. Her father, Henri Donnadieu, died in 1921, at the age of 49, while on leave in France. Just before he died, he bought a small estate on the edge of the Dordogne, near the little town of Duras – the source of Marguerite Donnadieu’s pen name. Although Duras only visited once, as a teenager, she set her two wartime novels in the area. After Henri’s death, Duras’s mother, Marie Legrand, stayed in the French colonial system, working as a headmistress in Vietnam and Cambodia. Like the mother in Un Barrage contre le Pacifique, she lost money on a disastrous investment in the 1920s. After her retirement in 1936, she set up her own – successful – school for well-off students.

Duras left Vietnam for good in 1933, after completing her baccalauréat. In Paris, she acquired a driver’s licence, a fancy car and a number of lovers. In 1939, on the brink of war, she married Robert Antelme. The following year, it became illegal for most married women to work. Duras stayed at home and tried to write, but Gallimard rejected her first novel, which after much rewriting was published by Plon in 1943 as Les Impudents. While working at the Book Organisation Committee, she began a long affair with Dionys Mascolo. In 1947, she divorced Antelme and married Mascolo. Their son, Jean, was born the same year. The couple divorced in 1956. Duras was known for her affairs, including a fling with Jacques-Laurent Bost, who had for years been Simone de Beauvoir’s lover. In the 1950s, she began to write avant-garde plays, and in 1959 wrote the screenplay for Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour. She went on to make a series of films based on her own texts, most notably India Song (1974). From the 1960s onwards, her alcoholism, which severely damaged her health, became increasingly evident. She died in 1996.

Even at the height of Duras’s international fame, her wartime novels weren’t translated into English. But now, 25 years after her death, here they are, in excellent translations.* I felt sceptical as I picked up The Easy Life (by far the better of the novels). Juvenilia, if this is the right term for novels by a writer who had just turned thirty, are often of mostly antiquarian interest. But the intensity of the first pages astonished me. The opening also told me something that in hindsight seems obvious, but which I, a reader used to thinking about Duras as a writer focused almost exclusively on femininity and madness, hadn’t fully realised: her enduring preoccupation is with pain that goes unalleviated. In The Easy Life excruciating physical pain is observed from the outside by an unflinching and apparently unfeeling witness. In later works, Duras almost obsessively returns to this theme, most often in the form of the psychic pain experienced by solitary, enigmatic characters (usually women) who are incapable of giving it expression. The Easy Life, in short, suddenly made some of Duras’s greatest works – above all Moderato Cantabile and Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein – more intelligible. It made her fictional world seem more human, but also more desolate than I had realised back when I was obsessed with identifying in her work Lacan’s ideas about foreclosure, psychosis and femininity.

The Easy Life begins with the sentence ‘Jérôme walked back to Les Bugues broken in two.’ Jérôme is the uncle of the narrator, Francine, nicknamed Françou. Her brother, Nicolas, has just beaten Jérôme to a pulp because Francine told him that Jérôme was sleeping with his wife, Clémence. Howling in pain, Jérôme drags himself back from the fields to the dilapidated farmhouse they all live in. The scenes of the uncle’s pain, as observed by Francine, are extraordinary: ‘Once more, Jérôme stood. He was now screaming freely, non-stop. This probably soothed him. He advanced in zigzags, like a drunk. And we followed him. Slowly, patiently, we led him to the room he would never leave again.’

While the style is influenced by Camus, the scene is not. When Meursault shoots the Arab on the beach, we learn about Meursault’s sensations, about the heat and the blinding sun. Camus is interested in Meursault, not in his victim. Duras forces us to witness a murder in slow motion, a painful death observed without compassion. There is something shocking about the family’s cool collusion in this protracted death. As Jérôme staggers past them, Francine’s father and her lover, Tiène, are hitching up a cart in the courtyard. They seem neither surprised nor concerned: ‘They stopped working and watched him until he entered the house.’ Prostrate on his bed, with his sister, Francine’s mother, at his bedside, Jérôme howls for help: ‘Jérôme was still screaming, begging for the doctor in Ziès. Maman kept answering the same thing in a distracted, dreamy voice, as if to a child asking questions: that the mare was in the fields, and that it was unreasonable for us to stop work to go to Ziès.’ Only after ten days, when they are certain that Jérôme can’t live much longer, do they fetch a doctor, who is appalled at not having been called earlier. Now he can only confirm what they all know, that he was called too late. After untold nights and days of pain, Jérôme finally dies.

If we are to believe Duras, she herself once instigated such a scene. In 1985, a year after the success of L’Amant, she published La Douleur, best known for its harrowing account of the return of her husband, Robert Antelme, from the concentration camps. In French, the book was published with no indication of genre. In English, it appeared under the title The War: A Memoir, but it is by no means clear how much of the book is memoir and how much is fiction. The War also includes a story called ‘Albert des Capitales’, about a woman, Thérèse, who in the immediate aftermath of the Liberation of Paris in August 1944 takes charge of the torture of a ‘donneur’, a Gestapo informer who has denounced Jews and members of the Resistance. Ordering him to strip naked, Thérèse tells two men in her group to beat him with their bare fists until he confesses.

This would just be a story if not for Duras’s introductory note: ‘Thérèse is me. The woman who tortures the informer is me.’ Was she? Is this fiction, myth or historical truth? Did Duras personally direct the torture of an informer? The question has exercised her biographers. They all agree that the collaborator was Charles Delval, executed in January 1945. But from then on they differ. Jean Vallier, author of the massive two-volume C’était Marguerite Duras, dismisses the story as her invention. But his argument is unconvincing: he writes that she was so short that she couldn’t possibly have beaten up a man. But the story doesn’t say that Thérèse beat anyone herself, just that she directed the beating. The ‘Albert des Capitales’ of the title is a waiter who passed on names to Delval. Vallier claims that the story can’t be true since the actual waiter was never prosecuted for collaboration, and in any case wasn’t in Paris at the time. But this is not incompatible with Duras’s story, which simply states that her group never got hold of ‘Albert’, who had left Paris two weeks earlier.

Vallier prides himself on his objectivity. The same can’t be said for Frédérique Lebelley, whose 1994 biography is thoroughly hostile to its subject. Not surprisingly, Lebelley chooses to believe Duras’s story. Laure Adler, the author of a successful, if occasionally unreliable Duras biography, hesitates. Finding the story ‘unbearable’ [‘insoutenable’], she asked Duras about it in 1994. The topic was dismissed with a wave of the hand. Adler points out that Duras twice, in interviews from 1985 and 1991, claimed that she did in fact extract information through torture in the way she describes. But that hardly settles the question: particularly towards the end of her life Duras would tell journalists whatever she liked. In both interviews she declared that she had no regrets, that she saw torture as a kind of necessity, something that had to happen. The story has the same theme: Thérèse says several times that it is necessary to torture the informer to uphold justice and truth. ‘We have to hit him. There will never again be justice in the world if we ourselves don’t become justice in this moment … We have to hit him. Crush him. Shatter the lie. This vile silence. Flood it with light. Extract the truth that this bastard has in his throat.’ As the beating becomes more savage, other members of the Resistance group, who have gathered to watch, begin to protest. Some leave the room. Thérèse doesn’t flinch. She is as unmoved as Francine in La Vie tranquille.

La Vie tranquille wasn’t published until the end of December 1944. Could Duras have decided to write about the death of the uncle from a savage beating after overseeing the same cruelty herself a few months earlier? Without further evidence, it’s impossible to say. Maybe the text followed life. Or maybe Duras let life follow her text. The mythology descends again.

As for L’Amant, the text that most Anglophone critics have brought up in relation to La Vie tranquille, it doesn’t take long to discover that it is not all that accurate. While she enjoyed the fame (and money) the novel brought her, Duras dismissed its literary worth, calling it an ‘airport novel’ and claiming that she wrote it when she was drunk. Freud speculated that writers turn the crude, self-aggrandising materials of daydreams into literature. Rereading L’Amant, I can’t help thinking that it contains a good deal of ego-boosting romantic fantasy. A ravishing, sexually magnetic impoverished young woman lords it over a rich lover, half-mad with desire. On losing her virginity, the 15-year-old girl gains a sexual knowingness, an experience of jouissance as the Lacanians like to say, that makes her feel superior to other women, notably her mother. The lover’s desire is unlimited, uncontrollable and eternal. They have sex all the time. As in fairy tales, but with the genders reversed, the young man’s father prevents him from marrying his beloved. Years later, ‘after the marriages, the children, the divorces’, he calls her in Paris to declare, in the novel’s final sentence, that ‘it was as before, that he still loved her, that he could never stop loving her, that he’d love her until he died.’

How much truth is there in this novel that so many critics refer to as ‘autofiction’? In Un Barrage contre le Pacifique, the lover is white. In L’Amant and L’Amant de la Chine du Nord (her second novel on the same story), he is Chinese. According to Duras’s biographers, the probable model for the lover was Vietnamese, or ‘Annamite’ in the French colonial designation. His name was Huynh Thuy Lè, and according to notebooks Duras kept during the war (quoted by Vallier), he was ‘definitely uglier than the average Annamite’. She also notes that the young man was ridiculously small and thin. Once, when he kissed her, her revulsion was such, she writes, that she felt as if she had been raped. She writes that they kept seeing each other, but she only slept with him once, after two years.

He did own a handsome car, a Morris Léon Bollée which figures prominently in the film, and his family did have money: their splendid house is now a police station. Adler thinks that Duras’s mother more or less prostituted her daughter to the rich young man. In the film, too, the lover gives the young woman money, which she passes on to her mother. Vallier points out that the family was by no means as poor as Duras makes it out to have been. When they sailed back to France, their first-class tickets were not paid for by the lover, but by the French state. If it weren’t for Duras’s prose, particularly her withering descriptions of the young woman’s family, the novel would be read as a popular romance, albeit one with a wistful ending, rather than a major literary work.

But those withering comments have power. I was struck by one passage in particular. Writing about the evil older brother’s ‘cold, insulting’ violence, Duras notes that the young woman’s family avoid looking at and talking to one another:

It’s a family of stone, petrified into a density [‘épaisseur’] that offers no access. Not only do we not talk to one another, we don’t even look at one another. The moment you are being looked at you can’t look. To look is to be curious about, to be interested in, to lower yourself [‘déchoir’]. No one you look at is worth it. Looking is always demeaning.

In this family, everyone is a ‘thickness’, a ‘density’. A density has no interior space, offers nothing for others to try to understand. The Lacanian vocabulary we used in thinking about Duras made me lose sight of the things that strike me today: the shocking lack of warmth, compassion and love in the Durassian universe. It’s apparent from the very start, in the wartime novels. Some critics have seen traces of Nietzsche in this, but these texts don’t otherwise strike me as Nietzschean. In L’Amant, the idea that others are just ‘densities’ is just horribly painful; the result is to make the daughter feel completely worthless.

Duras’s notion of the ‘look’ shares some terrain with Sartre’s – we are talking about domination and subjection – but the differences are more striking than the similarities. For Sartre, the person looking always dominates the person being looked at. Let’s imagine that I’m peeping through a keyhole. Suddenly I hear steps in the hotel corridor. Instantly, I see myself as seen by the other, and am covered in shame. Duras inverts the power relationship: for her, the person doing the looking is revealing weakness. Any interest in another is a sign of submission. To look is to be passive, ‘fallen’ or ‘degraded’. To look makes you vulnerable, because what you look at reveals your desire. The young girl in L’Amant declares that she doesn’t love the man. Yet she craves his gaze: by looking at her, he becomes her inferior; refusing to look back, she exults in her own power.

Unlike Sartre, Duras leaves no space for an inner life (the consciousness of shame, for example). The young girl’s family are incapable of acknowledging another human being. They understand their relationships exclusively in terms of submission or dominance, violence or victimhood. The other, for them, is not a subject, or a free consciousness, but a ‘density’, a body, a bundle of drives and desires to be subdued. Postmodern thinkers could say that Duras eviscerates the bourgeois or humanist subject, leaving characters as nothing more than the effects of their drives.

Duras’s account of the gaze in a family populated by ‘densities’ showed me why she always writes about bodies, looks and desire but never about empathy, compassion or love. It also explained why her characters never express their desires in words and her mature novels are devoid of psychological explanations. If Duras pictures her characters as lacking anything we might call an inner life, then they can’t express psychic pain in conventional ways, for example, by thinking or talking about it. They would not have a clear sense of what is going on inside them. The pain of others wouldn’t matter to them either. The idea that the suffering of others places a claim – some kind of responsibility – on us would be irrelevant. No wonder Francine and Thérèse are perfectly capable of impassively watching violence inflicted on the bodies of others.

But if Duras’s characters don’t have a conventional inner life, where does the pain go? In her best novels, Duras gives a compelling answer: her subjects become entirely passive, as if paralysed, or they act out, without understanding themselves. In these novels, Duras’s art is to convey, without ever naming, the pain of her main characters. In Moderato Cantabile (1958), the upper-class heroine, Anne Desbaresdes, is sitting in on her little son’s piano lesson when she hears a shot from the café next door. Going outside, she hears that a woman has been killed. Inside the café, a ‘delirious’ man sprawls on top of the dead woman’s body. Transfixed, Anne stares at the man, the dead woman, the blood. True to the logic described in L’Amant, Anne’s transfixed gaze reveals her desire and makes her vulnerable, risks her status. The next day, she returns to the café with her son in tow. There she meets a man, Chauvin, who once worked in her husband’s factory. They drink wine, compulsively. In a series of conversations at the café table, they obsess about the relationship of the doomed couple, not by analysing it, but by getting drunk and ‘inventing’ it, re-enacting it in conversation by going through the forms – the narrative steps – of the couple’s doomed desire, until the final scene: ‘– I would like you to be dead, said Chauvin. – It’s done, said Anne Desbaresdes.’ One evening, near the end of her symbolic affair, Anne returns so late and so drunk from the café that she scandalises her husband and her dinner guests. Yet she can’t speak, and seems to feel no need to explain herself.

This is Anne’s silent revolt against bourgeois conformity. The fact that she takes her son to most of the meetings with Chauvin, getting drunk inside while he plays alone outside, is enough to get her labelled as a bad mother. Chauvin and Anne never speak words of revolt or love, nor do they express any other emotion. Rather, they are mesmerised by a crime passionnel, by the spectacle of mad, violent, immeasurable desire. Anne’s pain goes unnoticed by everyone, and remains unarticulated by her. Her subjectivity appears to exist only as fragments diffused across her incoherent words and desiring body. Yet – and this is Duras’s achievement – the whole novella is suffused with Anne’s revolt, her pain, her wish to be dead. Moderato Cantabile isn’t autofiction, but it feels existentially true.

Duras’s much admired 1964 novel, Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, the one that convinced Lacan that she understood his teachings, drives the Durassian logic of the gaze, and her obsession with wordless psychic pain, to its extreme. The 19-year-old title character goes to a ball at a casino with her fiancé, Michael Richardson, and her schoolfriend Tatiana Karl. The married, middle-aged Anne Marie Stretter walks in. As if in a trance, Michael Richardson gets up to dance with her. They dance all night, and finally leave together. Michael Richardson doesn’t look back at Lol, who is left speechless and mortified. Soon afterwards she marries Jean Bedford, a musician, with whom she has three daughters. Ten years later, walking the streets of her home town, she happens to see Tatiana Karl meeting her adulterous lover, Jacques Hold, for a secret rendezvous. Lol is instantly obsessed by their relationship and ends up watching the lovers’ hotel window from a neighbouring rye field. Uncharacteristically, she invites Tatiana, her husband and Jacques for dinner. Responding to Lol’s evident desire, Jacques – the narrator of the story – begins to let her know when he and Tatiana will be at the hotel. He travels with her to visit the scene of the original trauma, the casino ballroom. Afterwards, in the hotel room where they have gone for sex, Lol suffers a complete loss of identity, a sort of psychic decomposition. Throughout the trip, he refers to Lol’s ‘plainte’, her moaning, as if in pain, but also as if in sexual pleasure. Afterwards, Lol silently returns to her position in the rye field.

Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein doesn’t traffic in explanations. Duras describes Lol’s fixation with the implacable desire of others: the trauma of seeing Michael Richardson with Anne Marie Stretter, the compulsion to repeat the original scene by watching Jacques Hold with Tatiana Karl. The haunting quality of Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein arises from its capacity to convey intense distress in a subject who, as Tatiana Karl puts it, was ‘never quite there’.

Thewartime novels contain versions of what would become classical Durassian preoccupations. The bad family motif, for example, is already there. Both novels offer variations on the constellation of an absent, weak or dead father, an evil older brother (in The Easy Life, this figure is an uncle), a more or less beloved younger brother and a mother who dotes on her eldest son, letting him squander the family’s resources to the detriment of her other children, for whom she feels no love. Like The Easy Life, The Impudent Ones begins with a scene of suffering ignored by others. Maud’s older brother has been crying alone in his room, ‘abandoned by his family’, for five hours. It transpires his wife was killed in a car accident earlier in the day. Duras gives much more explanation here than she would do later: the others feel ‘contemptuous mistrust’ for this brother; he is an inveterate liar; he has wasted the family money and so on. The novel also features an early example of the Durassian look. Maud goes to a bar deemed unsuitable for women, where Georges, the man she is interested in, simply can’t stop looking at her, his gaze ‘wild with a violent desire for her presence’. In keeping with the Durassian logic, his gaze places Maud in a position of power; she doesn’t look back.

Duras’s later heroines are strikingly passive. Anne and Lol have servants. They don’t work and aren’t much interested in their children. Bored with their conventional bourgeois lives, they barely act. When they finally do something, their actions are driven by a desire they don’t understand. Although the heroines of the early novels are younger, impecunious and unmarried, they share this passivity. In The Impudent Ones, Maud spends the summer doing nothing at all until she suddenly decides to go to the bar to look for Georges. As a novel, it has some interesting touches, not least Duras’s exposure of the family’s sexism and double standards in relation to Maud, but it remains a beginner’s effort.

The Easy Life, however, reads like a novel by Duras. Raymond Queneau wrote in his reader’s report for Gallimard that although the novel was too influenced by Camus’s L’Étranger, he recommended publication, preferably after revisions. He also noted that he found the second section quite boring. It may not be a coincidence that this is easily the most ‘Durassian’ part of the book.

After his uncle’s death, Nicolas takes up with a local woman. When she tires of him, he kills himself by lying down in front of a train. Exhausted by farm work, and shattered by grief, Francine accepts Tiène’s suggestion that she go away to rest. At the beach, like so many later Durassian women, she spends her days waiting and desiring. She often sleeps on the beach. Alone in her room, she is overcome by a consciousness of being a woman – of having a woman’s body and desires – and suffers an episode of depersonalisation. One day, as Queneau puts it, she ‘watches with indifference as a man drowns’. She sees the man, whom she had met at her hotel, swim out to sea until he disappears. Afterwards, she does nothing, thinks nothing, feels nothing, except the sensation of the sun and the sand on her body. Indeed, she notes that ‘for the first time I stopped thinking of Nicolas. I was at peace.’

The next day, when the other guests are in a commotion because of the drowning, Francine casually mentions that she saw the man swimming out to sea. A small crowd stares at her in horror, asking her over and over again why she didn’t call for help, why she didn’t tell anyone. Francine keeps saying that it would have been useless. Her lack of compassion, her indifference, turns her into a freak in the eyes of the guests and she fears ‘they will discover who I was.’ She returns to the farm, and realises that she will marry Tiène: ‘On l’aura la vie tranquille,’ she thinks to herself. I wondered whether ‘the easy life’ is the best translation of ‘la vie tranquille’. To me, an ‘easy life’ is one in which one doesn’t have to work too hard, and doesn’t have money problems, as in ‘they have it easy.’ This is clearly something the exhausted Francine would want. But after the scene in the hotel, where she realises that her way of thinking and being makes her almost monstrous to others, she might want a ‘quiet life’ even more – a life where nobody bothers her, where she will be left alone. For the fact is that Francine and her family are aliens, indifferent to the suffering of others, seemingly without an ounce of ordinary pity, compassion or love. But if they are aliens, they are Durassian aliens.

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