An intimate interview with France’s acclaimed woman of letters reveals the power of silence.
Marguerite Duras, the prolific and acclaimed French novelist, filmmaker, playwright, journalist, and woman of letters, died in 1996. But her rich legacy continues to grow. The woman who produced such award-winning works as The Lover and Hiroshima Mon Amour is the subject of a newly published collection of interviews, translated for the first time into English.
The interviews were conducted with Italian journalist Leopoldina Pallotta della Torre, whose persistence won over Duras' participation in a series of interview sessions in 1987, when Duras was already 73 years old. The resulting book was initially published only in Italian and eventually forgotten about until a copy was tracked down and published in French in 2013. Chris Turner has now produced an English translation for Duras’ many Anglophone fans and students.
The interviews convey one of the key lessons of Duras’ creative output, both in print and film: less is more. Silence and blank spaces are fundamental to her fiction, her films, even material produced for the stage. “It’s only out of what is missing, out of the blank spaces that appear in a sequence of significations -- out of the gaps -- that something can be born,” she tells her interviewer. People develop automatic habits of language and speech, automatic habits of engaging with themselves and the world: as a writer Duras seeks to break those automatic habits, often through the unfamiliar space of silence -- blank screens or words left unspoken -- in order to allow something new to emerge.
What she describes is a relationship between life and meaning. Life happens around us in an exterior sense and is, she explains, perceived as a sequence of events. Yet it is memory -- the ordering of those events after the fact -- which endows events with meaning. The events happen on an exterior level, yet the production of meaning around those events through memory is an implicitly personal, interior process. Just as memory produces meaning and significance, forgetting is equally vital -- forgetting the things we decide do not matter, or the things that matter so intensely that unless repressed they would make life unbearable.
della Torre notes the result of this tendency to write stories around blank spaces or gaps is that critics sometimes described Duras’ novels as ‘books about nothing’. To which Duras responds: “To write isn’t to tell a story, but to evoke what there is around it; you create around the story, one moment after another. Everything there is, but everything which might also not be or which might be interchangeable -- like the events of life. The story and its unreality, or its absence.”
Hence, Duras’ deliberate and unusual use of the conditional verb tense, to underscore the sense of indeterminate potentiality latent in everything that happens; to express the artificiality of fiction and meaning itself.
“I’ve always distrusted stories that suddenly ‘end’,” she says.
A sparse writing style best accompanies such an approach, Duras explains to her interlocutor. “An automatic process of paring and shrinking down the raw material of language goes on inside me. An aspiration to stylistic economy, to a geometric space where every word stands bare.”
In a world of writers who fire didactic words and phrases at their readers out of a conviction that their work has meaning and conveys important ideas, Duras demonstrates a self-confident skepticism. “My contemporaries bore me,” she says, dismissing Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and several other award-winning authors whom della Torre lists off. The ‘new philosophers’ “seem to be rather provincial young men, afflicted with Parisianism and Left-wing snobbery”; the ‘nouveau roman’ writers are “All too intellectual for me. With a theory of literature to keep to and all imagination to be subordinated to it.”
Cinema of Silence
Duras’ economical, pared-down style was one she applied to film-making as well.
“The reality reproduced by classical cinema has never been of any interest to me. Everything is said too much, shown too much -- an excess of meaning in which, paradoxically, the context becomes impoverished.”
Her films were produced on small budgets and under tight timelines, and she feels they benefited from this; that it contributed to their beauty. “Meagre resources… sit well with the nature of the reality I’ve described. A reality that’s ragged and hollowed out.”
Like her novels, her films avoid “the ‘hinge events’ which normally serve to connect the different sequences together in a film, giving the whole context that sense of ‘naturalness’, that illusion of reality. By contrast, it was always my aim to stimulate the spectators’ minds by forcing them to make an effort to put together those things which had previously been offered up to them as something unified and, as it were, pre-digested.”
The process is similar to her technique of writing around the main story, avoiding giving too many details and allowing the reader to piece things together for themselves. “One should film little -- just what’s necessary. Giving the viewer as little to see as possible, and as much as possible to understand and listen to.”
She’s critical of some of the films that have been made of her own fiction. Indeed, she tells della Torre that’s why she got into film-making in the first place -- she didn’t like the films people were making of her books. The problem, she said, was that the filmmakers failed to recognize the importance of the gaps and silences in her text, and filled in those spaces for the viewers, thereby “banalizing them”.
“By appropriating stories or reinventing them in novelistic form, without understanding that these were starting points, evocations based more on the reduction of suspension of narration than on its saturation. They tried to fill the gaps in the written text. But that way the words lost all their intensity…”
Still a Communist…
Duras is dismissive of didactic, preachy writers (and filmmakers) and of those who try to push political ideologies in their creative work (although she considers some of her own work to be political in its own way). But Duras was no stranger to political organizing. A member of the French Resistance during the war (along with her first husband, who was captured and barely survived imprisonment in Buchenwald concentration camp), she became a committed Communist and was a branch secretary of the French party for several years. But her approach to politics gradually changed.
“I’m still a communist who doesn’t recognize herself in communism,” she tells della Torre. “To join a party, you have to be more or less autistic, neurotic, deaf and blind… I’d had enough of Marxist demagogy which in its attempt to wipe out individuals’ contradictions merely alienated those individuals more. Any attempt to simplify human consciousness has something fascistic about it…”
Duras explains that her disenchantment with communism grew as the Stalinist version of that model spread, especially following the crushing of the 1956 protests in Hungary by the Soviet army. But leaving the party and the movement was a traumatizing experience, she said, and only the events of 1968 -- the unprecedented protests and occupations that erupted through Europe, and nearly toppled the French government of the time -- helped her to recover and renew her political hopes. Although the protests were seen as political failures (they didn’t actually topple any governments), she said they were important victories in the sense that they gave people the courage to act in an ‘ideological vacuum’.
There’s a resonance here with her own work in fiction and filmmaking. During the 1968 protests, there was no guiding narrative explaining what just happened and why, or what was going to happen next; the protests were characterized by the same ideological gaps and political silences that mark her fiction and film. Perhaps this is what helped those protests achieve a similar rupture with established patterns and habits of behaviour as that sought by Duras through her creative work.
“Not knowing where we were going, as happened to us in the street in those days, but knowing only that we were going, that we were on the move, so to speak, without fear of the consequences and the contradictions -- that’s what we learnt… From childhood on, we’ve been compelled to order our lives, to the point of expunging all disorder from them. And it’s this fear of the void, in the desire to curb the tiniest risk that might ensue from it, that power roots itself.”
It’s not political discipline, but creative desire and disorder, which describes the revolution Duras sought. An interesting exchange with della Torre illustrates this:
della Torre: “You once said, ‘When [Charles] Baudelaire talks about lovers and desire, the revolutionary spirit is strongest in him. When the members of the Central Committee talk about revolution, it’s pornography.’ “
Duras: “Like all regimes, Marxism is afraid that, if not appropriately channeled, ‘certain free forces’ -- the imagination, poetry, even love -- can undermine its foundations, as it were, and it has always set itself up to censor experience, desire.”
Experience and its expression are central to Duras’ ideas about writing, however oblique and unorthodox her style. “Yes, real writers are necessary,” she tells della Torre. “They give form to what others feel in a shapeless way -- that’s why totalitarian regimes banish them.”
She pushes the theme further. The task of literature, she says, is “To represent what’s forbidden. To say what isn’t normally said. Literature must be scandalous -- all the activities of the mind today must have some risk and adventure in them.”
Duras was no stranger to scandal and risk. In 1984, the body of four-year old Gregory Villemin was found murdered in a French village, and the horrifying crime gripped French society and newspapers for years to come (it was never solved). Suspicion fell on an uncle (the father’s cousin) for a period of time, but he was released for lack of evidence. In response, the grief-stricken father shot his cousin dead, a crime for which he served four years in jail. Soon thereafter, police charged the child’s mother, Christine, with the murder. The case, however, never went to court and the charges were dropped several years later.
Amidst all this, the French newspaper Liberation commissioned Duras to go to the village where the murder happened and write an article about it. The piece which resulted stoked controversy even further. In a lengthy article titled “Sublime, Necessarily Sublime” Duras expressed her conviction that the mother had murdered the child, but that she was innocent of any crime, as she had been a victim of oppressive patriarchal society and family relationships.
Nobody knows what life is like in those houses,” Duras wrote, after sketching out the French equivalent of a white picket fence existence. “It happens that women don’t love their children, or their houses, that they are not the housewives one expects them to be. It happens that they are not the wives of their husbands either. And it happens that in spite of putting up with it all -- marriage, fucking, child, house, furniture -- they still are not good mothers, are not any better at being faithful, and tend to slink away. This has not changed them in any way, for a single day. Why wouldn’t a pregnancy come at a bad time? Why mightn’t the birth of a mother by the coming of a child be a miscarriage from the slapping around she gets from a man because of poorly cooked steaks, for example? Just as childhood may be lost from getting slapped for an F in math. When women have a child that they do not recognize as their own, maybe it’s because they didn’t want a child, that they didn’t want to live. And in this case, no morality, no penalty will make them recognize that that child is theirs. They have to be left alone with their stories, without insulting them, hitting them… It’s possible that Christine V. had lived a completely artificial existence that she couldn’t care less about.
Part literary reportage, part feminist manifesto, Duras’ article is a fascinating read, and sparked a frenetic debate in French media. The mother, Christine, sued both Duras and the newspaper for defamation, but the case failed.
Duras later reflected that maybe she should have written the article from a more speculative perspective. But it aligns with her philosophy on journalism, of which she produced quite a bit as well throughout her life. She tells della Torre that the function of journalism is “To create public opinion around events that would otherwise pass unnoticed. I don’t think there can be professional objectivity: I prefer a clear position to be taken. A sort of moral stance.” This, she notes, is the exact opposite approach she believes novelists should adopt in their work.
The Liberation article also reflects aptly her ideas around women’s writing. Those ideas are complex and explored in length throughout the interviews, but she notes that women’s writing exists in tension with women’s treatment in society.
“[W]hat brings me closer to the other women who write, who really write -- from Colette onwards -- is this way of feeling like an enfant terrible of literature. The critics have always been harsh on everything coming from certain female domains: the themes of love, confession and autobiography. For years, women’s transgression was expressed in -- and confined to -- poetry. I wanted to transfer it to the novel and a lot of what I’ve done is, I think, revolutionary.”
Judging from the rich legacy she has left, one can’t help but agree.