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Pure Duras

Of late, I have seen women writers, it is always women, claiming Marguerite Duras as a favourite author. When I see their embrace of her, I am filled with outraged jealousy. You can’t have her, I want to tell them, she belongs to me. They are writing about extremes of passion, about the realities of desire – that’s if desire is ever real; it never really is until it’s been consummated, and then it starts all over again until the next time. These women who want her for themselves, like a new discovery, are usually pretty good at what they do. They understand Duras, draw on her intensity, the recklessness of her mind. The rest see only her surfaces – the alcohol, the life lived with abandonment.

I became aware of her in the late 1950s when I read her first novel, The Sea Wall [Un Barrage contre le Pacifique], published in 1950. Then, in the very early 1960s, when I was newly married, I saw Alan Resnais’s 1959 movie, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, which, as a screenwriter, Duras had scripted. It concerned two lovers, a Japanese man and a French woman, meeting in the aftermath of the August 1945 bombing of Hiroshima. The film portrayed the sensual beauty and desire of a relationship divided by war, in which each participant perceived the other as evil, and the way in which people of goodwill were torn apart by these differences.

The movie deeply disturbed me. I was twenty years old, or maybe twenty-one. Not long before, I had married cross-culturally, in the face of some opposition. I sat in the dim twilight of the old Regent cinema in Rotorua, where I was accustomed to watching romantic comedies or Elvis Presley movies, and knew I was seeing something different. Even though I was young, I recognised flashes of myself that had yet to be fully explored. Perhaps it was the image of shadowed slatted blinds across the man’s naked back, an image that repeats itself in my work. I’ve described Duras elsewhere as having ‘the spare and unsparing voice of human sexuality’. Or maybe it was the tension of war, the necessity to reach across boundaries in the face of adversity. I had already done that, one wet and stormy day in St Faith’s Church by the lake, where, on certain days, sulphur and steam rose and fragmented the light. It was where I had married. These memories are inescapable.

I see myself as changed by that movie. I reread The Sea Wall. It’s based on Duras growing up beside the Mekong River on a failing piece of land with her mother and brothers, her love affair with a Chinese man in Saigon when she was little more than a child, then her departure from the East for a life as a writer in Paris. (Perhaps my knowledge of her affair came later. To some extent, The Sea Wall obscures the facts of the relationship; they become clearer in The Lover [L’Amant], not published until 1984, but there are clues all over the earlier work.) My life did not mirror hers. She was an alcoholic who drifted into lengthy comas at the height of her addiction. She was married twice, once to the writer Robert Antelme, who barely survived the Second World War in Buchenwald concentration camp – like Duras, he worked for the French Resistance until he was deported – and later to Dionys Mascolo, the father of her only child. For a time, the three of them lived in a ménage à trois. She spent her last years in the company of Yann Andréa, a much younger gay man whom she loved and who loved her in return.

So no, I’m not like her at all, except that I’m a writer, and perhaps that is sufficient. There was enough of a reflection for me to be stirred in some mysterious way. I’m trying to explain the fascination for her that has followed me over the decades, how she has led me into danger, how I have defied the odds to find the essence of her. And perhaps, in the end, to let her go.

But in seeking to understand her influence on me, as a writer, I’ve returned often to an essay Duras wrote called ‘The Black Block’, about her writing process:

It isn’t the transition Aristotle speaks of, from potential to actual being. It isn’t a translation. It’s not a matter of passing from one state to another. It’s a matter of deciphering something already there, something you’ve already done in the deep sleep of your life, in its organic rumination, unbeknown to you. It isn’t something transferred – that’s not it. It might be that instinct I referred to as the power of reading before it’s written, something that’s still illegible to everyone else. I could put it differently. I could say it’s the ability to read your own writing, the first stage of your own writing, while it’s still indecipherable to others.

As I read this, it suggests a sense of abandonment, a letting go when immersed in writing, with which I identify. Or, to put it another way, of bringing to the surface what has gone before, and finding in it what you want to say.

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Duras was born in 1914 near Saigon, as Marguerite Donnedieu, the daughter of French schoolteachers. The family came and went from France. In 1921, during one of these trips, her father fell ill and died in Paris. Later, when Marguerite was establishing herself as a writer, she took the name Duras, which was the French birthplace of her father. She was often referred to simply as M.D. The remaining family returned to French Indochina – later to be known as Vietnam – where her mother worked for a time in a boarding house, believed to be near the Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hanoi, before buying some isolated rice farmland in Prey Nob, near Sihanoukville. The family lived a desolate existence, eating what they could grow, while trying to repel the encroaching China Sea (not, as Duras calls it, the Pacific). Another failed property was at Vĩnh Long, beside the Mekong River, and it was from there, as nearly as I can pinpoint it, that Duras’ relationship with the older Chinese man began.

Possibly it was these circumstances that led Duras to remark that mothers remain the strangest, craziest people we ever met. I adored my own mother, a plain-spoken, seemingly sensible woman, yet I understood all of this, I really did. After the war my father had bought land in the Far North that was not fit for purpose and we had been poor and eaten off the land; my mother had worked in a boarding house. Perhaps she had been crazy to keep following along, saying nothing, accepting, if not everything, then too much.

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I’m trying to assemble the ghosts of things I’ve written before and I’m aware that I may be repeating myself, but there’s no other way to recount it. In 1991, while on holiday in Thailand, I persuaded Ian to take a side trip to Vietnam because I wanted to follow the path of Duras, to go to Saigon, and from there take a boat trip along the Mekong to Vĩnh Long.

By then, Saigon had become Ho Chi Minh City, renamed for the country’s leader. Sixteen years had passed since the fall to the north, and all of Vietnam was now under communist rule. Tân Sơn Nhất Airport was worn and almost derelict, but the boulevards appeared much as Duras had described them, fragrant with oleanders. We were the only Europeans at the Rex Hotel, accommodation for US military personnel before Saigon fell. On the opposite side of the road stood the turn-of-the-century Continental Hotel, the setting for Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American.

While Ian went on an expedition of his own the following day, I walked alone through the streets, then stopped to sit on a park bench by a boulevard of towering trees. Behind me the twin towers of Notre Dame Cathedral stabbed the sky. It was Vietnam’s National Day. Children passed me, blowing clouds and clouds of celebratory rose pink and blue soap bubbles, or shook rattles made from slit Coke cans. Young men were performing violent martial arts on a dais. Although the French had long gone, the bakery stalls still sold French pastries and French bread, alongside pots of steaming noodles and frog meat.

I remember a little girl sitting to pee in the dust alongside where I sat. When she was finished she stood up, rubbing her belly. She knew the word for hungry, repeating it with moans.

I hesitated, thinking that, as a European, I shouldn’t be giving money to children. Her eyes were dark and angry.

My bag contained thousands of dongs, the Vietnamese currency. I opened it and gave her some; instantly a crowd of children rushed from the trees around us. As I made a hurried retreat I almost tripped over limbless beggars. Their sores bled from rubbing on the new tarseal. However it had looked on arrival, this was not Duras’ Saigon.

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I’d come no closer to Duras. After enquiring at the tourist office, I discovered that for $US100 we could have two guides for the day and the use of a flat-bottomed wooden launch to explore the Mekong Delta.

We started very early in the morning, the sky a dusky breaking blue. Fishing boats surrounded us as we drew away from the pier but then they fell behind and we were alone. The launch was more like a barge. There was a little canvas awning over the top and on the deck stood two folding deck chairs. As we churned through the brown swirling currents, I remember thinking at some point how foolhardy the whole endeavour was – not another boat in sight, sometimes catching glimpses of people on the shore, in their rice fields. It had been raining hard; there were signs of flooding and branches caught on the shoreline.

I’m still haunted by Duras’ description of crossing the Mekong, on the ferry that plied between Vĩnh Long and Sadec. It’s worth quoting again: ‘Never in my whole life shall I ever again see rivers as big and wild and beautiful as these, the great regions of water soon to disappear into the caves of the ocean.’

We stopped often on this precarious journey, invited into houses for tea, exclaimed over with wonder. On an island called Tan Long we strolled through quiet orchards. Grapefruit as big as pumpkins hung above us. They smelled like breakfast. Marigolds grew as high as my chin and in the grass bright pink ten o’clock flowers opened to the sun. ‘Does anyone remember a Madame Donnedieu and her family?’ I asked, through our guide. There were blank looks, the shaking of heads. ‘The daughter is a famous writer in France now,’ I added, trying to sound helpful. The guide said, gravely, ‘Until 1954, we had to bear the domination of the French. Until 1975, we had to bear the domination of the Americans. Now there is only us.’

I don’t believe we reached Vĩnh Long, perhaps the outskirts. To be honest, I’m not even sure that we were going in the right direction. It didn’t matter, I had seen the river she had travelled on and felt its power.

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I might have given up on Duras, but I kept bumping into reminders of her and her life. She was, after all, still alive then. I came across her collection of essays, Practicalities, published in 1987. My concept of what an essay might be was turned on its head. These were more like conversations, reflections on her life, quite short, often terse, sometimes funny, but also domestic – the thoughts of a woman who ran a household. I loved that she provided a list of household products that she was never without: table salt, pepper, wine, pasta, potatoes, rice, tinned tomatoes, yoghurt, eggs, washing powder.

I looked at my own list for last week, which begins: paper towels, blueberries, lettuce, wine, toothpaste. These are items that are always in my pantry (the blueberries are frozen ones in winter), or somewhere in the house. Batteries, butter, dishwashing liquid. And camembert. Plus a particular kind of lemon vinaigrette that is better than the one I make.

I stand at my kitchen bench and make these lists. My kitchen is a pale lemon shade. On the windowsill stand many blue glass objects the colour of the sea and sky; all down one wall hang old Royal Doulton plates, covered in painted pansies. My mother loved pansies, and these plates come from her life. On a shelf stands a row of creamy-coloured cups decorated with a shadowy pale green pattern of leaves, like tracings, part of a tea set given to my parents by our neighbours when they left the farm up north. Beyond the window above the bench lies a courtyard surrounded by native trees that Ian and I planted when we came to this house, and inside those a half-circle of white roses put in for a family wedding. Below me, on the other side, stands a grove of olive trees, just above the lip of the cliff that falls to the road far below. These were planted by my grandsons. I never do get to gather the olives, they are out of reach, but birds feast on them as they ripen. So many birds.

I add olives to the list.

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I came across a book called Writers’ Houses. The prologue was by Duras, and the opening pictures were of her house at Neauphle-le-Château, a market town between Paris and Chartres. The interior of the house wasn’t glamorous. It was a bit shabby around the edges, with frayed cushions and tablecloths, but it was filled with light and jars of wildflowers and books. Not unlike a version of my own house, which is very light. I have a passion for light – windows that face the dawn, that let in the sun. Duras remarked that her house was a place of solitude, even though it looked onto a street and ‘a very old pond’.

There was a picture of the pond and I was drawn to that, almost as much as to the house. It was round and edged by trees that swept its dark surface. I knew that I wanted to see this house and this pond. By this time, Duras had died (in 1996), but even if she had been alive, I was certain she wouldn’t have liked intruders.

My yearning was satisfied in 2006, when I was in Paris as part of a New Zealand authors’ tour of France. I had already spent much of that year in the city of Menton and, throughout my time there, the idea had been quietly fermenting that I must see the house in Neauphle-le-Château. As I have described in my second volume of memoir, with the help of my friend and fellow writer, Pierre Furlan, I found No. 1 Rue du Docteur Grellière, though it was empty and its exterior was sadly altered by neglect. But I was moved by the simple domesticity of what I saw through the windows: scuff marks on the skirting boards, dried flowers in a vase, expressing the reality of a life I had so often imagined. And the pond, its surface mirror still, was unchanged. Another example, I thought, of how Duras might see things, of how one might go into the depths of the pool and come up with something unexpected.

At the end of Beside the Dark Pool, there is a brief account of another journey, made some years later, to search for the boarding house by the lake in Hanoi, where Duras’ mother worked when the author was a small child, and where she lost her innocence at the hands of a predatory boy.

Although Ian and I had been back to South Vietnam since the time we took the boat along the Mekong, we had never made it to Hanoi. Seventeen years later, I told him that we both had unfinished business in the north. I flew from Auckland and met him in Bangkok Airport where he had arrived hours earlier, after one of his aid trips to Cambodia. By the time we reached Hanoi, however, he had become seriously ill with a potentially fatal tropical virus. Although we were in Hanoi for two weeks, he spent the whole time in an intensive care unit. Alone in a hospital side-room, not permitted to see Ian, who I’d been told might not live through his first night there, I managed to contact our family in New Zealand. My daughter had the presence of mind to ring the night desk at Foreign Affairs and, soon afterwards, a team from the New Zealand embassy in Hanoi appeared.

Through the days that followed, as my husband hovered between life and death, I found friends in this group. The ambassador was a man called James Kember. His wife, Alison, like Ian, had been a teacher in her other life – and, as it turned out, they knew each other, so she visited with me from time to time.

By day the Kembers took me into their diplomatic residence and gave me free run of the house and their well-laden bookshelves. In the weeks that followed there were many things I could have done in Hanoi, but I did very few of them. I lit incense in temples, read, visited the Temple of Literature, where white-robed monks moved in a stately silent fashion, and took a taxi across the city forty-one times to visit Ian. I think I saw Duras’ lake, but there are many beautiful lakes in Hanoi. I sat by one that I believe was hers. I did think that Duras had brought all this about, although that was not entirely true. We had wanted to go there for all sorts of reasons, not least the simple curiosity that travellers have for the world.

The hotel where I was staying, in the Old Quarter, near the Hanoi Opera House, had a distinctly French atmosphere. If the perceived decadence of the French had been discarded in the south, in Hanoi the influence was still evident, encountered in buildings and food. Ian was, in fact, a patient at the Hanoi French Hospital. As the nightmare lifted and he began a slow recovery towards being well enough to travel home, Alison took me under her wing. In her company I entered a new friendship and felt that I was not alone. She also took me shopping, given that a refund on some lost side trips had been delivered in the form of American dollars.

What happened in Hanoi would later become the basis for a long story called ‘Silks’, which appears in my collection, The Trouble with Fire. It has become something of a signature piece for me but I cannot read aloud from it, though my daughter did, at Ian’s funeral.

So we resorted to Pho Hàng Gai, Rue de la Soie, the street lined with silk shops. I picked up handfuls of different silk, holding them to my face, and in some I thought I detected the scent of skin like warm honey on the tongue, though it may have been that of food cooking at the back of the shop or incense burning … If I closed my eyes for a moment, I was overcome with a young woman’s ardour, could see the golden sheen on the back of my husband, my beloved, the play of light and dark, and I thought, M.D., you haven’t abandoned me. I was wrong to doubt. I ordered jackets, and skirts and pants. I went on doing this for several days, the sweet cool fabrics slithering between my fingers, like the touch of my lover, while hundred-dollar bills drifted away.

The reading ends, as does the story, with an account of leaving Hanoi, an ambulance driving us to the airport and my husband seeing the Red River for the first time. ‘I took his hand, our two skins crumpled together. Old silks.’

Some people expressed surprise at this reading; they may even have been a little shocked. Sex isn’t what you talk about at funerals. But I knew it was right. I was very happy that she had read it. It is, of course, in its origins, pure Duras. She had followed us, my husband and me, from the beginning.

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This should have been the end of it, the end of the affair, as I had come to think of it. But things are harder to end than you expect. Isn’t it always the way? The year before Ian died, I had been to Paris and stayed with Alison and James, who were on their last posting before retirement. One morning we walked over from the residence to Montparnasse Cemetery where Duras is buried. I go there every time I stay in Paris. Her inscription is simple, just the initials, M.D., cut into the stone. James took a handful of pencils that morning. That is how you pay tribute to Duras, not with flowers to lay on the grave, but pencils. I had thought that I was saying goodbye to her then.

And, then again, at Ian’s funeral.

That is not how it was.

A few months after the funeral, I went to Paris again. My publisher, Sabine Wespieser, had released my novel, All Day at the Movies, in translation and she was keen for me to go over and promote it. I thought Paris might help me to heal a little.

I was asked to go on Radio France’s culture programme. The interview would go out live. I was met at the door by a young man dressed in a sharp black tunic over a forest green skinny rib and checked pants. The walls of the station were painted mauve and white, dotted with mauve and black cubes, one room leading from another over soft grey carpets, until we reached the mauve studio. The interviewer was a pretty, intense, clever-looking woman, wearing large dark spectacles. I was uncertain about how this would go, given language barriers, but, with a simultaneous translator working rapidly beside me, it seemed as if we had been talking together for years. After half an hour the interviewer indicated that they were going to extend into the next hour. Then she asked me about my interest in Duras.

I began to explain, or as nearly as I could. The interviewer asked me to listen to something she was about to play. It was an old recording of Duras. I had never heard her voice before, but there it was all around me, a deep gravelly roar.

I wept then, on Radio France.

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