Books

Cover of book: Suspended Passion

Marguerite Duras (translated by Chris Turner)
Suspended Passion

Marguerite Duras was long known, mainly within France, as an avant-garde author and filmmaker. Two subjects recurred in her work: female desire and transgressive, doomed passions – perhaps they were really a single subject. Her narratives were constructed around gaps analogous to the black screens that appeared in her films. They used repetition to great effect, and displayed an exhilarating disregard for conventions such as linearity, causality and interiority. Her best work was formally daring while casting a spell over her readers.

Writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) brought Duras wide recognition. But it was the publication of The Lover in 1984, when Duras was 71, that made her a superstar. The novel – an autofiction, we would say today – described Duras’s childhood in French Indochina and her affair, when she was 15, with a Chinese man. It was constructed from fragments that leapt nimbly through time and space, using striking visual images as building blocks to create a narrative that had the intensity and strangeness of dreams. It brought Duras France’s most coveted literary award, the Prix Goncourt.

It was the sex, however, that sold. Or, as the shoutline on my copy has it, “Exotic, erotic, autobiographical confession”. In the wake of the millions entranced by Duras’s account of forbidden interracial desire, came the scholars. The Lover was placed on feminist and postcolonial studies reading lists and was analysed in countless scholarly texts.

The journalists came too. Among them was Leopoldina Pallotta della Torre, who interviewed Duras in 1987. Arranged thematically, her interviews were published in a small print run in Italy and subsequently lost for decades. Now an unearthed copy has been translated into French and by Chris Turner into English as Suspended Passion.

Was it a wise move? The Duras who features in these conversations hasn’t aged well. Consider her claim, on page one, that as a child she was “more Vietnamese than French”. Yeah, nah. Speaking a local language, going barefoot and playing with local children – common experiences in colonial childhoods – doesn’t abolish the power conferred by race. Duras has always made much of growing up poor, but poverty is relative. The family could employ “houseboys”, and when her mother retired to France she had amassed enough money to buy a chateau. Not that it matters. Whatever material hardship the family knew, in Indochina, as in any European colony, whiteness trumped wealth.

Duras’s blithe resistance to that truth is remarkable. Perhaps it’s embarrassment about her colonial past that produces assertions such as, “It definitely wasn’t a European or French upbringing.” Perhaps when she refers to Indochina as “my country”, she’s referring to the mythic source of her imagination rather than a geopolitical entity. But trying to make allowances for Duras’s opinions is like trying to stuff a gorilla into a matchbox: ultimately, it can’t be done. About her lover she confides, “I didn’t like his Chinese body, but he knew how to pleasure mine.” I wonder what upbringing, if it wasn’t European or French, taught Duras aversion to the “Chinese body” that she repurposed as her vibrator.    

With its lethal blend of disdain and desire, Duras’s statement perfectly illustrates colonialism’s reification and exploitation of the colonised in the service of its wants. A tremendous sequence in The Lover operates as a metaphor for the same thing. The lover takes the narrator’s family to fabulously expensive restaurants, where no one, including the narrator, looks at or speaks to him. They shovel in as much food and drink as they can, ignoring him even when he pays. Duras mentions these occasions to Pallotta della Torre, remarking that “they were a bit racist in the colonies”. Note the pronoun. She also says it was her “duty” to take money from a millionaire and give it to her family. The vibrator functioned equally efficiently as a wallet. Racist? A bit.

Literature complicates and reveals in ways that exceed a writer’s control. In The Lover, the narrator’s youth and the frightening chaos of her family life go a long way to excusing her conduct. She’s overwhelmed by events, as Duras’s women so frequently are. At the end, she weeps on the liner carrying her away from her lover, weeping in private because a white girl shouldn’t weep for a Chinese man. The picture of her that emerges is mottled with fear, desire, cruelty, helplessness. If she doesn’t grasp her complicity in colonialism, neither does she deny it. That makes her a more sympathetic figure than the writer we encounter here.

Sure, there’s more to Duras than ingrained racism. Let’s say hi to her homophobia instead. It underlies her dismissal of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini and is explicit in tedious drivel such as this: “Love between members of one’s own sex lacks that mythic, universal dimension that belongs only to opposite sexes.” Homosexuality, Duras opines, is “very much akin to death”. Or could the problem with homosexuals be their disinclination for the role of madame’s vibrator? Just an idea.

It’s all even more stomach-churning when you consider that the gay – possibly bi – writer Yann Andréa acted as Duras’s secretary, helped her overcome alcoholism and cared for her during her last 16 years. I suppose he was just a superior brand of  “houseboy”, one of the serving class that doesn’t count. Duras wrote some remarkable books. Seek them out and let this one return to the obscurity it deserves.

Michelle de Kretser

Seagull Books, 184pp, $24.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 12, 2022 as " Suspended Passion, Marguerite Duras (translated by Chris Turner)".

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Reviewer: Michelle de Kretser

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