Marguerite Duras’s Radical Tales of Love and Revolt

Marguerite Duras’s Radical Tales of Love and Revolt

Marguerite Duras’s Radical Tales of Love and Revolt

L’Été 80, her fable-like political column for Libération, showed the full force of the revolutionary energies running through the French writer’s work.


There is a fable that the French writer Marguerite Duras used to tell to her young son of a shark who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a small orphan named David. The shark, Ratekétaboum, has eaten David’s family but spares the shipwrecked boy and ferries him to safety to a nearby island. Ratekétaboum is a creature of mixed allegiances. He has made a habit of spying on fishing boats and tipping off schools of herring to the boats’ presence but finds himself sensitive to the young boy’s plight. During their time together, Ratekétaboum tells David stories of loss, stories of war, stories of song and dance. The shark suffers greatly from a dilemma: He loves David dearly but desperately wants to eat him.

This is bleak, as far as fantastical tales of friendship go. It’s no surprise, given the sorts of tangled relationships the prolific novelist, playwright, and filmmaker yarned over the course of a half-century. Hiroshima Mon Amour, her best-known novel, depicts a young Frenchwoman telling her Japanese lover of her love affair with a Nazi soldier during the German occupation. (Duras writes in her semi-autobiographical La Douleur that she tortured a collaborator with whom she allegedly had an affair; it was never fully clear to what end.) Passionate adaptations of her adolescent affair with a rich, ugly, older man in French colonial Indochina recur in her novels, from The Sea Wall (1950) to The Lover (1984) and The North China Lover (1991). By contrast, the story of David and the shark seems sweet and straightforward, a child’s tale.

Snatches of this fable made their way into print in the newspaper Libération in 1980. Desperately lonely, severely alcoholic, and amidst projects but not wholly committed to a single one, Duras was staying at her summer home in the beach town of Trouville when Libération’s editor Serge July approached her about writing a regular column. He had nothing specific in mind; his interest lay in the writer, not her subjects. He requested a daily column for a year; she agreed to a weekly column for a summer. She dispatched from her dark bedroom, from which she could sometimes see choppy seas and a hulking procession of oil tankers at the port of Antifer. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Moscow Olympics, the failure of European socialism, and forbidden love all feature prominently in this highly personal and staunchly political serial. At the close of the season, Duras handed her 10 columns, which she modestly described as a “mere wandering off into reality,” to Les Éditions de Minuit to be published as a book. L’Été 80, as the diaristic collection was called, chronicles a summer spent imagining possibilities of a better reality.

The centerpiece of L’Été 80—which appears for the first time in English in a translation from Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan as “Summer 80,” part of a new compilation of Duras’s nonfiction—is a beachside love story that Duras imagines taking place between a gray-eyed little boy and his adolescent camp counselor. The boy is lonely and unwilling to socialize; the girl dotes on him and tells him the story of David and the shark. She soon conflates the character and the little boy as she grows to love him more deeply, saying “that David has gray eyes, that he does not speak, that his hair smells like the air after it has swept along the sea. She says that David will grow up and that this is something that makes her want to die.” Such high drama is characteristic of Duras, though she generally viewed death not as tragic but as worthy of dignity. This subverted death drive comes up in various iterations throughout this new collection, Me & Other Writing. Love makes her want to die, as do her memories of the war and the Holocaust and her own writing. “The most important experience you can have is to write. I have never had another experience so violent,” she declares in “Flaubert Is…,” an essay on the necessary misery that is writing, calling it “wholly equivalent to life.”

Duras was well known for her habit of recycling events from her life into fiction. An early proponent of the genre of autobiographical writing that interrogates its own process, she helped give rise to the French strain of what came to be called autofiction. In “Summer 80,” she flips the script, weaving a metafictional narrative into an ostensibly journalistic work. The impetus is nonetheless the same, and once again, traces of her own love stories are unmistakable in the narrative of the gray-eyed boy. Duras is the first to fall for him: “He doesn’t know that on this beach there is someone watching him…the lone child, me watching him.” Enamored of the boy’s reticence and mystique, her attitude about him recalls characters she invented in previous works, adaptations of the brother she adored. At week three of “Summer 80,” however, a shift takes place. The boy’s camp counselor emerges in the narrative and is overcome with emotion for him. By week seven, the counselor tells the boy about a love “that awaited death without provoking it, infinitely more violent than if they had they acted on their desire.” In the same installment, Duras addresses an unidentified “you,” writing, “Tonight, I see you again, you whom I didn’t know…. This bedroom could have been the place where we loved each other, so that’s what it is, the place of our love.”

This “you” is real, a student named Yann who greatly admired Duras’s work and had been writing letters to her for nearly a year. Eventually she wrote him back, though in character as the fictional Aurélia Steiner, a Jewish woman who was gassed to death in a Nazi camp. Despite a regular correspondence, the two had met only once, half a year prior. He visited Duras again that summer in Trouville, and she fell deeply in love with him and remained so through the end of her life. Yann was a gay man some 38 years her junior; their love that summer was ecstatic but chaste. While his lack of sexual interest caused her deep pain, it did little to obscure her love for him. “They told her that the peculiarities of a child should never be encouraged,” she narrates indignantly that week, “but instead measured against the status quo, that she should know that. The young girl replied that she didn’t understand what they were saying.”

A second, more overtly political tune in “Summer 80” carries to crescendo as the weeks go by. The specter of communism hangs over the season, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in service of the Brezhnev Doctrine. Workers at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, Poland, were striking in protest of rising food prices, leading to a movement that would soon morph into Solidarity, Poland’s first independent trade union. (In 1989 its members won a victory in the first partially-free elections in the Communist bloc, which paved the way for Poland’s first postwar democratically elected government.) After their initial demands were met, the movement only broadened, calling for freedom from repression and the right to self-organize. Duras first mentions Gdańsk in the sixth week of “Summer 80”—the strike was in its seventh—and her take on the situation is breathless: “I try to call some old friends, no one’s there, no one’s anywhere. People can’t comprehend the joy of Gdańsk because it’s revolutionary in nature and people are no longer capable of revolutionary thought.” It’s the first time that she acknowledges her solitude that whole summer, physical or otherwise, and so she calls a Polish airline operator on the phone. “You won’t be able to get a seat on any plane to Gdańsk, they don’t want anyone to go and see it,” he tells her. She responds that she “just wanted to speak about Gdańsk with someone.”

The success or the failure of the strike in Gdańsk makes no difference to me,” Duras confides to the entire readership of Libération. It’s the utopian nature of the situation that so exhilarates her. “The joy of Gdańsk can only be known in one place, the place uncontaminated by power. It’s impossible to know that joy if one has even an ounce of power to manage, to preserve,” she writes. She had no more interest in wielding political power, only in destroying it. This clarifies the visceral hatred she had for the French Communist Party, despite a lifelong and militant self-identification as a communist. She had joined the PCF in 1944, long before many of her peers, hawking copies of the party paper L’Humanité religiously every Sunday morning. She was expelled six years later, after citations of sleeping around, engaging with politically divergent art and literature, and consorting with enemies of the Soviet Union. (She then turned to publishing Le 14 Juillet, a short-lived anti-Gaullist magazine of the intellectual left sounding the alarm against tyrannical power.) By the time of Gdańsk, an older and wearier Duras seems to suffer from a crisis of faith. In a conversation with a staged interlocutor, she sardonically states:

I believe that in the satiating of hunger there is what we could call, if you like, the new socialist oppression of man, which is an exact counterpart to that of man’s former misery…. A satiated man no longer has anything to complain about, as long as he eats his fill. The man of socialist countries has thus found himself trapped in a definition limited to his nourishment. Society had no need for anything else but him, this well nourished man, in order to construct socialism.

Clearly, this is not the socialism Duras had spent her life agitating for. This “well nourished man” is a myth, anyhow. He cannot access the food or goods reserved for those in power except on the black market, nor can he read or write what he likes. “What’s the difference between capitalism and socialism in this case?” she despairs. Regardless, starvation is far from simply a material concern. This state of suffering, one among many, belongs in the range of human experience. “Happiness is unattainable, it’s extraordinarily mysterious, brilliantly mysterious. Let us never utter this word again,” she demands in her 1985 essay “The Men of Tomorrow.” She is adamant that “we like to live in suffering, that to live is to live in suffering.” The cynical Duras always believed that to suffer is to be free—free to create art, free to create a better world. Revolution was always the process, never the end.

Duras famously considered writing to be a revolutionary act as well; this is well illustrated in the smattering of pieces that make up the remainder of Me & Other Writing, a collection that tells more about the writing than it does about the writer. Yet these essays and marginalia, while translated into English with the full force, cadence, and ambiguity native to the language of Duras, do little more than constellate around the emphatically intimate “Summer 80.” The serial embodies an argument she would soon make in her novel, The Lover, “that if it’s not, each time, all things confounded into one through some inexpressible essence, then writing is nothing but advertisement.” “Summer 80” rises to the self-imposed challenge, characteristically trafficking in scenes rather than symbols, knitting an ambiguous love story into hopes of a proletarian revolution and lamentations over the “misfortune of mankind.” The serial ends as the summer does, and it’s time for the gray-eyed child to leave the beach permanently. “I placed my mouth on Gdańsk and kissed you,” Duras writes tenderly to Yann in the final installment. In place of a tearful goodbye, the girl closes the fable of David and Ratekétaboum, telling the child “that a boat had passed by. That it had taken David on board.” The pairs don’t live happily ever after, but that’s beside the point.

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