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Monday, November 9, 2015

Marguerite Duras: Surviving—and thriving—against all odds

By Jess Goldschmidt

For more than 40 years of French history, Marguerite Duras was a cultural juggernaut. A novelist, playwright, filmmaker, essayist, Resistance fighter, staunch-then-lapsed Communist, and at times raging alcoholic, her personal, artistic, and political foibles captivated the imaginations of the French intellectual elite until her death in 1996 at the age of 81.

In every aspect of her life, Duras embodied a trés Français extremity—an obsession with eroticism, death, liquor, and life. She claimed a powerful sexual connection to her younger brother, Paulo. She left home at 17 to attend the Sorbonne. She worked alongside François Mitterand in the French Resistance, loathed Charles de Gaulle, had a child out of wedlock with her husband’s best friend, and made her living as a journalist for the leftist Observateur until she quit to write novels full time.

Despite the fact that her body of work includes countless plays, essays, and films, Duras is best known as a novelist. Her work was stylistically innovative and definitively minimalist—a fact that led her to be claimed by France’s nouveau roman movement, a wave of novelistic innovation championed and theorized by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Yet Duras defied classification. Her more than 50 novels at times feel like plays or poems: minimal character description and maximal dialogue, much of it written flat across the page, without attribution or punctuation. And most of her works center on female characters, probing their inner lives, loves, madnesses, and—almost especially—fears. “Only the stupid are not afraid,” she once proclaimed.

Duras’ gift for dialogue led her to experiment with theater and film scripts—the latter most notably in her collaboration with Alain Resnais, the classic Hiroshima mon Amour (1958). Yet unsatisfied with her role as a screenwriter, in the 1970s Duras turned her attention almost exclusively to film, working as a director on her own projects. Elusive and often alienating, her film work experimented heavily with image and sound, eschewing all constraints of narrative; she once said her goal as a filmmaker was to “murder the writer.”

She drank her way through liters of wine for every few pages of text composed until she entered recovery in 1982, and triumphantly escaped a five-month coma in 1988. She disappeared for years into a relationship with her muse, companion, savior, and sometime-servant Yann Andréa (a gay man 38 years her junior), then reemerged at the age of 70 with her most successful novel, The Lover, which sold a million copies and was translated into 43 languages. Living on the razor's edge, Marguerite Duras survivedand thrivedagainst all odds.

Duras' play, Savannah Bay, comes to the BAM Fisher November 11—14. Standby seating will be available on a first-come, first-served basis the day of the show.

Jess Goldschmidt is an artist living in Brooklyn.

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