Marguerite Donnadieu was seventeen years old when she moved to France from a small village near Saigon, Vietnam, where she had been born. Living in Vietnam and Cambodia, of French school-teacher parents, she spoke Vietnamese more than French until she received her first school certificate at age eleven. Entering the Sorbonne in 1931 to study mathematics she graduated with licences in law and politics. Working at her first jobs as the 1930s crept towards war, she began writing memoirs, fiction and plays. She changed her name to Duras — the French village where her barely-known father had died– the name by which the reading world has always known her.

Although much admired for her work in the Resistance, and well known by French intellectuals for her plays, articles and novels, particularly the 1959 screenplay, Hiroshima Mon Amour, directed by Alain Resnais, she didn’t become widely famous until The Lover / L’Amant, which was published in 1984, (her 48th work) when she was seventy years old. It won the Prix Goncourt for 1984 and sold some two million copies in France alone, and many more world-wide after the 1992 movie of the same name.

But of course, she was a young, passionate woman in the ’30s, in and just out of university. By June of 1940 when the Germany army occupied Paris she was twenty-six and working as a secretary in the Ministry of Colonies under the Vichy government. She became a life-long communist and a member of a small cell of the Resistance, along with future president, Francois Mitterrand. In 1944 she wrote what was to become the absolutely gripping memoir, La Douleur (1985) / The War: A Memoir, in Barbara Bray’s 1985 translation.  She had kept notes as she was going through the events described, notes which were then lost to memory until, going through old papers in a seldom visited country house she discovered them.

“I found myself confronted with a tremendous chaos of thought and feeling that I couldn’t bring myself to tamper with, and beside which literature was something of which I felt ashamed.”

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In its slender 182 pages are two memoir accounts, two stories from the same memory and material and two “fables.” Among them are the most gripping war stories one might ever read. None is of war at the front. They take place in Paris, from just before the Normandy Landings, June 6, 1944 to the return of French POWs from Germany in August, 1945. In short, jabbing sentences, absolutely pared of sentimentality, she reclaims the memory of her anguish.

The first two stories are of a piece, memoirs in the first person.  In it she tells one of the great unwritten truths of war: the agony of the daily wait for news of loved ones.  It becomes even more terrible as men begin to return at war’s end, thousands upon thousands on special trains, in trucks, on foot, April, 1945.  But some do not appear.  Those at home read the lists of those released — not there!  They go to the trains arriving at Orsay, they go to the airport –his friends are there, but not him! They call out the  names of camps –Stalag VII A! Were you there?  Where is he?  When did you last see him!

The streets are boiling with excitement and jubilation. Not Thérèse, nor others like her.

“At this moment there are people in Paris who are laughing, especially the young. I have nothing left but enemies.

Suddenly it bursts in on me, the obvious … He’s been dead for three weeks. Yes, that’s what’s happened. I am certain of it. I walk faster. His mouth is half open. It’s evening. He thought of me before he died. The pain is so great it can’t breathe, it gasps for air. Pain needs room. There are far too many people in the streets… All along the roads of Germany there are men lying like him. Thousands, tens of thousands, and him. He who is at once one of the thousands of others and, just for me, completely separate and distinct from the thousands of others. I know all one can know when one can know nothing.”

Duras found her notes and composed the stories forty years after the events, yet it is as if yesterday. We can imagine her as she reads of herself.  A young, distraught, determined woman pushes her way into the official repatriation center, determined to carry out her own investigations, to interview whom she can and post lists of who, what unit, what camp, for others.  She is ordered to leave.

“Have you got permission to do this?”

“We’re taking permission.”

She seems brave, sure of herself.  Yet, 

“This evening I think about myself. I’ve never met a woman more cowardly than I am. I go over in my mind the women who are waiting like me –no, none is as cowardly as that. I know some who are very brave. Extraordinary. My cowardice is such that it can’t be described… Not for a second do I see a need to be brave. Perhaps being brave is my form of cowardice. 

We learn that Robert L, for whom she searches, is her husband.  Though they had separated before he was picked up and imprisoned somewhere in France or Germany, she is deeply connected to him.  At last Francois M. (Mitterrand in actuality,) on a desperate mission to Germany, locates him by accident in a distant corner of the Dachau camp, thrown in among the dead.  Smuggled back to Paris, to escape a long camp quarantine where he will surely die, they care for him for months.  At 85 pounds he can not be given anything but gruel and soft foods until his stomach begins to function again.

“The fight with death started very soon.  .. It surrounded him on all sides … but there was still life in him, scarcely more than a splinter, but a splinter just the same. … his heart had grown enormous in the cave of his emaciation. It was beating so fast you couldn’t count the beats, you couldn’t really say it was beating–it was trembling, rather, as if from terror.”

In the second story, preceding the first in time, the anguish of loss is suspended between poles of hope and terror: the narrator has been singled out by a French Vichy official who has “gone into the Gestapo because he hadn’t been able to buy an art bookshop.” He knows her as a writer and wants to feel some connection. She, a member of the a local resistance cell, wants information — about German plans and movements, but more personally about her husband.  He assures her that he is in a French, not a German, camp.  She doubts, but keeps meeting him; perhaps there will be real evidence of him, perhaps a release.

“Everyday I expect Rabier to arrest me. … He always gives me information, even when he doesn’t realize it. Generally, it’s just backstairs gossip from the rue des Saussaies. But that’s how I find out that the Germans are starting to get frightened, that some of them are deserting, and that transport is their most difficult problem.”  [This is after the D-Day invasion, June 6, 1944, as the allies are still pushing towards Paris.]

Robert L. in the stories is a barely disguised Robert Antelme, Duras’ first husband, with whom she was in the resistance group. He was betrayed and, as she writes, was found barely alive, by Mitterrand, at Dachau.  He himself wrote of his experiences in his only book, The Human Race, / L’Espèce humaine (1947), published in an English translation by Jeffrey Haight, (Marlboro Books, 1998,) and again in 2003 by Northwestern University Press, using the same Haight translation with additional commentary by those who knew him.

It is the third story that shows war, in an occupied city, at its most intimate, savage, and conflicted. No longer told in the first person, Duras allows herself a little distance.  The Allies are approaching. The Resistance is more and more active. Suspected informers are captured. And sometimes, tortured.

“Thérèse is me. The person who tortures the informer is me. She is also the one who feels like making love to him…”

They make him strip.

“Now all his things are on the chair. He’s trembling. Shivering. He’s afraid. Afraid of us. Of us who were afraid. Of those who had been afraid he was in great fear.”

“Swine, traitor, scum.”

“They’ve been hitting him hard. His eye has been damaged, there’s blood on his face. He’s crying. The mucus running from his nose is streaked with blood. He keeps moaning…. His glassy, elderly, myopic gaze he stares unseeingly at the hurricane lamp

Some call for it to stop.  “Now there’s a split in the solidarity of the group.” Some of the women leave the room,  What is the point?

“They hit better and better, more coolly. The more they hit and the more he bleeds, the more it’s clear that this hitting is necessary, right, just.”

“…where does it come from, man’s ability to strike, to get used to it, to do it as if it were a job, a duty? 

Duras, forty years after the beatings, remembers, and tells us, tells herself it seems, that these are things she did.  She is not confessing, not apologizing.  Nor is she glorifying.  Here it is, she seems to say.  Look at it.

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The two first stories are combined in a compelling 2017 film, called Memoir of War  The narrator’s name, Thérèse, is dropped in favor of Marguerite,  played flawlessly by Mélanie Thierry. From the constant cigarette at her lips to the stretched tight worry of her throat, we believe we are with her in Paris, 1945. Our own worry and ache for those not near us is sharpened and given weight in the lines of her face, the strain around her eyes.  Her participation in torture is not part of the film, so even though somber, it lets the audience escape the full impact of her recall.  Not a movie for a light evening out, but as powerful a look at war and its effect on those left to wait as can be found. (Available at Amazon Prime for $.)

For a review which appreciates the film, see this at NPR. Richard Brody at the New Yorker, hated it, as clichéd and not honest to Duras’ implacable vision. 

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Before we leave her, we should note another novel of contemporary import. As with The Lover, it was written out of her early years in Vietnam –not in the delirium of eroticism but in the despair of a family abandoned by the father, trying to eke out a living along the changing sea.  The Sea Wall (1950, tr 1986) not only tells of the mother, desperately fending off the waters to be able to grow crops, and the children stealing from strangers to damp their hunger, but of the Vietnamese men worked to death by the French occupiers.  As Laurie Adler, a Duras biographer says:

“Even today in Ho Chi Minh City learned old Vietnamese men will speak to you of Marguerite’s book The Sea Wall with their eyes full of tears. They’re moved not so much by the mother’s despair as by the passion with which Marguerite pays tribute to the men who died in the blistering heat, cutting and laying roads through the swamps for France. The men were chained together. Ordered to work them till they dropped, military leaders, veterans of the French colonial army, rounded up and oversaw political prisoners and poor peasants dying of starvation.”

(Thanks to Cynthia Haven at the Stanford University Book Haven.)

And finally, for more on Duras, and a current reading of her work, see Nasrullah Mambrol in Literary Theory and Criticism.