This is classic Marguerite Duras: the erasure, the remnants, the merciless aging. What’s left is a shadow of what was; something is animated, and then it is not. A fly exists, and then “death would progressively invade.” A Japanese city is bombed, and the corpse of the city, like the illicit love affair that takes place there, becomes “a memory of shadow and stone.” This is characteristic of how Duras shows the passage of time: there is nothing real except the present, but the present, perhaps, is often already past.
The Easy Life, Duras’s second novel, written in 1943 and published in English for the first time this past December, contains this description of the shores of T., where the protagonist, 26-year-old Francine, flees to recuperate after she precipitates a tragedy that unravels her family. While staying at T., Francine, in her grief, feels a similar sense of disembodiment and death — of having a “lack of history.” A crate contains oranges, and then, “It was there, rid of what it had been used to contain. And yet it endured, more useless than ever and more than ever a crate-for-oranges.”
Francine’s family has not left their village life in Les Bugues in southwestern France, remote and impoverished, for 19 years. They know of little but hard labor. A few harvests ago, her younger brother, Nicolas, impregnated and married their maid. “If Nicolas had known other girls, he wouldn’t have been so foolish. He reached that point after years of loneliness,” Francine writes. But then, his neglected wife begins an affair with Francine and Nicolas’s despised uncle Jérôme, and at Francine’s encouragement, Nicolas initiates a violent brawl with him. Jérôme dies from his injuries, to neither of their surprise, while howling for a doctor, under “swaths of total silence” from the rest of his family so pervasive that they “could have heard the magnolia flowers detaching from the trees and falling into the darkness.”
This detachment and stupor is a continuation of what the family has already been living with up to this point. The house sits on a plateau atop a steep embankment, cut off from neighbors and other villagers; as far as the eye can see are “fields, woods, and little white hills.” Violence is perhaps commonplace in this impoverished, strained rural life; the same violence that kills Jérôme seems to plague the entire household: “I thought of my age,” Francine thinks, “and I heard time gnaw at us like an army of rats.” When Nicolas’s wife is forced to flee the house, Francine takes charge of her infant nephew and instinctively gives him her breast when he wakes in her arms, surprising herself to discover her body is “still very young despite [her] thick and ancient fatigue.” Much of Francine’s story is of finding this body of hers inside the relentless passage of time, of catching herself aging.
There is a harshness to this life of isolation, this life of waiting for nothing, of “[c]haos, boredom, chaos.” It weathers characters’ bodies and seems to turn them all mute. Though Francine describes a passionate, almost incestuous protectiveness over her brother, he takes little interest in her. Family bonds barely exist. Subtle maternal abandonment is a recurring theme in Duras’s novels. Francine notes that her mother, long ago, had “secretly, in her heart, abandoned her children. She had done it in her own way, full of grace […] she wasn’t with us; she was with the passing time.” This abandonment forces the young women of Duras’s stories to age ahead of time; so too do the autobiographical protagonists of The Lover (1984) and The North China Lover (1991) know intimately this “ancient fatigue.”
When Francine’s lover Tiène, a friend of the family, interrogates Francine about whether she exposed Jérôme because she secretly wanted him dead, Francine thinks, “Maybe it was simply the desire to change my existence.” In Duras’s world this is perhaps as sane a reason for fratricide as any other; the protagonist of The Lover, too, lives out her feeling of abandonment through a murderous desire towards her brother. But Jérôme is not the only brother figure whose death comes back to Francine. After she admits Nicolas’s wife back into their house, Nicolas throws himself under a train. His body is found three days later, broken “like a dead bird.”
The next place we find Francine is in T., a small seaside town that she has fled to with some money from Tiène. She has come here to “tirelessly contemplate [her] person,” to forge some connection with herself, the sister of Nicolas, the young woman who saw him die, to “find her again,” the woman who had lived in Les Bugues. Even here, she is often as cold and distant as she was in the village; her grief is numb, disembodied. “She sees herself in the mirrored armoire; she’s a tall girl with blond hair, yellowed by the sun, a tan face. In the bedroom, she takes up too much space.” Francine is in bed with her guilt, as though she is reliving her brother’s and uncle’s murders with every breath. But grief also forces her to fight her growing sense of alienation with herself and her aging body.
The narrator of any story is necessarily a stranger, observing things (or nothings) from the outside. But a narrator needs to be in the story as well, or at least alive in their own world. Francine’s state of aliveness tests the literary boundaries of this disengagement. She is limp and mute. Duras wrote this novel in the midst of her own personal tragedies — a stillborn child, an abusive (by her account) schizophrenic mother, the death of her brother — manifestations of themes that recur in her later work: suffocating biological urges and expectations, the eerie strangeness of other people, the sparsity of the self.
In the wake of her family tragedies, Francine is even more aware of her rapid fading. She looks at herself unrecognizingly in the mirror, sees “an unknown character, at once fraternal and full of hatred, who was silently contesting my identity,” and asks, “Who was I, whom had I taken myself for until now? […] I couldn’t locate myself in the image I had just come upon.” The Francine who was just in Les Bugues, standing over corpses, has “disappeared”; she is “another.”
Sometimes the only way to tirelessly contemplate your person is to contemplate the outside world first. For Francine, the way in is through the sea, the waves, the birds “white as salt,” the “light sun, wet sand, foam that smells like fish,” the orangeless crate coming ashore briefly and then taking its leave. It’s here, lying on the beach, that she can really come to terms with the passage of hours, of days. Until now, her life has been, she realizes, “a fruit I must have eaten some of without tasting it,” a life that “advances stubbornly.” Here she can, every now and then, catch this life as it goes by and hold on for a brief moment. She caresses her body lying on the sand, which “devours the days one after the next.” She admires the “beautiful” strangers staying in her boardinghouse, watches them play games and smoke cigarettes late into the night, longs for them to stay out and not go up to bed. “[T]hey should stay near me so that I can watch them,” she thinks.
Then she meets a candy salesman on the beach. They talk of Septembers, of the end of seasons. Summer is over, he announces. But the real season’s end would arrive without warning, “all at once.” Francine finds him tiresome, wishes he would leave, but they are both drawn to each other’s solitude. “If I’d had a little pocketknife, some courage and enough strength, I would have liked to extract his eye and watch him stagger on the beach, so that he would always remember the sky above us right now, blue, blue, blue,” she muses. She pretends to sleep the next time he passes by, and then watches him dive into the sea, wading out farther and farther until he disappears: the third man to die on her watch.
This, too, is classic Duras: the quiet pitilessness. Perhaps it had to happen, because in order to confront time, aging, her personhood, Francine must submit to the pull of the sea. “What has passed and what will come is entombed in the sea, which is dancing, dancing, right now,” she says. She must dance, but only right now; she must wrap herself up in her “palace of solitude,” with only “boredom to keep [her] company.” The others at the boardinghouse cannot comprehend why Francine would have watched a man drown without trying to call for help, and she is evicted shortly afterwards, but the man’s life was always out of her reach. The sea and the sand are merely a way inside, in order to confront her physical presence: “My knees real knees, my breasts real breasts. An observation that counts.” It almost seems as though, in the process of Francine rematerializing, someone else must disappear.
What must happen, Francine realizes, is that she exists, actively. “You must advance with the last of your power […] the power of thought,” she declares. She retains her desire for her lover, Tiène, “dammed up between my hips, a kind of wisdom that is wiser than me,” even though she acknowledges that desire can corrode. She touches herself, holds her breasts and her legs and her thighs, looks at the imprints her flesh makes on the bed and in her clothes. “I have only the existence of this body,” she declares silently. “These feet are tough, accomplished, these feet have walked. It’s here in this little field of flesh that everything has happened and everything will happen.” When she arrived at T., she was in the process of ceasing to exist; her time by the sea has been spent coming to terms with this process, watching it carefully and vigilantly, standing up in the face of it when necessary, whether she wants to or not.
She returns to Les Bugues and to Tiène in a hazy fever, entering into a predictable arrangement that feels almost like a regression in the story. It was possibly this looping treatment that Duras’s editor at Gallimard, Oulipo literary movement cofounder Raymond Queneau, complained of when he called it a “muddled narrative” that suffered from a “lack of control.” (Oulipians were particularly interested in creating narratives by imposing tight restrictions on writing styles.) But it is this instability — the intersection of irrepressible desire with intense economic and social constraints, the image of oneself “at once fraternal and full of hatred,” the urge to both materialize and to “disappear, abduct myself,” a Francine-shaped dress in her wake — that makes Duras’s fiction burn with life.
Apoorva Tadepalli has written for The Point, The Atlantic, The Baffler, Bookforum, and elsewhere.