PRINT December 2020


Marguerite Duras's Me & Other Writing and Duras/Godard Dialogues

Photo: Brian Green

A certain scene between Marguerite Duras and Susan Sontag, told to me by someone who was friends with both and seated between them while Susan was visiting Paris, goes like this: Duras had just made a new film, and, in keeping with her character, she spoke at Susan in a monologic séance, going on and on about herself, her new film, and critical reactions to her new film. After speaking for most of the occasion they were together, Duras suddenly quieted and seemed to notice Sontag qua Sontag, and not just any old audience to her tirade. “Susan! My goodness. I have only talked and talked, and I haven’t let you speak a word! Please, tell me everything.” At this, Susan—or can we even say “poor Susan”—beamed like a child who was finally getting the attention she’d sought. Duras continued, “I want every detail! What did you think of my new film?”

I never tire of Duras, just as Duras never tired of Duras, and this year brought us two new beautiful English translations of raw and refined Durasianisms, Me & Other Writing (Dorothy Project) and Duras/Godard Dialogues (The Film Desk of Metrograph Cinema). “You should avoid those people who speak of remedies and causes, who speak of music within music, who, as a Cello Suite is being played, talk about Bach, who, as God is being discussed, talk about religion,” she advises in “Summer 80,” from Me & Other Writing. This little book full of goodies starts off with a bang. From the first essay, nominally on reading: “I have no Catholic guilt. That people kill themselves because of my books won’t stop me from writing.” Later, of suicide, she writes, “To refuse life is to believe it.” In “The Men of Tomorrow,” she calls God “regional,” in essence, a yokel, for ruling not over the whole universe but merely over us. I wonder at the inclusion of her Yves Saint Laurent hagiography, which she obviously wrote solely for the money, though the translation in this book is far better than the version that appeared first, in the 1988 YSL monograph Images of Design. And the brief translators’ afterword to this collection is a piece of writing on its own, a tender précis on the art, and dilemmas, of rendering Duras and her “écriture courante” in English.

Photo: Brian Green

Godard wanted to adapt The Lover (1984), but Duras told him no. He’d asked her to be in his film Every Man for Himself (1980); after initially agreeing, she refused to be filmed. They met three times to converse, between 1979 and 1987. In these conversations, which are reproduced, unedited, as they occurred, but with the addition of detailed and useful footnotes by Cyril Béghin, Duras and Godard admire, antagonize, and hector each other. She’s less repressed and more erudite than Godard, and he knows it. In response, he is taciturn and coy. Their topics range around: Stravinsky, women, childhood, the taboo of incest, and Bresson, whose work Duras describes as “sooty.” Duras cites Lévi-Strauss, and Godard confesses that he bought the books but never read them. She summarizes, condescendingly. But, just as skillfully, Godard “negs” her, to use a recent expression for a timeless weapon he deploys against a virago who won’t shut up. He proposes that she’s “had difficulty writing.” She flames up in anger and responds that the problem with writing isn’t that it’s difficult but that it’s not difficult enough. He elsewhere riles her by mentioning Sartre, knowing Duras can’t stand him, and she takes the bait, calling Sartre “the Solzhenitsyn of a country without a gulag,” who produces “bulk writing” and isn’t vulgar—which is what she herself aspires to be. “All right, yes, but listen, you’re overdoing it,” Godard tells her. At one point, he says openly that the two of them “can’t talk to each other.” He says he prefers to listen to her and compares the experience of listening to her to listening to Ronald Reagan or Qaddafi. In their final dialogue, in 1987, Duras was annoyed that Godard, she suspected, hadn’t read her most recent book. As she reflected of their dynamic, “in that mess, in that chaos,” she and Godard were “the same kind of person.” He admired her as she was, as she admired him as he was: “impossible, ill-mannered, and all of that.” “We’re both kings,” she said, “brutes.”

Duras had written “Summer 80” from Trouville on the Normandy coast, where, sitting on her balcony, she perfected what she later claimed was her only real skill: looking at the sea. She observed it daily and meanwhile invested great hope in the labor movement unfolding that summer in the shipyards of Gdansk, Poland, her politics having evolved by that point into something like a “politics of love,” as Daniel Gunn rightly observes in his introduction. In “Summer 80,” she says “love can be expressed in the reversal of its power.” And so politics, also. Aside from the mess of both, looking at the sea seems like a reasonable goal right now, by which I mean one we are allowed to pursue in this year of merely “getting by,” which is how Duras described the years of the Occupation in France. Her remedies for getting by were liquor and Ecclesiastes. Whether you go in for the first, or for the second, or for neither, take heart in this: “There is no solution to life, only to live it.”

Rachel Kushner was awarded the 2018 Prix Médicis for her novel The Mars Room. Her forthcoming book of essays, The Hard Crowd, will be published by Scribner in April 2021.