Marguerite Duras and the Press

In the last year Marguerite Duras has become, somewhat to her bewilderment, a star

First published in Brick (Canada), 1986

It is April 7 in a plush salon of the Hôtel Ritz, Place Vendôme, Paris. Beneath an embarrassingly large photograph of Ernest Hemingway, Pierre Salinger is reciting for the assembled journalists a sacred text from the American-in-Paris apocrypha: the story of the Ritz’s liberation by Hemingway in August, 1944. Sitting to one side of the dais is Jack Hemingway, who will later apologize to the fan-magazine contingent for the absence of his more newsworthy relatives. Also present is the hotel’s owner, Mr. Al-Fayed, whose zeal for keeping long-dead traditions alive induced him to give the Ritz a Bar Hemingway, a small votive chapel that serves cocktails.

Over lunch one day in 1984, we are being told, Salinger and Al-Fayed decided to establish a $50,000 prize to be awarded to the “best international novel published in English.” The prize, called the Ritz Paris Hemingway Award, was given last year to Mario Vargas Llosa for The War of the End of the World. The prize is considered an interesting idea in France, not least of all by the Paris press, for whom the notion of mixing contemporary fiction with the myth of a Parisian Muse is almost as appealing as the prospect of a lavish cocktail party at the Ritz.

Yet the promise of a swank reception and the evocation of a generation of American writers known to the French as les clochards célestes (the celestial derelicts) provide hardly enough incentive for the Paris press to turn out in such force. Nor is the general curiosity about the Ritz’s owner, a wealthy businessman who picked up Harrod’s during a carefree London shopping spree, strong enough to warrant the presence of two TV crews, scores of magazine and newspaper reporters, and the two very little old ladies in front of me who are wearing “France Médecine” badges. Even the presence of François Léotard, on his first outing as Minister of Culture and Communication, cannot account for the battery of photographers at the Ritz. Although François shares the crowd-pleasing looks of his brother, film star Philippe, the recently completed electoral season has temporarily overexposed the Léotard charm.

No, the French press have gathered here in the knowledge that Marguerite Duras will win the prize for her novel, The Lover.Their presence does not stem from national pride at seeing one of their own so honoured, for, although patriotic, the French are not cultural nationalists. What quickens their interest in the event is Duras herself, a figure of considerable stature not only in French letters, but also in the popular press.

In the last year Marguerite Duras has become, somewhat to her bewilderment, a star. Unlike many stars, however, she usually stirs up controversy whenever she speaks, using a simple, direct discourse that arises from her Olympian self-assurance as an artist. In a country that still has a taste for writers who air their views on all manner of subjects, from semiotics to skirt lengths, Duras the artist, journalist, and articulate supporter of the non-communist Left never fails to attract attention when she speaks her mind – which she does quite frequently. Not many living French authors have influenced their country’s literary output for the past thirty-five years, and the number of serious writers whose work has been bought by more than a half-million French readers in one year alone can be counted on one finger. Duras has every reason to be uninhibited about saying what she pleases. Everyone, from the glossy gossips at Paris Match to the geosociopoliticocultural experts at Le Monde, expects it.

Pierre Salinger is now announcing that Marguerite Duras is, indeed, the winner. Applause, then a pause. When it becomes clear that Duras intends to remain in her seat, a stampede begins. In a few moments she is surrounded by a swarm of reporters, cameramen and photographers. A microphone is set up and she begins telling of her respect for Hemingway, his life and work. Then of her love for America. When someone asks if she has always felt this way (in 1955 Duras ended her association with the French Communist Party in belated disgust over Stalinism), she states, “Only the American arsenal of missiles is keeping the Soviets out of Western Europe.” She continues, speaking of a multiracial, cosmopolitan America that is her model of a better future. Salinger, silent on the dais, seems moved.

After this brief peroration she announces that she would rather not have to answer any questions. A reporter immediately asks a question, “Are you pleased The Lover has won this prize?”

“Yes,” she replies. “They had to give me the Prix Goncourt. The Goncourt was suffering, and the book had already sold two, three hundred thousand copies. But this, this is a gratuitous act.” Pleased at hearing her voice an opinion that many people privately held, other reporters try to elicit some more cut-and-thrust from the author, despite her evident desire to be left in peace. Salinger, realizing that things may get out of hand, calls on the press to desist. A little restraint, he pleads to the backs of the camera-clicking crowd. At last some people give way and he and Al-Fayed elbow through to the winner’s circle. There they present Duras with an oversize facsimile cheque that she dutifully holds up in a renewed crash of flashbulbs. She even does a bit of mugging, being genuinely delighted with the prize and touched by the apologetic solicitude of the organizers of this circus. Then someone remembers Culture Minister Léotard. Isn’t he supposed to say something? And wouldn’t it be fun if he and Duras, an implacable enemy of the new government, were to start in on it.

 

In on what? Anything, really, for Marguerite Duras has had an uncanny knack for creating controversies these past twelve months, no matter what subject she chooses to deal with. When that subject happens to be in itself controversial, the opinions of Duras cause even greater discussion. A good example of this occurred in 1985, when the author decided to write about theAffaire Gregory.

Gregory Villemnin was a little boy found murdered in the Vologne River in December 1984. The small Vosges town where the crime had taken place and the extended Villemin clan became, overnight, the object of a morbid national fascination, turning a quiet community into a revival meeting for the worst sort of sensationalist reporting. Gradually a sense of shame developed as it became evident that scoop-hungry journalists were encouraging villagers – some of whom were suspects – to disclose local feuds and hatreds. When, in the spring of 1985, Gregory’s father walked up to his brother-in-law and shot him dead, the shame grew, but not as quickly as the interest in the affair. In June another shock came when Christine Villemin, the victim’s mother, became the object of police suspicion.

On July 17 Duras’ article on the case appeared in Libération, an independent daily of the Left. It was by far the most unorthodox piece of writing to have appeared on the affair. In the text, the killer was, unequivocally, Christine Villemin.

Duras had writted a conjectural account of the motives of the mother (called “Christine V.” in the text) and had even described the crime, all in the style and tone familiar to readers of her more purely fictional works:

“[Gregory] was killed in the house. The shutters were closed for that. It was afterwards that he was brought to be drowned in the river. He was killed here, no doubt, in softness, or perhaps in a sudden love, immeasurable, gone mad, from having to do it. From the river no complaint came, no cry, no one heard a child, when he had already been put to death here.”

The article went on to speculate on the life of “Christine V.”: her solitude, her silence, her frustrations, and her plight as a woman. It was a fascinating text that reworked many of Duras’ favorite themes. For many people, however, its quality was overshadowed by the simple fact that the author was speaking of a real person, imputing motives and actions to someone who had not been found guilty, much less charged. That Duras’ character, Christine V., had transcended the bounds of the law and could not be found guilty or innocent for whatever she had done mattered little to outraged public opinion. And the last line of the article – “Christine V. is sublime. Necessarily sublime” – surprised even the most sympathetic of readers.

Serge July, Libération’s editor, felt obliged to publish “The Transgression of Writing,” an apologetic editorial note accompanying the text. Applying an idea of Roland Barthes’ (“Stealing language from a man in the very name of language is the starting point of all legal murders”) to the possible effect of Duras’ article on the real Christine Villemin, July attempted to put distance between the text he was publishing and the editorial content of his newspaper. Even for Libération, a respectable newspaper which had temporarily lost its head in the winter of 1985 and behaved as disgracefully as its less scrupulous competitors in the Affaire Gregory, Duras’ article was too hot to handle without a disclaimer. Until the Greenpeace storm broke in the late summer, many of France’s commentators were engaged in discussion on the nature of poetic licence.

Greenpeace and its attendant misery for the Mitterrand-Fabius government dominated political life in France during the autumn. What was discussed was the effectiveness of the government’s chain-of-command rather than the wisdom of blowing theRainbow Warrior sky high. The Right could not freely criticize the military; the Left, the actions of the government. Some disappointment was expressed at the sight of the Mitterrand administration acting as shabbily as past governments, but, on the whole, criticisms and analyses by poltical figures were interesting for what was left unstated. Marguerite Duras decided against a conciliatory approach and wrote in L’Autre Journal, a magazine of opinion:

“It is impossible to imagine how Greenpeace reasons, impossible to see the world as they do, that is, as a group of states acting in good faith… Greenpeace acts as if the official liar [Gorbachev] seen last night on French TV were a partner like any other, as if Soviet Russia were not built, from top to bottom, on a lie itself… Thus I say that Greenpeace is lying. That Greenpeace knows that pacifism in the modern world is an effective crime. I do not justify the attack on Greenpeace, nothing can justify that atrocious violence. I say that if Greenpeace perseveres in protecting the earth, if it succeeds, then it will be too late, and we’ll see the military arsenal of the USSR that has been concealed for thirty years.”

On the offensive, Duras was unequivocal in her assessment of who, ultimately, was the wronged party. She went on to criticize the Socialists for simply not telling the truth, for not admitting immediately that events had overtaken them and that they had had no idea what the secret services were doing. As she put it, “We have the most intelligent people in government in the history of the Republic. Whey then did they act – let’s say it – stupidly?” As a finishing touch to this clear expression of opinion, Duras offered some unusual advice to François Mitterrand:

“In everyday life he speaks simply, naturally, winningly. He laughs, loves to laugh.. loves life and still has an irrepressible capacity to feel awe before all aspects of life. Yet when he talks to the French people he thinks he has to sound like a President of the Republic. I wish they could hear you as you are in life, dear, very dear, François Mitterrand.”

With this article she managed simultaneously to anger, embarrass, and flatter the government. Her anti-Soviet polemics worked in the Socialists’ favour, while her attributing poor judgment to Fabius and Mitterrand added to the chorus of derision in the press. No one could gauge the effect of the passaged devoted to Mitterrand’s presidential presentation. What was certain was that Marguerite Duras had become one of the most unpredictable public figures in France. Her only peer in delivering the unexpected was President Mitterrand himself. The obvious next step, which no one saw coming, was for the two of them to work together.

A month before the legislative elections, L’Autre Journalpublished the first in a series of four long interviews given by Mitterrrand to Duras. The Right opposition cried foul, seeing the well-publicized event as indirect campaigning by the President, a novelty in French parliamentary elections. Neither Mitterrand nor Duras paid heed to these remarks, leaving the French reading public with a remarkable opportunity to see one of the country’s most astute politicians match wits with one of its most respected writers. What emerged was a peculiar mix of intimacy, didacticism, and opinion from two very active, cultivated minds. If this was politicking, it had taken on a new, salon-like form.

The first interview dealt with their shared experience in the Resistance. Duras set the tone by paying the President a left-handed compliment:

“When I remember you during the war… I see you as having a profound and constant fear of death, and at the same time as having a no less constant desire to brave it… as if fighting your own fear of death was the only veritable passion of your life.”

The second instalment switched from personal to national history. The two expounded on the true “nature” of France, from Gaul to the present day. It was Duras who expressed the message behind this meandering historical conversation: “That which is most youthful in France is its welcoming of lost people, people without a country. If, with the Right in power, France were to lose this virtue, that would be a horror for the whole world.”

The last two interviews were less overtly political, aside from a long, textbook explanation of France’s nuclear deterrent. The greater part of the third conversation dwelt on Mitterrand’s upbringing, whereas, in the fourth, Duras and Mitterrand spoke of their love for the African continent in a conversation that ranged from decolonization and desertification to mortuary customs and the civilization of the Pharaohs. This last article confirmed what many – admirers and detractors alike – had suspected of the interviews: Mitterrand was somehow marking himself off from mundane politics and trying to construct a lasting record of his intellectual preoccupations. As for Marguerite Duras, she was simply helping a friend as well as obeying her credo of speaking directly and decisively on any subject that came under her scrutiny.

When I interviewed Marguerite Duras in her home in Paris last November, directness was the order of the day: slow, thoughtful responses, a willingness to answer any question, and a genuine lack of self-consciousness in revealing private torments. It is easy to see how this soft outspokenness translates into a reputation for startling, originally presented commentaries on public life. Some excerpts:

On the isolation of the writer: “You cannot describe heat from heat. You must put yourself in the cold to write about heat. You must put yourself in a state of solitude to write about the life of people. And you must exile yourself to write about your country. It’s a natural movement, a corrective state… It’s the share of suffering you must give. I believe it’s pointless to live suffering literally.”

On women: “At the moment I believe that intelligence is feminine. I speak only of France… It was ’68 that changed us. There was an élan, and women have not stopped. Everyone has since stopped, men, political parties. Women, no… it’s amazing, for French misogyny exists as it always has, with its same restrictions and terrible, terrible hatreds. But we coexist.”

On despair: “Despair is inherent in man. Man wonders what he’s doing on Earth. He looks for God. He finds nothing. And it’s in this precarious state that he can work, do things, create. It is the space, the common ground, the soil. Despair. Only after having known despair can man do something which will speak to all men. If he hasn’t known it, he’ll do stupid things, things not worth doing. He will do infantile things. There is nothing sadder than false hope.”

On alcohol: “I drank a lot of alcohol. I am someone who is an alcholic, who used to drink very, very heavily. Alcohol took the place of everything. It was fabulous. Living alone in the desert. I could live alone in the desert if I had enough alcohol.”

On politics: “Militancy is autism, a return to childhood. A return to protection. Centralized political formations like the [French] communists take care of you completely. They tell you what you must say, what you must do, what books, newspapers you must buy. You no longer have any responsibility… That’s why militants are always marked by a sort of bestiality, a bestial following instinct, an animality.”

 

Back at the Ritz, François Léotard is getting ready to deliver his speech. The Culture Minister is a polished public speaker and, of Jacques Chirac’s new government, the least offensive to the defeated parties of the Left. Still, Léotard’s task is difficult: sing the praises of a writer whose public statements have clearly shown an undying hostility to the conservative parties he represents. At first Léotard takes the high road and tells us of his admiration for writers. “Without great writers to irrigate our culture,” he says, “there would be Ethiopias of writing, yes, Ethiopias of writing.” This figure of speech causes a lot of head-shaking in the audience. He then moves away from generalities to surer, but more dangerous, ground – politics. Saying how presumptuous it would be of him to express an official opinion of The Lover, Léotard claims that the only French Minister of Culture capable of doing justice to such an occasion was de Gaulle’s man, André Malraux. The slight to the Socialists’ most successful cabinet member, Culture Minister Jack Lang, is unspoken, but palpable. Léotard, having shown considerable finesse, concludes by saying that as a private individual, rather than as a minister, he can state that he enjoyed The Lover.

Pierre Salinger is about to close the ceremony when Marguerite Duras asks for the microphone. As it is being set up, several camera crews move in on her. Addressing Léotard she smiles and says in a friendly well-done-Johnny manner, “It was a very difficult thing you had to do here, and you did it well.” After a short pause, she continues, “It is nice to see this happen despite the disagreement that must always stand between us. I think, in France anyway, that it is impossible to be in politics without having read great literature. Stendhal must be read, Diderot must be read.” A shrug and then, “Malraux? I’m not so sure… That’s all I have to say.”

A murmur of appreciation passes through the crowd. While fireworks were not set off, at least a little bit of nose-tweaking had taken place. The crowd begins to drift to the bar and buffet in the adjoining rooms. Salinger, Léotard, Hemingway, and Al-Fayed sip their drinks and are cornered by professional minglers. For a very long time, the only speaker to be absent is Marguerite Duras. Back in the reception room, she is still surrounded by the press.