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In Love with Duras’

In response to:

In Love with Duras from the June 26, 2008 issue

To the Editors:

I have read with great interest the long study devoted to Marguerite Duras on the occasion of the American edition of her recently published Wartime Writings [NYR, June 26]. Although I thoroughly enjoyed Edmund White’s infectious prose on the subject of Duras’s persona and lifestyle in her late years (she continues to inspire good copy!), as her biographer and long-time friend, I find that some of the features attributed to her—particularly in the evocation of her working habits—belong more to myth than to reality.

If it is true that Duras was a confirmed alcoholic, it takes a long stretch of the imagination to describe her as writing under the influence, “dictating one much-worked-on line a day” to the companion of her last sixteen years. Like most great writers (Proust comes to mind), she wrote and rewrote long pages, and most of the time corrected them again and again, as the study of her manuscripts makes abundantly clear.

She indeed went through several “disintoxication cures” (three, in fact) over a period of several decades, the most widely publicized being the one she underwent at the American Hospital in Neuilly in 1982. If this “cold turkey” treatment was rough enough to shake her up considerably, she in no way “rose from her ashes” to write The Lover, her most famous novel, in 1984, two years later.

She was “dry” by then (she went through long periods without drinking at all) and was definitely not “holed up in her château” since she never had one to start with. What she owned was a much more modest country house at Neauphle-le-Château, a historical bourgade forty-five minutes west of Paris where there was once a fortified castle. She also worked on the book which would earn her the Prix Goncourt that year, in her apartment in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. According to her son and to Irène Lindon, the daughter of her publisher at Éditions de Minuit, writing The Lover proceeded at a rather alert pace and gave her great pleasure.

One could say, however, that she rose from her ashes some five years later, regaining enough creative power to pen The North China Lover, a new best-selling and improbable version of the same liaison from her adolescent years in Indochina, published in 1991, five years before her death. Rushed to the Laennec Hospital in Paris after a life-threatening attack of emphysema in October 1988, Marguerite Duras was placed by her doctors into an artificial coma that lasted five months. In February 1989, she miraculously regained consciousness, her body diminished but her brain intact. After a few months of therapy, she was able to finish “La Pluie d’été” (“Summer Rain”), one of her most enchanting children’s stories.

As for her much-objected-to incursion into journalism in 1985 with “the case of little Grégory,” it should be remembered that this was not the first time that she was writing about a sensational criminal case, having started in the mid-Fifties to report on various murder trials for the weekly magazine France-Observateur (later to become Le Nouvel Observateur ). Marguerite Duras had always been acutely interested in the mysterious alchemy at work in the mind of a murderer, as she beautifully wrote about in L’Amante anglaise, one of her best and most successful works for the theater.

When she was asked by the daily Libération to write a piece about what had become known in France at the time as “l’affaire Villemin,” the mother of little Gregory had been jailed and stood accused of her son’s death, a tragedy that many people now think was most likely the result of an accident (the young boy could have drowned in his bath) subsequently camouflaged as a murder. For all the reprobation it brought her and continues to bring her today, it was a beautifully written and most deeply felt piece of journalism.

Duras did look back and even felt contrite (a feeling that was usually alien to her), as I have been surprised to find out going through her papers. She was literally shaken and saddened by the reaction she provoked, in particular from some women. Not all the letters she received were adversarial, though; some praised her insight into the condition of married women and thanked her for having the courage to write about it in that piece. It was, above all, the work of a writer in love with writing. As she would confess in her last significant book, Écrire, published in 1993 by Gallimard: “To write, this was the only thing that filled and enchanted my life. I have done it. Writing never left me.”

Jean Vallier

New York City

Edmund White replies:

Jean Vallier’s first of two projected volumes about Marguerite Duras is a wonderfully detailed and accurate biography about a woman famous for turning her own life into myth. Since I myself have written several autobiographical novels—and have written biographies of two of the greatest personal myth-makers, Jean Genet and Marcel Proust—I accept and admire her “creative” powers. Some of the aspects of Duras’s life I mentioned in my piece are overly familiar to French readers (her alcoholism, “l’affaire Villemin”) but these are exactly the kind of anecdote that rarely travels from one country to another.

Duras’s house may not have been a château but it certainly looks like one in the photos.

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