In Love with Duras

Wartime Writings: 1943–1949

by Marguerite Duras, edited by Sophie Bogaert and Olivier Corpet, and translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
New Press, 296 pp., $26.95

The War: A Memoir

by Marguerite Duras,translated from the French by Barbara Bray
New Press, 183 pp., $14.95 (paper)

The North China Lover

by Marguerite Duras, translated from the French by Leigh Hafrey
New Press, 231 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Marguerite Duras was a huge presence in the 1980s and early 1990s when I lived in Paris. She was very old—in her seventies—and very alcoholic, and her disintoxication cure in late 1982 at the American Hospital was much written about (not only by journalists—she wrote about it, and her companion Yann Andréa did as well in a book called M.D.). Just when people thought her liver or her kidneys would give out, she rose from her ashes and wrote The Lover (1984), a story drawn from her youth in Indochina that sold a million copies in forty-three languages and became the inspiration for a major commercial movie.

Before her cure, she was holed up in her château dictating one much-worked-on line a day to Andréa, who would type it up. Then they would start uncorking cheap Bordeaux and she’d drink two glasses, vomit, then continue on till she’d drunk as many as nine liters and would pass out. She could no longer walk, or scarcely. She said she drank because she knew God did not exist. Her very sympathetic doctor would visit her almost daily and offer to take her to the hospital, but only if she wanted to live. She seemed undecided for a long time but at last she opted for life since she was determined to finish a book that she’d already started and was very keen about.

There was always something preposterous about her. When she was feeling well enough she surrounded herself with courtiers, laughed very loudly, told jokes, and had opinions about everything. She was an egomaniac and talked about herself constantly. Almost three years after her cure she created a scandal by speculating recklessly about the most famous (and still unsolved) murder case in recent French history—the case of Little Grégory. This child, Grégory Villemin, had been killed and trussed and dumped into a culvert. He was just four and a half years old. More than a hundred journalists were hovering around the site of the murder, the village of Lépanges near Épinal in the Vosges.

And then on July 17, 1985 (273 days after the murder), Marguerite Duras (once again drinking heavily) visited the town briefly, studied the house where Little Grégory had lived, and published a front-page article in Libération announcing to the world that she knew who had done it: the mother, Christine Villemin! Duras’s main evidence was that there was no garden around the little house. This proved that Christine was unhappy, that her husband was forcing sex on her, that she was just staring into space all day and sitting about without any occupation at home, dreaming up atrocious crimes. It was a modern tragedy, Duras claimed, in the tradition of Racine. Even though the mother, who had at first been arrested, had been freed because of the lack of evidence and had specifically refused to speak to her, Duras had no doubts that Christine had done it. She was careful to point out that she didn’t judge…

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