If I were told, “You’ll be fucked by ninety soldiers and he’ll receive a piece of bread,” I’d ask to be fucked by a hundred and eighty soldiers so he’d get two pieces of bread… Calculations like those – I make them three hundred times a day. A finger for a piece of bread; two fingers for two pieces. Ten years of my life to give him two more. Anything is possible since we know nothing…
Marguerite Duras is one of the greatest writers of the late twentieth century – one of the greatest writers of all time. We live in an era where the blurring of fact and fiction is one of the concerns of the age – think Knausgaard and Sebald – Duras gets there before them, and, one can argue, goes beyond what they achieve. In the transformation of her life into fiction, she reveals that fiction has access to truths that cannot be found elsewhere. Duras is a truth-teller, as confronting and harrowing as those truths can be.
These notebooks were kept by Duras from 1943-46, and not published until 2006. One wants to write some twaddle like ‘they are a valuable document of the time’ or of ‘the writer’s development’, containing as they do many of the ideas and episodes which would go into her later writing (The Lover in particular), her short stories (worked out and worked over throughout the notebooks), and her account of life under the Nazi occupation of France and in the time immediately after. This would be true, but they are more than that. In the juxapositioning of all of these element (the editors have remained faithful to the notebooks as notebooks) we see a replication of Duras’ mature style – events are told, retold, turned about, fictionalised, moved from character to character, interrogated from different angles, repudiated, and accepted. It is an astonishing book in its own right.
The most harrowing section deals with Duras’ wait to find out if her husband, Robert Antelme, a prisoner-of-war, has survived. She waits for him as the true horrors of the concentration camps become known. Her desperation is brutally rendered, as in the passage above. Duras is the most raw of writers, this is her at her most raw, and yet to be raw and write is not to transmit that feeling – the transmission of that feeling is the domain of literature, and it is at this point of transformation that Duras sets up her tight rope. It is exhausting. It is brilliant.
For Duras, here and always, writing is an exploration of of how one is to live, and of what it is to be human. She is not unique in this. But Duras goes further – she starts with no template, with no received notions of being or of morality. The act of self creation is the only given, but what each human may become (in extremis, in the quotidian) cannot be predicted, and our post hoc evaluations are a smoothing out of a process which at every moment is in, or prone to crisis. In his war notebooks, Sartre reflects on a breakdown he had experience before the war, and the realisation that ‘anyone could become anything’.
Duras more than any other writer watches what happens, and reports back, without flinching. Or, when she flinches, she reports on that too.