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A Life Spent Looking at the Sea: On Me & Other Writing by Marguerite Duras

By Xiao Yue Shan.

Marrguerite Duras, Me & Other Writing, translated by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan (Dorothy, 2019)

The work of a writer must be definition. No, it must be invention. No, it must be the supplication of courage, of beauty, of immensity. No, it must be a dear love of words (or of the world which we contact with words). No, it must be the capturing of the unspeakable. No, it must be the circumvention of logic in pursuit of something truer.

It must be the evocation of the sea, in the way of Marguerite Duras.

The latest of Duras’ works to be published, Me & Other Writing (The Dorothy Project, 2019), is a compilation of prose. The pieces gathered here seem generally suspicious of compartmentalizations like genre, but may, with great reluctance, be summoned by that precarious class, non-fiction. One is made aware of their origins—newspapers, journals, previous volumes, but appearing here (many for the first time in English), they seem to be—in that particular Durassian fashion—drawn seamlessly from her oration, defiantly materializing a discouraging construct, that a writer is not made, but born.

Can they be called essays? But essays provoke the appearance of infrastructure, a lattice of cogent ideas upon which language crowds like brickwork, fortifying. These works, however, possess no cartography except the poetic, which means, of course, that there is no concordant cartography at all. They seem to speak of longing, but then it becomes rather clear that it is, in fact, the longing for longing. Images are brandished with utmost ravishment and then discarded. Subjects are formed and subsequently cohered into the context like white noise. Ensuing paragraphs have a tenuous relationship with their antecedents. Love passes into madness and stays for a dance. Her classic proclivity of instantaneously displacing a block of text with a truism is frequently harnessed. To depart from one country at dusk and arrive in another at yesterday’s noon—that is the expanse of travel in that one line of white space, fencing the paragraphs.

The book is not finished. The end was not written, it was never found. It would never have been found. The fatal end of the book did not exist, does not exist. The torture is endless. The end is on every page of the book. The author is dead. The book is here suddenly, frighteningly isolated, eternalized in the brutality its suspension. Then it closes again.

As with every champion who participates in the act of creation, we must ask: how has their involvement altered the concept of their craft? With Duras the answer is haunting and unambiguous. The book is as various and alive as the author, but the author will die and the book will not. The book which has been written in defiance of its author, and has in its process grown skin, teeth, and sought from its newfound world the strangest and most forceful sensations. Contrary to Barthes, the author is dead but Marguerite Duras is “the most permanent”. The woman made myth, the woman written into existence, the woman that exists as a consequence of the woman writing. She has accomplished the utmost act of actualization; there are no words to describe Duras but her words.

The power in these writings is the result of a well-earned arrogance. How else to state, with such flippancy, “I no longer believe in anything,” as she does here (twice!)? How else does one get away with saying: “I love men, I love only them”? The same woman who offhandedly dethroned the title that made her name by saying; “I wrote it when I was drunk.” Having offered so much in pages, what has she left to prove; how does one add to infinity?

I suppose the answer is that one writes about writing, and the sea.

Enthrallment before the sea is characteristic of a desire for obliteration, for those who conflate destruction with freedom. It is the dissolution of manmade boundaries; it holds what we know of eternality. For her, it has been executioner, conductor, arbiter, and lover. Mad, shining, occasionally ripped with laughter. Her lines corrugate like the water’s surface, her rhythm resembling the cyclical tide. To pursue a subject for a lifetime and to remain steadfast in the faith that it will always provide, that has been her gift as a writer. This volume of work is summoned from a lifetime of believing in the wealth of the world as material—that love will never be satiated, that insanity will always rear from amongst the ordinary, that the sea will never empty.

The temptation is to bring up an expected, and therefore threateningly uninteresting, question. What is truth and its relationship to non-fiction (what are memories, if not fictions; what are fictions if not lives the writer has lived, just not actually), since there really is no such thing as non-fiction, as everything that passes through us is then “fictionalized” by our singular idiosyncrasies? What even is so appealing about truth that it endlessly demands our pursuit? We have already admitted that something need not be factual to be profound, enlightened, or a subject of fascination, so we must be obsessed with truth because we are obsessed with ourselves. We are helplessly enslaved to the idea that within us lives something true, that we recall true images, true conversations. That we look, in the present moment of looking, truly. That we have a true self. Yet, the novels, screenplays, and the pieces of Me & Other Writing are steadfastly faithful to their irregular treatment (and occasional abuse) of the truth; divisions of fiction, fact, and other flotsam be damned. The true Duras is only visible in her disparities—because she leaves her work behind (that desire for obliteration), she is not beholden to the assertions and beliefs once held. The agony of truth is its plurality.

The mind is a house we are forced to live in, her work suggests. We are trapped by its limits, its textures of neural paths that—commanded by the past, by histories both lived and inherited—operate at our behest. We arrive at the moment burdened by our houses, constantly reenacting the past to prepare for the future, we perform ourselves. And the way to break from this artificial existence is of course, to write. She characterizes it as violent, because the splitting of the self is a brutal act. The writer relegates a part of herself to the pages (“There is nothing on the page and all of a sudden there are three hundred pages”) and that part goes through a kind of death, as it is no longer reliant on the lifeline of its origin, but then it is free. It leaves the house and closes the door behind it, and lives in language—language that does not bend to the will of one, isolated perspective. Every character in a Duras text is Marguerite Duras; “Writing is to write for oneself.” Writing is to live in immensity, uninhibited by arbitrary things like space or time.

The second half of this text is composed of a series of pieces originally published as L’Été 80. Written for the paper Libération as an alternative to the news typically reported, these pieces are amongst the most thrilling and chaotic and unabashedly sublime of the entire volume. There is that constant looming élan vital: desire, dressed variously in the shades of weather and unnamed pronouns. And the sea, recurrent in its reminders of the sacred. There is the preoccupation of protests at Gdańsk, the impossible longing between a summer camp counsellor and a child, the presence of a lover, the unstoppable impetus of a summer and its thrall. Distinct narratives are embroidered into one another by the hurrying needle of the writer’s voice, which never hesitates for the pursuit of a reader’s eye. So it is that one may be swept in the progression of the sentences—their frightening beauty, their savage liberty—with no sense of actual comprehension. But of course, the stories matter little. What matters is the voice, the colours, the bristling, frenetic intelligence of proliferating impressions, a voice that fights the dreaded lack of language. Here the ideas are buried like mines—explosive at the slightest contact.

Fascinating, that Duras in these frames is Duras in translation. Brought into English by the astounding efforts of Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes, one can imagine their struggle: how to captivate this language that so resembles seeing? A language the author herself compares to music? In a piece titled “Translation”, she states: “… a text translated into a given language becomes a text within that language.” Conflagrations of intentions versus aesthetics aside, we still always love the text that is in the language we understand, the derived text, which is summoned from the chasms of creation samely as writing is. In writing, Duras says, “You compete with God.” In translation, the “god” has a name. The work of the translator is not mimicry, and Ramadan and Baes detail their torturous process:

When we strive for clarity, those phrases that form a logic solely unto Duras, the deep current of her writing, seem to lose their glimmer, their truth. They cannot be pinned down because, like “streams, lakes, oceans . . . they flow.”

So the impossibility of translation remains impossible, and the translators have instead allowed their text a new language. But it is the same dreaming cascade of language. A text is not a single instrument; it is symphonic, and in each transference into a new language, a harmony is added to the score.

If autobiography is what the reader seeks here, there is bound to be disappointment. Her life is well-documented—the manifoldly told affairs, the profoundly debilitating addiction, the cinema, the mother with green eyes—and there are no further discoveries to be made. Do not read this book in search of interrogation; despite her magnified, grandiose life, what is to be found here is the conjuring, from the roughage of the world, of an original language. The writer’s work. Would this have been published if it were not Duras? Perhaps not; it is, after all, specific to her—occasionally tormented, occasionally meditative, occasionally unsound. It will stir most brightly to those familiar with the lawlessness of poetry, or those who love looking at the sea.

In a work by René Magritte titled “La bonne Aventure 1938 ou 1939”, the door of a pink-walled room, slightly ajar, opens to a beach. Also occupying this gap, by which the viewer is allowed insight into the world of the painting, is a cartoonishly cloud-like cloud, floating into the room. It is a depiction of how the object of enchantment drifts to invade the platitudinous everyday.

How to read Duras? Open the door.

Xiao Yue Shan is a poet and essayist born in China and living in Tokyo, Japan. Her poetry chapbook, How Often I Have Chosen Love, won the Frontier Poetry Chapbook Prize, and was published in the March of 2019. She currently works with Spittoon Literary Magazine, Tokyo Poetry Journal, and Asymptote Journal. Her website is shellyshan.com.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 17th, 2019.