Fiction and Autobiography/Language and Silence: L'Amant by Duras

by Janice Morgan
Fiction and Autobiography/Language and Silence: L'Amant by Duras
Janice Morgan
The French Review
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Fiction and Autobiography /Language and Silence: L'Amant by Duras

by Janice Morgan

Ecrire ce n'est pas commenter ce que l'on croit

savoir dijli, mais chercher ce qu bn ne suit pas


-Viviane or rester'

IN1984, Marguerite Duras surprised the French literary world by produc- ing L'Amant, a lyrical, darkly-candid autobiographical book about her ado- lescence in Indochina during the late 1920s. The book, which opens with the young Duras crossing the Mekong river on a ferry and closes one and a half years later with her departure on an ocean liner for France, traces the young woman's passage from childhood to adulthood. In many ways, L'Amant-written toward the end of what has been a long, distinguished career as an author-is the retelling of events described earlier in a novel called Un Barrage contre le Pacifique (1950). More than thirty years separate the two works, more than thirty years of relative silence on this evidently formative part of Duras's life. It is as if until just recently, Duras wished to forget-both publicly and privately-about this very different childhood she experienced in what remains for Westerners an alien land. Gradually, however, the past has re-surfaced in Duras's writing-first in fiction, as in the Indian cycle beginning with LP Vice-Consul (1965), then later in the growing number of photographs, interviews, and frankly autobiographical texts the author has published during the last few years.

In re-reading Un Barrage, it is clear what Duras would have wished to forget-the poverty, isolation, and the lack of opportunity endemic to the remote, tropical outpost where the family, a widowed mother and her two children, lives. Informing the whole is the legend of how the mother, in a heroic but doomed attempt to become a wealthy landowner for her chil- dren's benefit, suffers one legal defeat after another at the hands of a corrupt, colonial administration. With their mother living afterwards in despair and close to madness, the son and daughter have no one to turn to for consolation but each other and their romantic fantasies of a better life. An erotic liaison with a wealthy lover becomes for each of them the pre- ferred avenue of escape.

Though Un Barrage is based on personal situations and events that actu- ally occurred, the novel is nonetheless a very public narrative: the story is told in the third person (yet closely tied to the daughter Suzanne's point of view) and develops in a conventionally linear, chronological fashion. Throughout, its realistic settings and terse dialogue recall the American novel style A la Hemingway so fashionable in France during the 1950s.

L'Amant, while covering the same brief period in the author's life, differs dramatically from the earlier version. Narrated largely in the first person, the text is composed of fragments taken from shifting time frames, frag- ments that are related not in an external, linear way, but in circular, associ- ative patterns that convey the more intimate, psychological rhythms of that experience. At times etched with a sharp sense of realism (the strident sounds and exotic mixture of smells in the night streets of Cholen, for example), yet at other times, passing with a dream-like fluidity beyond any set boundaries of place and time, L'Amant creates a distinctive style all its own.

It is clear that Duras assumes the two different texts to be complemen- tary, for each provides a certain content that the other leaves out. In this way, the first text becomes a kind of narrative repoussoir for the second, a foil against which the new text, this new interpretation of events, will be played: "Avant, j'ai par16 des pCriodes claires, de celles qui Ctaient 6clair6es. Ici je parle des p6riodes cachCes de cette m@me jeunesse" (14). In thus characterizing the inter-dependancy of the two texts, Duras asserts her need to clarify what had been written before, to re-discover a remembered vision of her past life and self that had previously been disguised. The author tells her readers that she now feels free to tell the true story of how things happened, now that her mother and her brothers are dead, now that the moral strictures governing literary culture (and women's writing in particular) have been unbound.

Yet though Duras pursues the past with a relentless candor, it would be naive to conclude that she is writing the book merely to settle accounts or that she is uncovering the past in an effort to reveal all. Estelle Jelinek, in her introduction to Women's Autobiography, speaks of a dual or conflicting intention in the writing of autobiography. While on the one hand, female authors "wish to clarify, to affirm, and to authenticate their self images" (IS), a writer will also tend to camouflage or in some way distance herself from intimacy in the projection of that self image. Certainly, the psycholog- ical tension between intimacy and distance, self-revelation and self-effacement accounts for much of the fascination and allure L'Amant exerts upon its readers. Central to this issue is the enigma of Duras's feelings for the man who first became her lover and with that, the sense we have of how much the author reveals or conceals, first from the lover and secondly, from the reader. For perhaps the real subject of L'Amant, unlike the earlier Un Barrage, is writing-that is, the origins of Duras's desire to write and with that, her means of access to that writing.

To begin, many readers are struck by Duras's tendency to slip from a predominantly first-person narration to a more distant third-person narra- tion and to do so precisely in those scenes with the man from Cholen, scenes which are among the most intimate in the book. The more obvious explanations for this are not at all satisfying. For example, the split between the first person (je) and the third person (elle) does not seem to convey, as one might anticipate in an autobiographical work, the distinction between the young girl of then as she lived her experiences and the mature woman of today looking back on those experiences. For the narrative, rather than shifting back and forth from the present tense to the past, is written predominantly in the present tense (regardless of the particular time period being evoked) and with a high degree of vividness and immediacy that effectively erases the very distinction between past and present. Rather, the appearance of the third person seems to mark the deliberate intrusion in autobiography of a fictional artifice; that is, Duras, the public figure and author narrating, becomes Duras, a literary character, narrated in her own story.

For some critics, this fictional intrusion compromises the transparency of Duras's early statement that this book is one of self revelation. Sharon Willis, for example, views the narrative split-consciousness in L'Amant as a kind of literary smokescreen, one highly characteristic of Duras's tendency to dtcmoir (in the dual sense of the French word to deceive; to disappoint) her public (4). The author would seem to stand accused, then, of intentional duplicity, "given the text's strategy of veiling and unveiling, where 'I'veils herself as 'she1, but where 'she' just as frequently masquerades as 'I"' (6).In other words, one may well gain the suspicion that Duras, the writer, is playing the same game of seduction and evasion with her readers that the young girl played, then, with her lover.

As compelling as this interpretation might seem, I would like to propose another-namely that it is precisely through a certain artifice and duality that Duras's narrative is able to achieve its authenticity. Moreover, the tension that exists in the written text between intimacy and distance, deception and sincerity, language and silence is, in fact, intrinsic to the experiences as she lived them.

From the outset, Duras describes her erotic adventure as "the experi- ment", revealing already not only a taste for pleasure but a taste for specu- lative distance on that pleasure. From her opening statement about what constitutes a woman's beauty, her seductiveness, Duras shows a keen awareness of women's iconic value, their particular quality of (in Laura Mulvey's words) "to-be-looked-at-ness" (Mulvey, 11).Having identified that quality in herself (through a somewhat elaborately detailed description of her clothing and makeup), she goes on to describe the Chinese man's approach, his interest-but also his apprehension because of the racial difference, her youth. It is at the moment when he approaches her that Duras slips into third-person narration, and thereafter, a dual awareness infuses the narrative. From the moment she describes her gaze going out to the man on the ferry, there is another gaze, beyond the couple, looking back-Duras consciously watching herself being watched, being enchanted by the phenomenon, writing about it. When Duras slips into the third person, she effectively transposes the transparency of the first-person ac- count of an individual experience into a more complex kind of theater, one which transcends the limits of the personal.

The rhythmic force of the prose carried events forward as relentlessly as the Mekong River current, the girl being embarked with the man in what she calls "l'histoire de tout le monden2, the knowledge which she says she already possessed, "en avance sur le temps" (16). Clearly, the balance of passion is weighted on his side, while the balance of power (the passive power of a desired woman) is on hers. Far from stressing the uniqueness of her experience-as we might expect-the young girl insists instead on maintaining almost an enforced impersonality with her lover. Alone with him for the first time, she asks the man to do with her what he "usually does with the women he brings to his apartment" (49) and later confides to him that she enjoys the idea of being curiously "parmi ces femmes, con- fondue [avec elles]" (54). No names are mentioned in the narrative; Duras refers to the man and to herself through third-person epithets: "le Chinois" (68), "l'homme de Cholen" (92), "la petite blanche" (121), "l'enfant" (46)- terms which not only convey the way each is viewed by a certain segment of society, but also the way the lovers inevitably view each other; they are defined for each other by their separateness, their difference.

The young girl never equates the undeniable pleasure she receives from him with love for the man she meets each night; part of her is always outside the room where they are, beyond the space their two bodies oc- cupy. Their affair is characterized, from the first night they are together, by an unbridgeable solitude: "il dit qu'il est seul, atrocement seul avec cet amour qu'il a pour elle. Elle lui dit qu'elle aussi elle est seule. Elle ne dit pas avec quoi" (48). Because of this solitude, her intense physical pleasure with him seems abstract, austere-almost brutal. The first person narration resumes suddenly in the memory of her mother, then in the vivid evoca- tion of the particular atmosphere of the room where they are-so open to the Chinese streets outside its windows. In the midst of their lovemaking, the young girl hears the sounds of merchants mingled with the rich aroma of roasted peanuts, soups, the sudden mountain fragrance of woodsmoke, and it is as if all the individuality, the unforgettable particularity of the event lay there, strangely outside herself.

Between the ebb and flow of physical desire, the girl tells the Chinese about her family in Sadec; soon surrounding the lovers' bodies alone in the room grows the shadowy presence of the mother, the two brothers, and their familiar "silence genial" (45). After their first evening together, the narrative flickers back and forth from the nights in Cholen to the remem- bered days in Sadec. Thus, at the same time that Cholen inaugurates her separation from the family in Sadec, it also curiously confirms that original experience: both Sadec and Cholen share the identity of "un lieu irrespira- ble, il cBtoie la mort, un lieu de violence, de douleur, de dksespoir, de dkshonneur" (93). Gradually, the nights in Cholen, with their distinctive mixture of pleasure-in-pain, in their essential ambivalence, seem to parallel with the lover the same silent relationships of desire and difference, pride and shame, power and fear that existed within her family. It is undoubtedly to the intensity of this ambivalence-in recognition of these silences-that Duras owes the uniqueness of her vision as a writer. About Sadec she writes, "C'est dans son ariditk, sa terrible duretk, sa malfaisance que je suis le plus profondkment assurke de moi-msme, au plus profond de ma certi- tude essentielle, A savoir que plus tard j'kcrirai" (93). Here, in the powerful comfort Duras takes in the knowledge of her destiny as a writer, one can only conclude, as does the critic Yvonne Guers-Villate, that writing per- forms a very important and specific function for this author: it is through the writing of books that she will be able to transpose-in an aesthetic form-the wealth of contradictions, the polarities and distances, the emo- tional intensities and ambiguities of life as she experienced them.3 Her desire here is not to resolve these conflicting tensions, but rather-as in death-to free herself from them, to transcend them.

All these elements participate in the distances established by the oscilla- tions in the narrative, of which the shift between she and I is but one indication. Yet there is another facet to this layered consciousness in the story. For also intertwined with the nights in Cholen are the remembered images of certain women: Marie-Claude Carpenter, Betty Fernandez, Helen Lagonelle. L'Amant is a hymn to these women-to the desire they evoked in those around them, to their mystery, their beauty, and also to their peculiar absence, their silence. Among these women, one reigns su- preme in memory, referred to here as "la Dame" (109), the wife of the French ambassador in Vinhlong, the one whose young lover committed suicide in 'Savannakhet when she left there to join her husband in Vinh- long. This particular woman, first encountered by Duras at the age of eight, seems to have incarnated for her an unforgettable model of feminin- ity-one strongly implicated in a precocious obsession with death.4 The model also for a literary character, Anne-Marie Stretter, who dominates several of Duras's most well-known works-notably Le Vice-Consul and India Song-this woman embodies for the young Duras a dual power and possesses a dual identity: first,, as a wealthy woman of society, wife and mother, an elegant sustainer of the status quo and then, underneath that identity, a woman who contained within the sensuality of her body "ce pouvoir de mort, de prodiguer la mort, de la provoquer" (Lieux, 65).'

Duras's use of the third person (elle) to introduce and frame her own erotic initiation, that curious fusion of sheII, works to connect her own individual story to this other myth of passion. In fact, the author draws a clear parallel between that other woman, then almost forty, and the

fifteen-year-old girl; both alike "au discredit vouCes du fait de la nature de ce corps qu'elles ont, caress6 par des amants, baisC par leurs bouches, livrCes h l'infamie d'une jouissance h en mourir, disent-elles, h en mourir de cette mort mysterieuse des amants sans amour" (111).The nights spent with the lover in Cholen repeat, too, the litany of "une jouissance h en mourir" (55, Ill), and one senses very strongly that Duras's account of this experience represents, for her, a personal access to a legend; one senses that the narrative enacts her own entry to the necessarily impersonal myth of passion and de~ire.~

It is this quality of the relationship that accounts, no doubt, for the externality of its narration: in the text, for example, Duras refers to the man as "l'amant" not as "mon amant"; and further on, she writes about him using once more the definite article where the possessive would be more customary, "Je revois encore le visage, et je me souviens du nom" (56).7 This same externality, this implicit allusion to a legend of erotic passion that exists curiously beyond the two lovers also provides the essen- tial dimension to the young girl's previously expressed wish with her lover to be among all the other women "he'd had", to be "'mixed in' with them, indistinguishable" (Lover, 42). In this wish, the lover becomes her accom- plice (and, to a certain extent, her victim):

I1comprend ce que je viens de dire. Le regard alter6 tout h coup, faux, pris dans le mal, la mort. (54) On aurait dit qu'il aimait cette douleur, qu'il l'aimait comme il m'avait aimhe, tr&s fort, jusqu'i mourir put-ktre, et que maintenant il la prCferait h moi. (134)

Nowhere does the force of this myth seem more striking than in the closing pages of L'Amant when, again, the fictional register resumes in the telling of her departure on the ocean liner and, with that departure, the young girl's sudden realization one night-after their separation-that perhaps she had loved him after all, "d'un amour qu'elle n'avait pas vu parce qu'il s'ktait perdu dans l'histoire comme l'eau dans le sable" (138). The distanced, fictional mode here (I'histoire) becomes a way of revealing the depth of illusion behind the experience as she lived it-a way of unveiling the self-deception that informed (or perhaps better, de-formed, concealed) the emotion contained within that experience. Thus, as in Duras's novels, even as the narrative weaves its spell of fantasy or illusion, it also reveals a lucid awareness of the central delusion it depicts. The text's duality, its "duplicity"-far from compromising the validity of the fundamental expe- rience-becomes, in fact, the hallmark of its genuineness. Ultimately, for the writer, it is the "story" that triumphs; years afterward, through the man's phone call, we hear once more in the book's final pages the echoing testimony of a mythic love undiminished by time, of a passion that would endure until death. Here, personal event has been fully transposed into literature: autobiography has passed into legend.

We began by observing that L'Amant is a work of revelation. In Duras's avowed intentions in writing the book, to tell those parts of her experience that were not expressed before, the text assumes the role of a testimonial or a confession. Yet in comparing this later book to the earlier Un Barrage contre le Pacifique, we note a peculiar irony: it is the earlier novel that is filled with movement, character, event, and dialogue-speech that passes even into invective and diatribe-whereas the later autobiographical book re- mains largely a record of silences. In effect, the text is saturated with silence, silences that exist at the level of the experience itself: in speaking of the family in Sadec, for example, "Jamais bonjour, bonsoir, bonne annke. Jamais merci. Jamais besoin de parler. Tout reste, muet, loin. C'est une famille en pierre, ~etrifike dans une epaisseur sans accPs aucun" (69); about the subject of marriage between herself and her lover, "11s n'en parlent plus jamais" (119); about their nights together in Cholen, "I1 ne lui parle presque plus. Peut-Ctre croit-il qu'elle ne comprendrait plus ce qu'il lui dirait d'elle, de cet amour qu'il ne connaissait pas encore et dont il ne sait rien dire" (121); or at the moment when the young girl nearly confides her story to her mother ". . . j'ai failli lui parler de Cholen. Je ne l'ai pas fait. Je ne l'ai jamait fait" (114).

But silences occur also in the gaps and fissures of the narration, in the fragmentation and dislocation of memory as the text slips from one time- place to another. One cannot avoid the impression-confirmed even on the printed page, punctuated as it is by blank spaces-that a mysterious con- tent must have been left out. Curiously, however, in comparing L'Amant to Un Barrage, one discovers that this later book is, at once, more fragmented yet more thematically coherent than its fictional predecessor, more elusive, yet more complete. Clearly, there is something here that goes beyond the contingencies of youthful reticence, the accidents inherent in either willful or unwillful failures to communicate; for the silence at the heart of Duras's childhood experience lies also at the heart of her aesthetic practice. One need only compare the style and structure of L'Amant to that of her mature fictional works: Moderato Cantabile, Hiroshima mon amour, Le Ravissement de Lo1 V. Stein, 15Vice-Consul-to recognize that the writing of silence repre- sents for this author a deliberate, aesthetic choice. Both the fiction and the autobiography are based on a central conviction deeply held by the author, that language (the spoken) exists precisely to suggest, to evoke that which remains unspoken in life; that writing serves, therefore, primarily to render the substance of things imagined, the evidence of things not said.

Duras's own comments on the complex, hidden filiations between desire, silence, and writing in L'Amant make this conviction evident.' Furthermore, in an interview, the author states that this intense, youthful affair in Cholen about which she has written "a eclipse les autres amours de ma vie, celles qui ktaient declares, mari6~"~

and has done so precisely because it was "sans knonc6, sans dkclaration" (Apos). In its silence, then, Cholen and all that it represents rejoins the imaginary photograph that opens the book, the one of the seductive young girl on the ferry crossing the river, the one that was never taken. Because it was never taken, she says, never "dktachke, enlevke h la somme" (17), the tenuous, remembered image holds a great power, that of representing an absolute: "C'est h ce manque d'avoir kt6 faite qu'elle doit sa vertu, celle de reprksenter un absolu, d'en entre justement l'auteur" (17). It is precisely because their content was never expressed, never acknowledged or fixed in either image or words that both the absent photograph and the silent nights in Cholen have come to hold- much later in the author's life-an inexhaustible richness.

Here, a certain suspicion of language prevails, one shared by other con- temporary writers (notably by Maurice Blanchot, whom Duras admires)- a belief that language, even as it calls into being and names our past expe- rience, can contain and kill its sensuous strangeness, its unrepeatable magic. The goal of the writer, then, is to create a style that does not attempt to directly express its ever-elusive content but only to suggest the contours, the dimension, or the shadow of that content. It is this quality that gives a text (like a memory) the power to resonate beyond itself, to engender other texts, other forms.

And this can be true, it seems, of autobiography as well as of fiction. In this way, Duras would not have us view L'Amant as an endpoint or a conclusion to the past but rather as another possible point of departure and rediscovery of that past.'0 In its elusiveness, its fluidity, its ritual imperative of looking again, of saying again, L'Amantasserts the re-performing of a self in writing that ultimately cannot be fixed, seized, rendered captive or named in words and images. Paradoxically, then, it is through a certain artifice, through the use of fictional registers, and through the shaping of silence that the writer is able to evoke a composite portrait of herself, one that in its complex facets of event and illusion begins to attain the fullness of authenticity.


h his epigraph by Forrester is borrowed from a book about writing by Suzanne Lamy with the suggestive title, Quand je lis je m'invente.

his citation is from a special interview with Marguerite Duras conducted by Bernard Pivot on the French television program Apostrophes. This particular program, broadcast by Antenne 2 on 28 September 1984, is available on video upon request from the French Cultural Services in New York (FACSEA), 972 Fifth Avenue, NY 10021. Further references to this particular interview will be indicated in the text by the abbreviation (Apos) in parentheses.

or a sensitive and highly perceptive discussion of this subject, see the chapter"Ambiva1- ence et sentiment de contradiction" in Continuiti/Discontinuiti by Guers-Villate: "Toute 1'Cvolution artistique de Duras est dirigCe vers une organisation esthetique des contradic- tions ressenties si vivement en elle et autour d'elle, qui sont peut-Ptre i la base de toute vie et que L'Amant expose en pleine" (57).

4~urasspeaks at length about the influence of this mysterious red-haired woman in Les Lieux de Marguerite Duras, an interview with Michelle Porte (61-69).

5~arfrom being merely an idiosyncratic obsession, the eight-year-old's fascination with this particular woman's story seems to connect with a deep, primal reverence and fear of the power of women's bodies that reaches back into the mists of recorded time. The dual feminine identity that the young Duras found so compelling touches upon ancient myths and rituals where "woman became recognized as both benign goddess and mysterious power, both a life giver and life destroyer, to be feared and desired, loved and scorned (Arms, 11-12), Even today, a deep ambivalence regarding the myth of "woman" is very much in evidence, taking many curious forms in popular culture: the role of women in advertising, in film noir, in the presence of cult personalities such as "Madonna", for example.

6~houghDuras's affair (as well as her fiction) is steeped in the mystique of "Woman", she nonetheless reveals a sardonic awareness of how women are often betrayed by this mystique. She describes the not-to-be-envied plight of the upper-class colonial women she knew of, cloistered in their mansions, saving their fragile white beauty through the tropical seasons for some vague future romance (26-28). Duras's own story in L'Amant, though it participates fully in this romantic mystique, also asserts a much bolder, more controlling approach to the satisfaction of feminine desire within that mvstiaue.


7~heseobservations are made by Duras herself in an interview with Marianne Alphant in


'~hese themes permeate the book but see particularly the passages on pp. 34-35, 124-26. 
'~uotation from the interview with Marianne Alphant, Op. Cit. 
In the above-cited interview with Alphant, Duras suggests that this same brief period in 

her life may well give rise to two or three other autobiographical books, each of them different. Speaking of the pleasure of writing, she says: "J'ai envie de me retrouver avec le deuxiPme tome." Further on, she quotes Stendhal, saying that no other time period in her life holds as much meaning for her as a writer: "interminablement, l'enfance."

Works Cited

Arms, Suzanne. Immaculate Deception: A New Look at Women and Childbirth. New York: BantamlHoughton-Mifflin, 1975. Alphant, Marianne. "Duras a l'htat sauvage" and interview with Marguerite Duras. Libbration

(4 September 1984). Duras, Marguerite. L'Amant. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1984. -. Un Barrage contre le Pacifique. Paris: Gallimard, 1950. 
, et Michelle Porte. LPS Lieux de Marguerite Duras. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1977. 
-. The Lover. Trans. Barbara Bray. New York: Pantheon, 1985. Guers-Villate, Yvonne. Continuitb/Discontinuiti de l'rpuvre durassienne. Brussels: Editions de

1UniversitC de Bruxelles, 1985. Jelinek, Estelle C. "Introduction: Women's Autobiography and the Male Tradition." Women's

Autobiography. Ed. Estelle Jelinek. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1980. 1-20. Lamy, Suzanne. Quand je lis je m'invente. Montreal: L'Hexagone, 1984. Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16 (1975): 6-18. Willis, Sharon. Marguerite Duras: Writing on the Body. Urbana: Illinois UP, 1987.

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