Marguerite Duras, La Douleur (1985) (English title : The War)

This is an astonishing book on more than one account. A review by Litlove had decided me a long time ago to read it, but I couldn’t find the right moment for such a difficult read. Result is, there is no right moment. Summer time or hectic days, I would have felt the same punch in the gut reading it. But it doesn’t mean I don’t recommend it. I do, strongly. But it should come with a warning.

The few words of introduction say that Duras kept a diary during WWII and that this book is the result, but that she has no memory of writing it. It’s rather a collection of short stories, more or less fictionalized from real events. The longest and most memorable is the title story, recalling the period in 1945 when Marguerite Duras was waiting for her husband to return from the concentration camp he had been sent to in Germany, as a member of the French Resistance.

Duras’ writing is incredibly strong. She makes no attempt to hide anything. It is a harrowing, highly emotional experience for us readers, especially as we have a learnt knowledge (from school, from movies, etc…) of the war events. The diary form makes the emotions raw and the facts instantly fresh. The wait is literally killing her. She can’t sleep or eat anymore; she haunts the places where survivors have arrived already, at a period where little was known about the true nature of the concentration camps and much less of the horrors of the extermination of Jews. But glimpses of truth now arrive, with their full horror; and she keeps visualizing her dead husband, as we readers now know it is very plausible he might have died. She writhes in agony, feeling his absence intensely.

[Spoiler alert!]

All of a sudden, news that he is alive come through. He barely made it though, a mere walking corpse who might die any minute. Well-connected friends hurry to drive through France and Germany and fetch him. The description of his pitiful state is even difficult to read, so I can’t imagine how people felt when they looked at him. Suffice to say that the friends and neighbors were ready to celebrate and welcome him home, but when they saw him, they cancelled the celebrations, stripped the “welcome home” back and wept. It’s a miracle that he can be nursed back to life, being something stranger than human.

And then, wham, when he’s deemed healthy enough, Duras announces him that she wants to divorce him for another man, one friend who has helped him come back. How to make sense of this sudden U-turn? I didn’t, but I guess that the complexities of life. The diary aspect makes it no less abrupt, but we understand that many past events must have been left out. The strange thing is I couldn’t bring myself to blame her for that, for being human and not the perfect heroic novel character that we might expect.

[end of spoiler]

The other stories were not so strong, but just as interesting, notably one about a Resistance woman who tortures a Collaborator at the end of the war. The fact that a woman can inflict violence and vengeance is quite contrary to usual expectations.

The book manages to be both literary and lyrical and matter-of-fact. The artful mix between fact and fiction is dizzying. It cuts to the quick. If you want to read a few excerpts in English, Colleen reviewed the book recently. It made me want to know more about Duras’ life. I think I’ll read her biography by Laure Adler next.

6 thoughts on “Marguerite Duras, La Douleur (1985) (English title : The War)

  1. I was somewhat surprised by her decision to leave her husband too but it got me thinking about how there are things so private and hard to confront that we can’t even write them down only for ourselves to see.

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