I had to read Duras for High School French. I remember thinking what a cool chick she must have been, long before such a phrase even made sense. Born to French parents in Vietnam, she left her (reportedly abusive) family after a never fully explained affair with a Chinese man at the age of 17 to study in Paris. She joined the Communist Party and worked for the Vichy government as well as the French Resistance during the war. Her first husband was interned in Buchenwald. He survived the war but they divorced soon after. Marguerite Donnadieu chose the pen name Duras for her first publication towards the end of the war and stuck with it for life. She didn’t have to invent much. Her own life already was a novel, full of contradictions, affairs of the heart and substance abuse. She survived alcohol but the smokes got here in the end. She died of throat cancer in 1996, aged 81.
I never went back to her writing after High School. I guess she was the “it” girl in French literature by the time our French teacher made us read her. I missed the point of the hype then. I could gladly have finished my days without ever hearing her name again. But the other week I went to the local flea market and there she was on the cover of a secondhand book, posing in front of a typewriter, a few pages of a manuscript and a packet of Gauloises cigarettes next to it .
When I began to read the English translation of her wartime notebooks it came back why I remembered her from the French lessons from forty years ago: Duras is easy to read, even in a foreign language. I don’t pretend to like all her stories and I could never stand her films but I love her simple and straightforward style of writing. This becomes even more poignant in the telegram style of her rough drafts. I’m glad I found Duras again. I won’t be going back to her novels but I urge every aspiring writer to get a copy of “Wartime Notebooks” as a reminder that it doesn’t take big words to tell a story – just the right ones.