Marguerite Duras: A Visual Icon

To gain an understanding of intermediality in Marguerite Duras’s work in the context of intellectual production in France in the 1980s, an examination of her appearance on Apostrophes in 1984 is paramount. Apostrophes famously influenced the publishing market and the intellectual landscape, and her appearance on the show marked the turning point for Duras’s transition to mainstream ‘visual icon’ status.[1] Themes discussed in the interview highlight the transgressional and autobiographical elements of Duras’s work. I will evaluate how Duras interacts with the medium by analysing her unapologetic answers that embody the écriture courante of which she speaks.

The episode of Apostrophes aired on 28th September 1984, for the event of Duras’s new book, L’Amant. The novel won the Prix Goncourt a few weeks later and sold three million copies world-wide. The long-lasting positive publicity Duras received was likely a direct result of appearing on Apostrophes; the hour-long episode was focused exclusively on her and her book.[2] Livres Hebdo found that 72% of bestselling novels between 1982-1986 had featured on the show.[3] Bernard Pivot, the host and mastermind behind the show, had exercised his monopoly on intellectual stardom to make Duras the focus of public attention. The six minutes of air-time Pivot devotes to holding Duras’s books up to the camera is therefore no formality, he knows viewers will descend on their libraire following the show (fig.1). Chaplin attributes Apostrophes’s success to the fact it “produced entertainment by producing conflict.”[4] It was a novelty for intellectualism to be presented in an entertaining fashion, with lively debate instead of a standard lecture format, making literary themes accessible to the masses.[5] Pivot was often described as the “bonnhomme du peuple”, rather than the intellectual type, as demonstrated by his brash questioning throughout the interview.[6] “Qu’est-ce qu’il y a entre vous en dehors de plaisir?” he asks Duras about her relationship with her Chinese lover in L’Amant. He does not hesitate in exposing Duras’s lustful motivations and later describes the affair as “un double provocation”. He presses her on her alcohol issues and gasps in disbelief when she talks of her friendship with a collaborateur, whom he dramatically labels “l’enemie sur notre sol.” Extracting gossip seems to be his priority; he repeatedly attempts to provoke Duras.

 

                                                    Fig. 1.

 

Pivot preferred discussing non-fiction, as ensuing debate would be more subjective.[7] This explains his decision for a rare one-on-one interview with Duras, as L’Amant had intriguing autobiographical elements. Her works are often different manifestations of her personal experiences, transposed across the genres of novels, audio tracks, plays and films. Autobiography had slipped into her work from the mid-1970s onwards, blurring the distinction between reality and the imaginary.[8] Duras achieves this with fragmentary writing that provides plentiful opportunity for inconsistency and incomprehension. It allows her to rework her experiences into different texts, using new characters and scenarios. She shared Blanchot’s conviction that language exists not to directly express content but to suggest it, in order to make a text resonate beyond itself.[9] In Apostrophes, she says her affair with the Chinese man is “quelque chose là d’inépuisable” in terms of continued inspiration, as it had been “sans énoncé, sans declaration”. It had never been written about explicitly, therefore it now holds inexhaustible richness for fragmentation and transposition.[10] When Duras reveals that her mother did not know about the affair, Pivot points out how this is contradictory, since her lover would dine with the family. He shakes his head, saying: “J’y crois pas, j’y crois pas […] ça parait incroyable,” highlighting the fact this may be an invention. But Duras holds strong, responding to Pivot’s interrogation with short, solemn sentences. This demonstrates the uncertainty Duras purposefully injects into her interviews, and is a first indication that she is masterfully leading the discussion. Duras even corrects Pivot at several points throughout the interview, uttering a firm “non”, which tends to stops Pivot in his tracks. She is similarly unapologetic about many controversial aspects of her life; when Pivot accuses her of a “transgression extraordinaire”, she merely shrugs and smiles (fig.2). Duras transgresses in every way: her upbringing, sexuality, politics, literary style and genre, even modesty: she cackles when Pivot points out how there would be a limousine waiting for Marguerite outside school, alongside her mother’s ramshackle B12. Duras’s friendship with a collaborateur was transgressional, and represents her support of anti-establishment figures, regardless of their political motivation.[11] Pivot focuses on all these defiant acts in turn, and Duras is only happy to oblige.

                                                                                                                                  Fig.2.

 

Duras employs écriture courante in her works, the nature of which she describes in Apostrophes: “Je ne corrige pas […] Je dis les choses comme elles arrivent sur moi.” The technique exposes that which is suppressed, making it perfect for expressing transgression. The link between Duras’s transgression in her writing and her personal life suggests écriture courante is a lifestyle rather than just a writing technique.[12] Her mother’s death and the loosening of ‘moral strictures’ on women’s writing had freed her to draw from suppressed memories.[13] With increased inclusion of autobiographical elements in Duras’s work came increased opportunity for her to use écriture courante during public appearances, with reality and fiction become increasingly synonymous. Throughout the interview, Duras recounts her autobiographical text, yet she modifies it with either imagined or real experiences, to the point where Duras as an author and her television protagonist become indiscernible.[14] She is transformed into an elusive ‘visual icon’, which she actively encourages by taking the reins from Pivot in order to introduce uncertainty and add to facts established in L’Amant. Her appearance can therefore be more accurately described as a performance. There is further evidence that Duras perpetuated her ‘visual icon’ status: she reproduced her outfit on Apostrophes in future interviews and advocated her grandiose nickname of “La Duras”, reinforcing her public image.[15] Duras was evidently not passive in her transformation into a ‘visual icon’.

Duras proves herself to be a member of the ‘media-savvy intelligentsia’, at a time of major critique towards television debate for being incompatible with intellectualism.[16] Many argued that television debate necessitates urgency, whereas careful thought requires time.[17] Intellectuals who could not adapt to the new ‘mediocracy’, having been shunned by Pivot and the devoted book market, faded into obscurity.[18] Yet as Duras emphasizes, L’Amant required a sense of urgency: “l’histoire appelait l’urgence, une façon urgente d’être écrite.” She capitalized on the fact the medium suited her. Just as she succeeded in seamlessly transposing her text Détruire dit-elle to cinema and her weekly Libération column into an audio-tape, Duras proved her command of intermediality during her performance on Apostrophes, gaining ‘visual icon’ status primarily through her use of spoken écriture courante.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] Leslie Hill, Apocalyptic Desires, (London: Routledge, 1994), pp.13-14

[2] Ibid. p.13

[3] Tamara Chaplin, Turning On The Mind, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press: 2007), p.133

[4] Chaplin, p.133

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. p.146

[7] Ibid. p.135

[8] Hill, p.16

[9] Janice Morgan, ‘Fiction and Autobiography/Language and Silence: L’Amant by Duras’, The French Review, 63 (1989), 271- 279, p.278

[10] Ibid.

[11] Leslie Garis, ‘The Life and Loves of Marguerite Duras’, New York Times, at:<https://www.nytimes.com/1991/10/20/magazine/the-life-and-loves-of-marguerite-duras.html&gt; [accessed 06/11/2018]

[12] Julia Ann Lauer-Chéene, Ecriture courante: Theme and image in Marguerite Duras, Diss. University of Nebraska, 1991

[13] Morgan, p.272

[14] Hill, p.14

[15] Ibid. pp.13-14

[16] Chaplin, p.173

[17] Ibid. p.137

[18] Ibid. p.173

 

FURTHER READING

Primary sources:

  • Apostrophes (1984), Antenne 2, directed by Jean Luc Leridon (source of Figs. 1 and 2.)
  • Duras, M., Oeuvres Complètes, vol.III, (France: Éditions Gallimard, 2014)

Secondary sources:

  • Chaplin, T., Turning On The Mind, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press: 2007)
  • Garis, L., ‘The Life and Loves of Marguerite Duras’, New York Times, at: <https://www.nytimes.com&gt;
  • Hill, L., Apocalyptic Desires, (London: Routledge, 1994)
  • Lauer-Chéene, J.A., Ecriture courante: Theme and image in Marguerite Duras, Diss. University of Nebraska, 1991
  • Morgan, J., ‘Fiction and Autobiography/Language and Silence: L’Amant by Duras’, The French Review, 63 (1989), 271-279
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