The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Spotlight on … Marguerite Duras Writing (1993)

 

‘Writing and translating could be described as sister arts. Writers become translators, and translators become writers. After all, what is writing but the translation of ideas, experience, and memory onto the page? As writer-translators, we might seek guidance and models to follow—a way out of the text to be translated, or a way through.

‘One writer I turn to again and again to help navigate the complex threads tying together reading and writing—both so key to a sustainable translation practice—is Marguerite Duras, the celebrated French writer and experimental film-maker. Best known for The Lover (a hybrid work that is best described as fictionalised autobiography, which won the 1984 Prix Goncourt), her oeuvre is distinctive, addressing themes of desire, loss, and death, in a style that can be repetitive, sparse, but striking all the same.

‘Duras enjoys a certain infamy as a public figure in France—born in French Indochina (modern-day Vietnam) in 1914, she moved to her parents’ native France at aged seventeen. During World War II, she was a member of the Communist Party and of the French Resistance, alongside François Mitterrand (who later became President of France). Her husband was deported to Buchenwald, the notorious concentration camp—an experience she later drew on for her work The War. Later in life she was a notorious femme de lettres, known for her alcoholism and at times controversial opinions, as well as her literary success.

‘Duras never wrote directly about the art of translation, but her work does testify to an interest in foreign languages. Non-Francophone names populate her work, as in The Ravishing of Lol Stein, whose protagonist Lol V. Stein falls in love with Michael Richardson and frequents S. Thala and T. Beach. This interest in language as a tool and practice is evidenced in her essay on writing, Écrire, a reflexive piece that provides fruitful new ways of thinking about translation as a mode and as a discipline. It’s a piece full of contradictions—thought-provoking statements that lead us towards a Durassian conception of writing and style, which is in turn fruitful for our thinking about the arts of reading and writing, and their impact on translation.

‘In Écrire (Writing), Duras begins the text grounded in her material reality, that of the house where she writes her novels, and we might expect a fairly autobiographical piece on her writing process. But instead she flits between episodes of narration and meditative passages that analyse the curious and contradictory nature of writing. As in her fiction, her voice resists narration or diegesis, and instead attempts to analyse writing as a form and practice:

It’s a curious thing, a writer. It’s a contradiction and also nonsense. Writing is also not speaking. It’s falling silent. It’s screaming noiselessly.

‘I say “attempts” not because Duras fails in characterising writing, but because her definition is inherently paradoxical and contradictory. She herself describes writing as a contradiction, as nonsense—and the French ‘non-sens’ really underscores the lack of sense, the lack of meaning at play.

‘It might seem strange to characterise writing as not speaking, as falling silent. But Duras chooses the reflexive “se taire” for silence, reminding us that silence—like speech—is not something passive, but is instead an active choice. Then writing itself can function by omission. It can live in the gaps between the letters and the things that go unsaid. Duras would have us remember the gaps between what is said and what is meant: between signifier and signified. She reminds us that language is a limited and limiting tool. And maybe that’s why we scream noiselessly—we’re dumbstruck, seeking language as a way out, even as language continues to fail us.’ — Georgina Fooks

 

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Further

Marguerite Duras and the Violence of Writing
The Fragility of Marguerite Duras
On Meaning and Black Holes
On Marguerite Duras and “Writing”
Marguerite Duras’ Recurring Exploration of Lifelong Obsessions
Marguerite Duras: Internet Essayist?
Marguerite Duras and the limits of fiction
FRACTURED REALITIES
a life spent looking at the sea
A certain scene between Marguerite Duras and Susan Sontag
Theme and image in Marguerite Duras
Key Theories of Marguerite Duras
Podcast: Writing by Marguerite Duras, chosen by Camille Morineau
Notes Toward a New Language: Holes: On Marguerite Duras
MARGUERITE DURAS: A SUBLIME PASSION
In Love with Duras, by Edmund White
Buy ‘Writing’

 

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Marguerite Duras pretending to write

 

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Extras


Marguerite Duras – “Écrire” (ARTE)


Marguerite Duras on Robert Bresson


Jean Luc Godard – Marguerite Duras


Les mains négatives (1978) — Marguerite Duras

 

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Excerpts from an interview

But you know … young people … I know hippies, kids well. My son is a sort of kid too. There is an almost irrepressible repulsion against knowledge and culture. They don’t read anything. This is something fundamental, something entirely new. Faye is a man who reads. He wants to destroy knowledge, but from within knowledge. But I would like to destroy it in order to replace it with a void. The complete absence of man. …

This is what young people are doing, you know. On the international level they are creating a vacuum. …

They have to go through a passive stage. That’s what I think. They’re in this stage now. …

… they don’t get anything. They excel at not doing anything. Getting to that point is fantastic. Do you know how not to do anything at all? I don’t. This is what we lack most … They create a void, and all this … this recourse to drugs, I think is a … It’s not at all an alibi, it’s a means. I’m certain of that. … They’re creating a vacuum, but we can’t yet see what is going to replace what was destroyed in them – it’s much too early for that. …

… even if they’re not politically aware, they nonetheless represent a political force.

… they represent a question, a question that weighs as heavily as a mountain: What now?

But if this state of affairs gets worse, it will be a terrible thing. If it gets worse, it’s the end of the world … If all the young people in the world start doing nothing … the world is in danger. So much the better. So much the better. …

It’s like a strike. …

… is it a revolution that has made up the revolution? Do you believe in revolutions ordered up from Yalta? And in like manner: is it poetry that made poetry? I don’t believe so. I think that all of Europe is a prey to false revolutions. Revolutions against people’s will. So then, what will make revolution? …

No, it’s not rejection; it’s a waiting period. Like someone taking his time. Before committing himself to act. That’s the way I see it … it is very hard to pass from one state to another. Abruptly. It is even abnormal, unhealthy. If you like, the changeover by the popular democracies from 1940 to 1945 was a brutal one, one not freely consented to and … It is necessary to wait … You don’t do something unless you undo what’s gone before. …

There’s a gap between hope and despair, if you will. Where it’s both together. A gap that can’t be described yet. I think it escapes description. It is what I call the void, the zero point. Perhaps the word ‘void’ is going too far … the zero point. The neutral point. Where sensitivity regroups, if you will, and rediscovers itself … Anyway: it is said that there are more and more disturbed people. Madmen: mental institutions everywhere are full of them. This to me is profoundly reassuring. It clearly proves that the world is intolerable and that people feel it to be so. It merely proves that people’s sensitivity is increasing. And intelligence … Do you see? I think that we must turn ourselves around. We must reason backwards now about many things. Everybody is a neurotic, of course, because everybody is well aware that the world is intolerable. More and more so. And a place where we can’t even breathe. …

But it’s a hope I’m expressing. I hope that there will be more and more madmen: I make this statement with pleasure, with satisfaction. Personally. It proves that the solution is near. The premises of a solution. Because I know that we are very, very far away. But here we touch on the problem of freedom. This very moment. We’re on the very edge of it. …

 

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Book

Marguerite Duras Writing
University of Minnesota Press

Writing, one of Marguerite Duras’s last works, is a meditation on the process of writing and on her need for solitude in order to do it. In the five short pieces collected in this volume, she explores experiences that had an emotional impact on her and that inspired her to write. These vary from the death of a pilot in World War II, to the death of a fly, to an art exhibition. Two of the pieces were made into documentary films, and one was originally a short film. Both autobiographical and fictional, like much of her work, Writing displays Duras’s unique worldview and sensitive insight in her simple and poetic prose.’ — University of Minnesota Press

Excerpt

I’d like to tell a story that I first told to Michelle Porte, who had made a film about me. At the time, I was in what we might call a state of expenditure in the “little” house that is attached to the main house. I was alone. I was waiting for Michelle Porte in that state of expenditure. I often stay alone like that in calm, empty places. A long time. And it was in that silence, on that day, that I suddenly saw and heard, on the wall, very near me, the final moments in the life of a common fly. I sat on the ground so as not to frighten it. I didn’t move. I was alone with it in the house. I had never thought about flies before, except probably to curse them. Like you. I was raised like you to be horrified of that universal calamity, the thing that brought plague and cholera. I leaned closer to watch it die. It was trying to get away from the wall; it was in danger of becoming prisoner of the sand and cement that the dampness from the garden made stick to the wall. I watched to see how a fly died. It was long. It struggled against death. The whole thing lasted ten or fifteen minutes, and then it stopped. Its life must have ended. I stayed where I was to watch some more. The fly remained stuck to the wall as I had seen it, as if sealed to itself. I was mistaken: it was still alive. I stayed some more to watch, in hopes that it would start to hope again, to live.

My presence made that death even more horrible. I knew it, and still I remained. To see, see how that death would progressively invade the fly. And also to try to see where that death had come from. From outside, or from the thickness of the wall, or from the ground. What night it came from, from earth or sky, from the nearby forests, or from a nothingness as yet unnameable, perhaps very near, perhaps from me, trying to recreate the path the fly had taken as it passed into eternity. I don’t know the ending. No doubt the fly, at the end of its strength, fell. No doubt its legs came unstuck from the wall. And it fell from the wall. I don’t know anything more, except that I left. I told myself, “You are going insane.” And I left that place. When Michelle Porte arrived, I showed her the spot and I told her a fly had died there at three twenty. Michelle Porte started to laugh. She couldn’t stop laughing. She was right. I smiled at her to put an end to the story. But no: she kept on laughing. And when I tell you this story, plainly, in all truth, in my truth, it’s what I just told you: what took place between the fly and me, which is not yet fit to be laughed at.

The death of a fly is still death. It’s death marching toward a certain end of the world, which widens the field of the final sleep. When you see a dog die, or a horse die, you say something, like poor thing . . . But when a fly dies, nothing is said, no one records it, nothing. Now it is written. This might be the kind of very dark slippage—I don’t like that word—that one runs the risk of experiencing. It isn’t serious, but it’s an event in itself, total, with enormous meaning; with inaccessible meaning and limitless breadth. I thought of the Jews. I hated Germany as I had in the earliest days of the war, with all my body and all my strength. Just as during the war, whenever I met a German in the street I thought of his murder committed by me, invented by me, perfected; of the colossal happiness of a German corpse, killed by me.

It’s also good if writing leads to that, to that fly—in its death agony, I mean: to write the horror of writing. The exact moment of death, recorded, already rendered it inaccessible. It conferred an overall importance on it— call it a specific place in the general map of life on Earth.

This precision of the moment at which it died meant that the fly had a secret funeral. Twenty years after its death, the proof of it is here: we’re still talking about it. I had never told anyone about the death of that fly, its duration, its slowness, its horrible fear, its truth. The precision of the moment of death relates to coexistence with humans, with colonized populations, with the fabulous mass of strangers in the world, of people alone, of universal solitude. Life is everywhere. From bacteria to elephants. From earth to the divine heavens or to those already dead. I had never organized anything around the death of that fly. The smooth, white walls, its shroud, were already there, and made its death into a public event, something natural and inevitable. The fly had clearly reached the end of its life. I couldn’t keep myself from watching it die. It had stopped moving. There was that, and also knowing that one cannot recount the fly’s existence. That was twenty years ago. I had never talked about that event as I’ve just done, not even to Michelle Porte. What I also realized—what I saw—was that the fly already knew that the icy chill passing through it was death. That was the most terrifying thing. The most unexpected. It knew. And it accepted.

A solitary house doesn’t simply exist. It needs time around it, people, histories, “turning points,” things like marriage or the death of that fly, death, banal death— the death of one and the many at the same time; planetary, proletarian death. The kind that comes with war, those mountains of wars on Earth. That day. The one dated by a meeting with my friend Michelle Porte, seen by me alone, that day, at no specific hour, a fly died. The instant I looked at it, it was suddenly three twenty-something in the afternoon: the noise of its outer wings stopped. The fly was dead. That queen. Black and blue.

That one, the one I had seen, had died. Slowly. It had struggled up to the last spasm. And then it had succumbed. It lasted maybe five to eight minutes. It had been long. It was a moment of absolute terror. And then death headed off for other skies, other planets, other places.

I wanted to run away, and at the same time I told myself I had to look toward that noise on the ground, just so I could hear, for once, that flare-up of green wood, an ordinary fly dying. Yes. That’s right. The death of that fly has become this displacement of literature. One writes without knowing it. One writes by watching a fly relinquish its life. One has a right to do that. Michelle Porte went into hysterics when I told her the exact time the fly had died. And now I’m thinking that maybe it wasn’t because I had recounted that death so laughably. At the time I lacked the words to express it because I was watching that death, the agony of that black and blue fly.

Solitude always goes hand-in-hand with madness. I know this. One does not see madness. Only sometimes can one sense it. I don’t believe it can be otherwise. When one takes everything from oneself, an entire book, one necessarily enters a particular state of solitude that cannot be shared with anyone. One cannot share anything. One must read the book one has written alone, cloistered in that book. There is obviously something religious about this, but one doesn’t immediately experience it that way. One can think about it later (as I’m thinking about it now) because of something that might be life, for instance, or a solution to the life of the book, of the word, of shouts, silent screams, the silently terrible screams of everyone in the world. Around us, everything is writing; that’s what we must finally perceive. Everything is writing. The fly on the wall is writing; there is much that it wrote in the light of the large room, refracted by the pond. The fly’s writing could fill an entire page. And so this would be a kind of writing. From the moment that it could be, it already is a kind of writing. One day, perhaps, in the centuries to come, one might read this writing; it, too, will be deciphered, translated. And the vastness of an illegible poem will unfurl across the sky.

But even so, somewhere in the world people are writing books. Everyone does it. That’s what I believe. I am sure this is the case. That for Maurice Blanchot, for example, this is the case. He has madness spinning around him. That madness, too, is death. Not for Georges Bataille. Why was Bataille preserved from free, mad thought? I couldn’t say.

I’d like to say a little more about the story of that fly. I can still see it, that fly, on the white wall, dying. At first in the sunlight, then in the muted light refracted off the tiled floor. One could also not write, forget a fly. Only watch it. See how it struggled in its turn, terrible and accounted for, in an unknown sky, made of nothing. There, that’s all.

I’m going to speak of nothing. Of nothing. All the houses in Neauphle are lived in: not so constantly in the winter, of course, but still they are lived in. They aren’t reserved for summer, as is so often the case. All year long they are open, lived in. What counts in that house in Neauphle-le-Château are the windows overlooking the garden and the road to Paris in front of the house. The one on which the women in my books pass by. I slept a lot in the room that became the living room. For a long time I thought a bedroom was too conventional. Only when I started working there did it become indispensable like the other rooms—even the empty ones on the upper floors. The mirror in the living room belonged to the previous owners. They left it for me. I bought the piano immediately after the house, for almost the same price. Alongside the house, a good hundred years ago, there was a path for the livestock to come drink from the pond.

The pond is now in my garden. There are no more livestock. And so the village has no more fresh milk in the morning. For the past hundred years.

When we make a film here, the house looks like that other house, the one it once was for the other people before us. In its solitude, its grace, it suddenly shows itself as another house that might still belong to other people. As if something as monstrous as the loss of this house could even be imagined.

The place inside where we put the fruit, vegetables, and salted butter to keep them cool . . . There was a room like that . . . dark and cool . . . I believe that’s what a storeroom is; yes, that’s it. That’s the word. You stock up for the war by putting things under cover.

The first plants here were the ones on the window sills at the entry. The rose geranium that came from the south of Spain. Pungent like the Orient.

We never throw out flowers in this house. It’s a habit, not a rule. Never, not even dead ones; we leave them there. There are some rose petals that have been in a jar for forty years. They are still very pink. Dry and Pink.

The problem all year round is dusk. Summer and winter alike. There is the first dusk, the summer kind, when you mustn’t turn the lights on indoors. And then there is true dusk, winter dusk. Sometimes we close the shutters just not to see it. There are chairs, too, which we put away for the summer. The porch is where we stay every summer. Where we talk with friends who come during the day. Often just for that, to talk. It’s sad every time, but not tragic: winter, life, injustice. Absolute horror on a certain morning. It’s only that: sad. One does not get used to it with time.

The hardest thing in this house is fear for the trees. Always. Every time. Every time there’s a storm (and there are a lot of them here), we are with the trees; we worry about those trees. Suddenly I can’t remember their name. Dusk is the time when everyone around the writer stops working. In the cities, the villages, everywhere, writers are solitary people. Everywhere, always, they have been. All over the world, the end of light means the end of work. As for myself, I’ve always experienced that time not as the moment when work ends, but when it begins. A sort of reversal of natural values by the writer. The other kind of work writers do is the kind that sometimes makes them feel ashamed, the kind that usually provokes the most violent political regrets. I know that it leaves one inconsolable. And that one becomes as vicious as the dogs used by their police.

Here, one feels separated from manual labor. But against that, against this feeling one must adapt to, get used to, nothing is effective. What will always predominate—and this can drive us to tears—is the hell and injustice of the working world. The hell of factories, the exaction of the employers’ scorn and injustice, the horror they breed, the horror of the capitalist regime, of all the misery stemming from it, of the right of the wealthy to do as they please with the proletariat and to make this the very basis of their failure, never of their success. The mystery is why the proletariat should accept. But there are many of us, more of us each day, who believe that it can’t last much longer. That something was attained by all of us, perhaps a new reading of their shameful texts. Yes, that’s it. I won’t push the point; I’m leaving. But I’m only saying what everyone feels, even if they don’t know how to live it. Often with the end of work comes the memory of the greatest injustice of all. I’m talking about the ordinariness of life. Not in the morning, only in the evening does this come, even into the houses, to us. And if one isn’t that way, then one isn’t anything at all. One is nothing. And always, in every case, in every village, this is known.

Deliverance comes when night begins to settle in. When work stops outside. What remains is the luxury we all share, the ability to write about it at night. We can write at any hour of the day. We are not sanctioned by orders, schedules, bosses, weapons, fines, insults, cops, bosses, and bosses. Nor by the brooding hens of tomorrow’s fascisms.

The Vice-Consul’s struggle is at once naive and revolutionary.

That is the major injustice of time, of all times: and if one doesn’t cry about it at least once in life, then one doesn’t cry about anything. And never to cry means not to live.

Crying has to happen, too. Even if it’s useless to cry, I still think we have to cry. Because despair is tangible. It remains. The memory of despair remains. Sometimes it kills. To write. I can’t. No one can. We have to admit: we cannot. And yet we write. It’s the unknown one carries within oneself: writing is what is attained. It’s that or nothing. One can speak of a writing sickness. What I’m trying to say isn’t easy, but I believe we can find our way here, comrades of the world.

There is a madness of writing that is in oneself, an insanity of writing, but that alone doesn’t make one insane. On the contrary. Writing is the unknown. Before writing one knows nothing of what one is about to write. And in total lucidity. It’s the unknown in oneself, one’s head, one’s body. Writing is not even a reflection, but a kind of faculty one has, that exists to one side of oneself, parallel to oneself: another person who appears and comes forward, invisible, gifted with thought and anger, and who sometimes, through his own actions, risks losing his life. If one had any idea what one was going to write, before doing it, before writing, one would never write. It wouldn’t be worth it anymore. Writing is trying to know beforehand what one would write if one wrote, which one never knows until afterward; that is the most dangerous question one could ever ask oneself. But it’s also the most widespread.

Writing comes like the wind. It’s naked, it’s made of ink, it’s the thing written, and it passes like nothing else passes in life, nothing more, except life itself.

 

 

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p.s. Hey. ** _Black_Acrylic, Ha, very nice add. Thank you, Ben. ** Dominik, Hi!!! Oh, weird, but this blog’s mechanisms can be a brat. I actually have a box of copies of the ‘I Wished’ book now, and Desteni-slash-Love need merely bump into me on the street. Well, with advance warning since I don’t carry copies with me everywhere (only because my pockets aren’t big enough). Love turning OnlyFans into a massive IRL walkthrough labyrinth where Poppers are being pumped continually through its air filtration system and there’s no exit, G. ** David Ehrenstein, Hi. Oh, yes, that’s true, I forgot. ** Well, that was quick. Okay, today my blog spotlights a great book of essays on writing by the unimpeachable Marguerite Duras. A bee for your bonnet. See you tomorrow.

8 Comments

  1. Misanthrope

    Dennis, Meant to comment yesterday but got slammed at work. Threw my whole day off, hahaha. To the point where I thought I’d peeked in and said…something. 😮

    Yeah, I like to think I’m never lazy-brained. Especially when it comes to working on my stuff. I’m kinda always doing that. I was just talking to someone else about how important it can be to just kinda go over things in your head over and over and think them through and how it can help with the project you’re working on.

    Man, this neck of mine is killing me. I thought it was getting better yesterday, but today…yikes. Really, I simply turned my head one morning and that was it. Wth, right? But I’ll keep on keeping on.

    Oh, and yeah, I’ve heard of Duras, though I’ve never read her. :'(

  2. Dominik

    Hi!!

    Ah, it must feel amazing to finally hold it in your hands! “I Wished”, I mean. This sentence sounded a bit weird out of context, haha. Do you smell books when you first open them?

    Okay, yeah, I’ve just finished work for today, and I’m more than ready to visit the OnlyFans labyrinth. Thank you! Socially anxious love opening a bottle of champagne because he could finally make himself call his hairdresser for an appointment, Od.

  3. Bill

    Wow, you have copies of I Wished! I’m still seeing an expected pub date of mid-September. I should check at my local bookstore.

    Some of those Duras quotes are pretty great. And that story about the fly, ha.

    And what’s not to like about Tesla? I love the coil, of course. The bottom EKG concert photo is from a gig we did, with my Tesla coil-inspired video in the background:
    http://kylebruckmann.com/projects/ekg/

    Bill

    Bill

  4. Steve Erickson

    The new album by the Bug is great dystopia music. the first song is explicitly about COVID, so the apocalyptic sci-fi imagery he and his guests have always used feels more like documentary. (Moor Mother contributes surprisingly straightforward rapping on “Weed.”)

    I actually watched SCREAM, QUEEN! on ok.ru. (The channel VDrome, which specializes in music documentaries, is worth a look there.) I’ve found Documentary Arena hard to search. What films have you watched through it?

    I’m close to finishing the fifth song from my new ep. I have two more songs to go, then I will make a decision about what to include and how to sequence it.

  5. David Ehrenstein

    Marguerite Duras was a bat-shit-cry narcissistwith a streak of sanity that made it possible forher to write and make films.\\As a filmmaker duras is without peer. Her masterpiece”India Song”gives sound a prominence over image. The images of her greatest films are exceedingly simple. The soundtracks she created for them quite comples. A Fag Hag in Exremis her amenuensis was a man named Yann Andrea who she met duriga dry-out for her alcoholism. He became her virtual slave after he told her that her writing “rescued” him from an unhappy obsession with a striaght married man. He appeared in several of her films (“LaFemme du Gange, Le Navire Niight”) and took down the very st words she uttered — ubished ina book called “C’estTout” Noy surprsingly he died not long after she passed.

    An interview with Rachel April 25, 201S

    Interview with Tilda SXSW 2014

  6. David Ehrenstein

    Agathe

  7. Sypha

    I’ve read some Duras books, but not this one, sadly.

    Dennis, would you believe the dental business is still ongoing with me? You might recall last Thursday they gave me a second temporary filling. Well, that one broke off on Saturday. On Tuesday I got a third one and they said this one was made of sturdier material and should last longer. Not a total lie: it lasted one day longer than the last one. Naturally, like the other 2, it broke off on a bad day (as the office is not only closed on the weekends, but also on Friday), so now I have to tough it out till Monday and hope they’ll finally be able to finish this damn thing. If they try to put it off yet again I’m going to have to lay down the law, as my family Maine vacation is coming up next Saturday and I want this resolved before then, and I’m just about out of patience: this was a two session affair that should have been completed weeks ago but through no fault of my own has been prolonged for over a month now!

  8. David Ehrenstein

    One More Time

    If you live in the L.A. area PLEASEcontact me and come over to buy the books, CDs and DVDs I have for sale.

    A COVID precautions have been taken.

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