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Reviewed by:
  • C'était Marguerite Duras, 1914-1945
  • Cécile Hanania (bio)
Jean Vallier . C'était Marguerite Duras, 1914-1945. Paris: Fayard, 2006. 703 pp. ISBN 2-2136-2884-X, Euro27.

This new biography was published in May 2006 on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Marguerite Duras's death. It was preceded by an album, entitled Marguerite Duras, la vie comme un roman, compiled by the same author and retracing the main steps of Duras's life through photographic documentation of her familiar settings, parents, friends, and acquaintances. After Alain Vircondelet's Duras, biographie and Christiane Blot-Labarrère's Marguerite Duras, writing a biography of Duras seems to have been an exercise avoided by Durassian scholars. Duras specialists, nurtured by the anti-positivism of French criticism since Roland Barthes, which dissociates literary production from the "author's" existence, are overly cautious when it comes to analyzing her fictional texts in the light of her life. Furthermore, they have been constantly reminded of the uncertainty of her life story, by the mixture of concealment, distortion, and revelation she has embedded in her autobiographical accounts, from Un barrage contre le Pacifique (1950) to L'Amant de la Chine du nord (1991). Therefore, the most recent biographical accounts have been confined to journalists or para-scholar researchers (Frédérique Lebelley, Laure Adler, Jean Vallier). Their common point: distinguish the fictional elements of the narratives, which in the case of Duras have acquired legendary dimensions, from the truth. Jean Vallier is certainly conscious of the perilous and ambiguous path he takes. Nevertheless, his work aims to expose scrupulously the facts of Duras's life, and thus contrasts that which took place in her life to what happened in her (autobiographical) books. Along the way, he tries to dismantle, as well, previous statements on Duras.

Certainly the most substantial biography written to this day, this demystifying work is, however, somewhat disappointing. Akin to Laure Adler's Marguerite Duras, which won the Goncourt prize for biography, Vallier's work is extensive. For almost ten years, he did a tremendous job collecting data and researching documents and archives (especially the private collection of Duras's son, Jean Mascolo) in France, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Vallier's first objective is clearly to rectify some perennial sayings about Duras and to destroy some myths (some of them already partially demolished by Adler) conveyed by Duras, her fiction, or her entourage. For instance, it is not certain that Duras's father was a mathematics professor (29). His departure for Cochinchina was probably motivated not by an attraction originating from some exotic flyers from the colonialist system, but rather by a suggestion of his brother, Roger Donnadieu, already established in Indochina (30–31). The Cambodian concession on a flood plain was apparently bought from a [End Page 238] Vietnamese (330), and not sold by unscrupulous colonialist agents. As for the alleged lack of money Marguerite Donnadieu felt during her childhood, it was more the fruit of her mother's "peasant atavism" (372) than a state of real poverty. The "garçonnière" in Cholon may have never existed (384–85), as well as the passionate afternoons with the Chinese lover, who may not have been Chinese (382). Duras didn't go to the prestigious school of Sciences Po (474), and her mother was never a pianist at the Eden Cinéma (325).

Vallier also tries to remain fair when unfolding some sensitive subjects, such as the attitude of Duras during the war. Contrary to Frédérique Lebelley or Laure Adler, he doesn't judge Duras's ambiguous participation in the resistance. He doesn't speculate either on the disturbing publication of Duras's first text: L'Empire français (1940), a tribute to the French colonial empire written in collaboration with Philippe Roques.

Apart from these pertinent "mises au point," the reader cannot finish this work without a feeling of frustration and a big question. Chronologically, this volume goes from the birth of Marguerite Donnadieu (1914) and her Indochinese childhood, to the birth of Duras as a writer and her life during World War II (1945). Judging by its subtitle—"tome 1" (volume one)—the book is...


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