Whenever it happened, it came as a surprise. The writer I was about to interview would murmur that they were deeply reluctant to speak about themselves. I would show them their own book and say that they had divulged the most intimate things already. Their books told us what they were thinking about and how they understood the world, things that even the closest of lovers have difficulty sharing. A life of reading has been an education not only in language and the human condition, but has invested me in imaginary friendships with the authors.
I always had my suspicions about Marguerite Duras. Even in the ‘anything goes’ 1980s when women’s writing was hailed (at last) and we read about sex, relationships and the tiny things of life which were regarded as newly discovered profundities, she seemed more self-absorbed and narcissistic than most of the others.
And she was a mistress of the genre – her edgy book The Lover described an affair between an older Chinese millionaire and a fifteen year old French school girl in 1930s Indochina. In her film Hiroshima Mon Amour a French woman filmmaker and a Japanese architect end an affair with a long conversation on memory and forgetting. The lost romance is compared to Hiroshima, a pretentious if not preposterous turn.
She was all the rage. Her subject matter was the suffering and abjection that comes with erotic passion. You only had one choice – to live a banal life or to die of love. It was very French, or at least French in the way that life seemed from far away Australia at the bottom of the world in Melbourne, where I was reading her books.
And my suspicions were more than confirmed when I read The War, (La Douleur) published in 1985 but purporting to be notes from a diary she had kept in war-time Paris and had forgotten about writing. In seventy pages she details her experiences waiting to hear if her husband, who has been interred in a German concentration camp, has survived.
Opposite the fireplace and beside me, the telephone. To the right, the sitting-room door and the passage. At the end of the passage, the front door. He might come straight here and ring at the front door. “Who’s there?” “Me.” Or he might phone from a transit centre as soon as he got here. “I’m back — I’m at the Lutetia to go through the formalities.” There wouldn’t be any warning. He’d phone. He’d arrive. Such things are possible.
And when she learns he is indeed alive, she writes of her sense of joy and fear at his return. He arrives as a mere ghost of the man who had left, emaciated and sick. She details his convalescence as one might for a child, his appetite, his bowel movements, his state of near death. I began to almost like her now, for her devotion and for nursing him back to health.
But when he had regained his strength she delivered her blow – she no longer loved him and wished to go off with her lover, the writer and activist Dionys Mascolo, the man who was (of course) a good friend of her husband’s and who was to become her second husband and the father of her son.
I still remember the effect that reading this account had on me – I shuddered and thought Duras was vile and I could not understand how she could have been so heartless. Unlike Penelope waiting at home for Ulysses and weaving and unpicking her work each night, ignoring the suitors, Duras ejected the man who has spent time in hell, dreaming about coming home to her.
When the book was published she was a heroine amongst some critics for her selfishness. Their interpretation was that she had liberated herself by not allowing her own feelings to be subjugated to those of her husband, but in the context of his suffering, she appeared to me as a monster.
It took thirty years for me to read the other pillar to the story, when I came across almost by accident the memoire written by the skeleton that returned to their Paris apartment, Robert Antelme’s The Human Race. Published first in 1947 and almost ignored, it was republished by Gallimard in 1957 (and not translated into English till 1992).
Even now it is not very well known in English but so much deserves to be.
Antleme was trained as an anthropologist before the war. Like Duras and others in their circle they were members of the Communist Party and he was finally arrested and interned in 1944 for his work with the French underground. This is how his account begins:
Two years ago, during the first days after our return, I think we were all prey to a genuine delirium. We wanted at last to speak, to be heard. We were told that by itself, our physical appearance was eloquent enough; but we had only just returned, and with us we brought back our memory of our experience, an experience that was very much alive, and we felt a frantic desire to describe it such as it had been. As of those first days, however, we saw that it was impossible to bridge the gap we discovered opening up between the words at our disposal and our experience which, in the case of most of us, was still going forward within our bodies…no sooner would we begin to tell our story than we would be choking over it. And then, even to us, what we had to tell would start to seem unimaginable.
So this was the voice of the man whose body Marguerite described in such detail, as if he were a patient in a hospital, or a machine for her discomfort.
His clarity, human understanding and courage come to the forefront in the account of his life and times in captivity. He was able to analyse the circumstances of his life and the actions and reactions of both his captors and his fellow sufferers. I was devastated for him, partly because reading his account of his terrible suffering I knew that he was going to survive, but that he was also going to be faced with the divorce from M, whom he dreams about and thinks about in his difficult hours.
As a political prisoner who was not in a death camp he makes modest claims for his suffering:
I relate here what I lived through. The horror in it is not gigantic. At Gandersheim there was no gas chamber, no crematorium. The horror there was darkness, absolute lack of any kind of landmark, solitude, unending oppression, slow annihilation. The motivation underlying our struggle could only have been a furious desire, itself almost always experienced in solitude; a furious desire to remain men, down to the very end.
The book is a testament to human decency and friendship, attenuated as it had been in the most extreme of conditions. He was so impressive. How could a man like this be involved with such a person as Marguerite Duras?
In On Robert Antelme’s The Human Race: Essays and Commentary, a collection of a few of Antelme’s other pieces and articles from other admirers, Duras herself says of him:
“He would talk hardly at all, and he would be talking. He didn’t give advice, and nothing could be done without his advice. He was intelligence itself, and he detested intelligent talk. I don’t know what to call it: grace, maybe,”
After the war, Robert Antelme met his second wife Monique, with whom he had a son and a long marriage till his death. In this same volume I was so happy to read this about Monique from their friend Joe Downing:
…like Robert, lover of the good life, good company, a good table, good wine; like Robert, filled with a thirst to know, to understand, curious about everything. They had this loveliest gift of fate: perfect complicity as a couple. She needed all her courage, all her tenacity when Robert was paralyzed after a carotid operation and for seven years was a patient in the hospital of the Invalides. Monique would go there every day, attentive to the least aberration in the care, gay with Robert, profoundly considerate. She got him to think, to talk, to laugh.
I was pleased that he had made a life with a woman who deserved him.
But human relationships are never that simple, no matter how many times they are depicted thus in all the books and films and video series we consume. Monique was interviewed in 2009 for a French radio documentary and here she let me into a few home truths about the circle in which she and Robert moved.
She reported that it was Robert who had left Marguerite in 1942, the year that their child had died at birth. He had an affair with a woman at work. Marguerite began an affair with Dionys Mascolo, and all of them shared an apartment in in the Rue Saint-Benoit in the years of scarcity before Robert was arrested. After the war Dionys became the father of Marguerite’s son and they too broke up after fifteen years together as he was having affairs with many more women as well.
But all of them remained friends and worked together in various political and cultural ways after the war. In another interview Mascolo had said : “When Marguerite and Robert lived together, she had lovers, he had mistresses…We were against marriage, against normal education, against the church, against the very concept of `family’… This is to say that I have not deceived Robert Antelme . . ” and that ” Robert was a brother to me , I loved him more than my brothers … It was me who went looking with George Beauchamp in the Dachau concentration camp in 1945, with papers provided by Mitterrand. ”
Antelme in a state of near death, had recognised Francois Mitterand who was visiting the camp after its liberation, and called to him weakly as Mitterand passed by. Mitterand was not able to take his friend back with him as there was a typhus outbreak in the camp, and so arranged some false documentation shortly afterwards, and Mascolo then helped bring Antelme back to Paris.
They had described the kind of bohemian arrangements that I always associated with Paris. Why had I previously been so straight laced in my reading of them?
But I had read something correctly.
In that 2009 interview Monique says that Robert was very upset when The War was published, feeling betrayed by the way he was depicted. And Monique adds that she didn’t believe that Marguerite had made these notes during the war and rediscovered them. She describes Marguerite as both terrible and wonderful. She doesn’t sound in the least bit rivalrous. And on the question of whether Duras could have “forgotten” about diary notes on Antelme, Edmund White writing in the NYRB, wrote: “Since Duras drank in order to write she seldom recognized her own writings when she reread them”.
In her seventies Duras lived with her companion, the almost four decades younger gay man, her number one fan, Yann Andrea. She was in love with him and wrote about their closeness and her frustrations that it could not be physical. He has been described by Duras scholar Victoria Best as “her muse, her pet and her slave”.
White again: “There was always something preposterous about her. When she was feeling well enough she surrounded herself with courtiers, laughed very loudly, told jokes, and had opinions about everything. She was an egomaniac and talked about herself constantly… She loved herself, she quoted herself, she took a childlike delight in reading her own work and seeing her old films, all of which she declared magnificent.”
I was pleased that Robert and Monique Antelme lived out their lives together, surrounded by friends and family. I noted that Marguerite was a victim of her own fault lines, but wondered if she noticed, or even cared.
I am still undecided whether it is better to read a book and judge it for what it seems to be, or to get behind the desk with the writer and see what kind of person is telling you the story.
If I have learned anything about writers and their work, it is to agree with the views of Rudyard Kipling who worked as a journalist before his literary career and who said of his interview with Mark Twain: Blessed is the man who finds no disillusion when he is brought face to face with a revered writer.
But I can say that starting with Duras the monster, I was led to the work of Robert Antelme, which has left me wiser and grateful, which surely is the true gift of reading.