Few writers would remain sanguine at the thought of their notes, fleeting memoirs, scraps of working ideas and literary experiments being published. And even fewer writers would reveal such power and passion as was found in four notebooks hidden in a cupboard after the death of Marguerite Duras.
She was French, born in Indochina where she spent her childhood, and became a novelist and playwright, notably for the screenplay of Hiroshima, Mon Amour. During the second world war, she was involved with the French Resistance, pretended to collaborate with the occupying Germans, became a member of the Communist Party, and later took part in the interrogation of suspected informers.
Duras filled these notebooks in the years during and just after the war, and they contain sketches and rough drafts of what later became stories and novels, unmistakably informed by what was happening in her time and place. As well, and more visceral, there are intensely personal diary-like entries which she wrote instinctively during times of danger and emotional crisis. These were far from being self-indulgent rants, they arose from an icy rage at what people in wartime France had to endure.
It is tempting to think that Duras was aware of what she was doing, that for example she was observing and recording while she waited through desperately long, agonised weeks before her emaciated husband was rescued from Dachau. Afterwards, his condition remained so pitiful that she had to stand back a little, writing not of “his” neck but of “the” neck which was so thin that the fingers of one hand could encircle it, and “the” hand from which the nails had fallen off. The wife could hardly bear to see, but the writer could observe.
There are examples of notes written at the time of an event, then a roughed-out story of the same event turned into fiction. The birth and death of her first baby centres on the cruelty of an evil sister/nun who, Duras says viciously, was one of the three or four people she would have liked to gut, although the story that resulted was more objective while still allowing the reader to come to the same conclusion.
Some pieces are mere fragments: a holiday in Italy with friends; resigned musings of a woman who is only a wife; a scene on the Rue de la Gaieté; six lines on the difficulties of writing at a round table. These are of writerly interest, small gems that reveal Marguerite Duras’s mind and eye at work.