Spanning thirty years, the essays selected and translated by Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes range from meditations on reading and writing to personal pieces bordering on autofiction.
In the first entry of the long, episodic essay Summer 80, Marguerite Duras asks: “And what is this concept of summer anyway?” A timely question for the arrival of a new collection of her writing—fond memories of summer with its heat and slowness and inactivity. Duras, on the other hand, comes across as a hyperactive, if not always systematic, writer throughout Me & Other Writing, a volume of her selected nonfiction works just out with the publishing project Dorothy, and translated by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan with an introduction from Dan Gunn.
Many of the pieces collected here are appearing in English for the first time. They span thirty years and have no clear connecting thread other than Duras’s recurring exploration of her own enduring, fastidious writerly self and the themes that haunted her for her entire life. Even as she ages, even as she is struggles with alcoholism, Duras’s sense of self in these pages as an active, never-resting being who must write persists. Duras writes this “me,” this “I,” this assured voice that lends an air of assurance to outspoken and controversial opinions. Her voice comes across as measured yet absolute, generous yet unrelenting. It is this duality in the “me” voice that makes these essays so endearing and easy to engage with.
Although more well known for her work as a novelist and playwright, Duras was also an author of nonfiction, with books such as Writing, The War: A Memoir and Practicalities. In Me & Other Writing, there are pieces of varying length and depth collected, ranging from meditations on Duras’s mother to essays on Flaubert, local news, reading, writing, Yves Saint Laurent, and so much more. In a book that is largely about writing, however, a short essay about the art and craft of translation stood out for me. Succinct and beyond modern in its attitudes, “On Translation” puts forward the idea that translation is a genre of writing unto itself, and much more than the transfer of ideas between languages:
A translated text has been translated by someone based on a first reading which is always just as personal as the writing, and which can never be erased. Is it possible to talk about a musical translation? We talk about musical interpretations. It’s a shame that when we talk about translation, we stop at its literal meaning. As if meaning could only be found in texts, and not in music. Doesn’t the convention of respected meaning in fact propagate backwards ideas that work against the liberty of a text, against its breath, or its madness?
It is not often that there is a text within a translated text that explains so well the work being done by that very translation. These are not easy essays, but they are always a pleasure to read. As I was reading, I was constantly impressed not only with the beauty of each phrase but with the detail and research that must have gone into translating this collection. Baes and Ramadan capture the liberty and madness, the very breath of Duras’s thought: moving seamlessly between ideas, the measured precise inhales and exhales of an opera singer. They make distant events, foreign ideas, and even repulsive thoughts belong to the reader herself. And through the meandering journey of these essays it is always possible to identify with Duras’s “I.”
The last piece in the collection is a longer multi-part essay made up of journal entries Duras was asked to complete in the summer of 1980 by the then editor of French newspaper Libération. She was asked to write an entry every day, but in the end, apparently after much back-and-forth with her editor, she wrote weekly observations from the seaside town of Trouville, in Normandy. The entries are a wise and worldly sort of stream of consciousness, mostly beginning with observations about other vacationers or the weather and often ending with pronouncements on global politics, the most extended analysis being about Gdańsk, Poland and the labor solidarity movement there, which helped to bring about that nation’s modern democracy. There seems be space enough in Duras’s mind for all of these disparate topics and for them to connect in surprising ways.
There are also recurring themes found in Duras’s body of work that are less simple to assimilate. In “Nadine From Orange,” Duras arrives at the theme she will become famous for, romantic relationships between adolescent girls and older men as found in The Lover. As I read “Nadine From Orange,” I couldn’t help but think of how different her vision of the world is from ours today. Written in 1961, the story recounts the love affair between a grown man and a twelve-year-old girl he meets while on holiday with his own children. She tells the story in a cool voice, goes to interview the man’s wife, withholds judgment. Her troubling notions of love may lead to larger discussions of taboo and the boundaries between the artist’s work and the artist’s life; but in Duras’s case, an essay such as this also seems to signal her need to find people who had experienced things as she had and her eventual need to write about those experiences.
There are also later essays that reveal other biographical aspects of her novels and may fuel discussions of her work as something of a precursor to the now very popular genre of autofiction. This becomes clear in “My Mother Had . . .” from 1988: “I find that in literature, no writer’s mother compares to mine . . . But she is not the main hero of my body of work, nor the most permanent. No, I am the most permanent. Writing is to write for oneself.”
For Duras the active mind is the only valid state of mind there is. At first it seems harsh, judgmental, but if anything, she is judging herself (always herself first). In her essay “Flaubert is . . .” she writes, “I’m more of a writer than a living being, than someone who is alive. In my life I am more a writer than someone who lives. That’s how I see myself.” Over and over again she shows herself to be someone who believes in what can only be called the ontological status of the writer. “Writer” could be swapped with “creator” in her lexicon, as she also considers Yves Saint Laurent a writer. Intelligence is contingent on creation, on the risk of putting oneself in the world.
Reading Me & Other Writing is a powerful experience: I’ve been compelled to tell people about it and to share her ideas and nearly aphoristic paragraphs with my own writing students. The longer I spend time with this text, the more I think of her notion of genius in the essay “The Men of Tomorrow.” She writes:
To be a genius is to take the genius outside of oneself and put it on a canvas or inside a book. It’s to feel that the outside of oneself and the inside of oneself are interconnected.
It seems that she is defining genius and then some. For her, the intellectual has a duty to the public, and to herself. Duras’s striking lack of humility in these texts and in her opinions is uniquely different from the immodesty one encounters today; hers is earned confidence and a belief that what she says and studies matters. She seems so steadfast in her beliefs one wonders what conversations with her must have been like. But then she writes: “Work is always naïve, childish. Only laziness is noble, ‘great.’” And I think she must have been great fun. That certainly she took her ideas seriously, but mostly she was just wildly curious about the world and needed to share her interpretations of it with the rest of us.