Translated by Barbara Bray
Marguerite Duras is best known for her novel The Lover, but I have a lovely Everyman’s Library omnibus edition that also includes her War Time Notebooks and Practicalities, which is a collection of musings and aphorisms on literature and life, including her alcoholism. It was compiled from spoken conversations that she had in her 70s with writer Jérôme Beaujour: “At most the book represents what I think sometimes, some days, about some things“.
I was keen to read Duras’s non-fiction after loving Deborah Levy’s recent three-part memoir of sorts, including the wonderful Real Estate, which I reviewed in 2021. Levy cited Duras as an influence, so I was expecting to love her reflections just as much as I did Levy’s. I didn’t though – I found Duras a less likeable voice, not least because time has made some of her statements seem uncomfortably harsh, although there are some statements that seem to reflect universal truths.
She notes that for all the opportunities and benefits of feminism, “I seriously believe that to all intents and purposes the position of women hasn’t changed. The woman is still responsible for everything in the house even if she has help … And even if she has changed socially, everything she does is done on top of that change.”
And: “Being a mother isn’t the same as being a father. Motherhood means that a woman gives her body over to her child, her children; they’re on her as they might be on a hill, in a garden; they devour her, hit her, sleep on her; and she lets herself be devoured“.
Her revelations about her drinking are shocking in their blunt openness about the extent of her problems with alcohol:
“Drinking isn’t necessarily the same as wanting to die. But you can’t drink without thinking you’re killing yourself. Living with alcohol is living with death close at hand. What stops you killing yourself when you’re intoxicated out of your mind is the thought that once you’re dead you won’t be able to drink any more.”
The titles of other chapters include ‘The telly and death’, ‘Animals’, ‘Eating at night’, ‘The pleasures of the 6th arrondissement’ and ‘Hanoi ‘, and her musings are thought-provoking and interesting if at times discomfiting.