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Marguerite Duras – Auld Alliances En Route to An Endless Remembering

Marguerite Duras became a tabloid sensation by default on the back of Jean Jacques Annaud's 1992 big-screen adaptation of her 1984 novel, The Lover, or L'Amant in its original French. For those who associated this most singular of writers with the post Second World War European avant-garde, it was something of a surprise. The headlines may have been going after actress Jane March, the so-called 'sinner from Pinner' who played the teenage girl who embarks on an affair with an older man in 1920s French Indo-China, but for Duras watchers, it was an accidentally telling illustration of the contrary relationship the writer had between her public and private self. 

On the one hand, Duras' deeply personal canon chimed with the sort of experiments with form and content beloved of intellectual seekers of truth. On the other, Duras possessed a hard-nosed ambition to get her work out there. It was like when she rang publisher John Calder, champion of Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs and Duras herself among a string of literary outlaws and pioneers who weren't an easy sell, to tell him she was leaving. “I want the biggest, richest publisher I can get,” Duras responded, when Calder reminded her of all his company had done for her. “I owe you nothing. Adieu.” Calder went on to write Duras' obituary when she passed away in 1996 aged 81 anyway.

Up until The Lover, Duras was probably best known for Hiroshima Mon Amour, the 1959 Alan Resnais directed film for which Duras wrote the screenplay, before it was published as a novel a year later. When L'Amant was first published, it sold more than two million copies, and was translated into forty-three languages. While some of this no doubt occurred on the back of Annaud's film, Duras hated the result, and wrote another version of her story, The North China Lover, in a response that attempted to reclaim her own past as much as her imagination.

Inbetween Hiroshima Mon Amour and L'Amant, Duras' prolific output consistently put love, sex and unsentimental passion at its core. This had been the case for more than a decade before Hiroshima Mon Amour, when her first novel, Les Impudents, was published in 1943. Even then,the auto-biographical nature of her work dealt with grown-up affairs of the heart in a way that simmered through the stripped-down minimalism of her prose. 

Duras had plenty of material to draw from, channelling her real life experience into more than 70 novels, plays, screenplays and adaptations that often appeared in various forms as they criss-crossed through times past. A novel could become a play, which in turn could become a film, or an extension thereof, and vice versa. In this way, Duras grew to become the ultimate auteur, reinventing her own life as art.

Marguerite Donnadieu was born in 1914 near Saigon, where her parents were teachers. After her father died when she was four, her mother bought a rice plantation, which continually flooded, leaving them both at the mercy of the colonial authorities. It was while in Saigon that Duras' formative experiences that inspired The Lover took place, and which she wrote about in various ways throughout her life. Aged seventeen, she moved to France, where she studied law and political science, read Proust and married writer Robert Antelme. Naming herself Duras after the village her father was from, she began writing, and during the war joined the French Resistance. Her first success came with The Sea Wall, which focused on the troubles that arose from her mother's rice plantation. The book was later turned into the 1958 film, This Angry Age, and filmed again in 2008 under its original title. 

The 1958 publication of Moderato Cantabile saw Duras move into more opaque if similarly auto-biographical waters. She was associated with writers from the nouveau roman wave, who rejected classical ideas of character and plot in favour of a more individual vision, At the behest of Calder, she took part in a UK book-reading tour with Alan Robbe-Grillet and Nathalie Saurraute, which finished in Edinburgh at Jim Haynes' Paperback Bookshop, and later attended the legendary 1963 drama conference at the McEwan Hall. Despite this, she kept her own stubborn counsel throughout the multiple works that followed. 

As The Lover takes on a new flesh and blood form, we must remember that seeing anything by Duras on a stage at all is an all too rare experience. The last time one of her works was seen on a main stage in Edinburgh was back in 1999, when Edinburgh International Festival brought Flemish wunderkind Ivo van Hove's production of India Song to the King's Theatre. 

India Song had originally been commissioned by the Royal National Theatre under Peter Hall's tenure. Duras completed the script in 1972, but its tale of the unfulfilled amours of Anne-Marie Stretter, the wife of the French ambassador to India, wasn't produced. Three years later, Duras directed a film version, starring Delphine Seyrig as Stretter, which was seen at Cannes, and won awards. The play itself was first seen at the Theatre Clwyd, Mold, in 1993.

Van Hove had first directed a version of India Song in 1984 following a staging of another Duras work, Agatha, the year before. For his Holland Festival/Het Zuidelijk Toneel production he brought to Edinburgh, Van Hove took the film's already elliptical stylings, where the story is told largely in voice-over, and rendered it even more audacious. As with the film, Van Hove used recorded voices, with not a word spoken on a stage where the audience sat among the six actors and composer/musician Harry de Witt as one would at a restaurant. To heighten the play's sensual world even more, Van Hove filled the stage with the enticing odours of Calcutta, so the play could intoxicate the audience with smell as much as sound and vision. 

One of the earliest sightings of Duras' work in Edinburgh was back in 1966, when Milos Sperber directed Mary Yeomans and a twenty-three year old John Thaw in the British premiere of Duras' short play, La Musica. The two-hander focuses in close-up on a couple who meet in a hotel lobby to finalise their divorce. As they talk of things past, the ghost of the passion they once shared hangs over them.

Duras co-directed a film version of La Musica in 1967, which also featured Delphine Seyrig as another character called Anne-Marie. This was the first of nineteen films Duras oversaw as writer and director, with her final effort, Les Enfants, appearing in 1984, the same year L'Amant was published. Duras revisited La Musica in 1985, with the new extended version published as La Musica Deuxierme. A production of the original was seen at the Young Vic in 2015.

The original Traverse production of La Musica was seen in a double bill with Duras' 1955 work, The Square. This latter play was seen in Edinburgh again twenty-one years later in another double bill at the old Rifle Lodge venue on Broughton Street. In a production presented by a company styling itself as Theatre Image-In-Aire, this time The Square was paired with the British premiere of Duras' 1968 play, Yes, Peut-Etre. The lo-fi production of translations by Barbara Bray, who rendered much of Duras' work into English and was close to the writer, was directed by veteran actress Chattie Salaman. It was probably most notable, however, for the cast of three featuring a young Kathryn Hunter, who appeared in both plays. 

Three decades on, as part of its 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme, the Institut francais d'Ecosse hosted a multi-media staging of Duras' novel, La Maladie de la Mort, in which a man and a woman meet in a seaside hotel room for a never-ending ritual which itself points to how Duras' writing repeatedly returned to the same primal source.

Beyond the novels, plays and screenplays themselves, Duras' influence seeped into the sort of left-field European culture championed by serious young men and women a couple of generations on from herself. This proto-bohemian set perhaps recognised their idealised selves in the endless conversations between doomed romantics that drove Duras' work. Perhaps they saw something of themselves too in the raging calm of Duras' divided selves, desperate to recapture a frisson of life which had once sparked their souls. As they looked back in languor, the ennui of such an endless remembering was all they had left. 

Music, and the memories it can conjure, are ever-present in much of Duras' work, and it was a new wave of musicians who emerged out of the 1970s punk explosion who picked up on Duras as one of many totems of possible worlds beyond the ordinary. One of the first nods to Duras in this way came from post-punk future-pop electronicists, Ultravox, whose 1977 album, Ha!-Ha!- Ha!, closed with a song called Hiroshima Mon Amour. Like the film, the song itself became a symbol of carving out fractured relationships in a nuclear age. More tellingly, perhaps, was Duras' appearance in 1981 on The Fruit of the Original Sin. 

This double vinyl compilation released by Belgian independent record label Les Disques du Crepescule served up what its artfully styled cover described as 'a collection of after hours preoccupations.' Drawing together a loose-knit international underground network working in various disciplines, it was an aural simulation of an artistic salon. Tracks included an early live recording by Glasgow band Orange Juice, an experimental instrumental by Paul Haig of Edinburgh quartet Josef K and two tracks from another Scottish outfit, the all too appropriately named French Impressionists. 

There was a spoken-word improvisation from New York performance artist Winston Tong and a recording of a live reading by cut-up pioneer William Burroughs. Such an expansive smorgasbord of ideas introduced a younger generation of artists to creative possibilities beyond the borders of home soil.

Most of the record's third side was taken up with an interview with Duras. Recorded in French, with an English translation printed on the inner sleeve, Duras talked about her childhood, about the effect the success of Hiroshima Mon Amour had on her, of love, passion and utopia. She talked as she wrote, directly and unwavering.

Also on The Fruit of the Original Sin were two poems in tribute to Duras by Richard Jobson. Jobson was the singer with Dunfermline punk band the Skids, and was slowly but surely becoming a man of letters. His two poems, India Song and The Happiness of Lonely, were excitable homages to the film of India Song as much as its author.

Jobson went on to release Ten Thirty on A Summer Night, a cycle of poems set to music based on Duras' novel, Dix heures et demie du soir en ete, filmed in 1966 as 10.30 P.M. Summer. The record saw Jobson accompanied in impressionistic fashion by Crepescule fellow travellers such as pianist Cecile Bruynoghe, who had performed a version of Debussy's Claire de Lune on The Fruit of the Original Sin. 

Also on the record were guitarist Vini Reilly, aka the Durutti Column, and Wim Mertens, who had originally released records as Soft Verdict, and would go on to soundtrack Peter Greenaway's film, The Belly of An Architect. Steven Brown and violinist Blaine L Reininger of American emigres Tuxedomoon also joined the pan-global super-group. As did Virginia Astley, who had composed and played the piano music that played behind the interview with Duras on The Fruit of the Original Sin.

In 1985, most of these turned up again on Un Hommage a Marguerite Duras - “Simplicity, Splendour; Simply Splendid”, a Japanese only release by Les Disques du Crepescule. The record featured more of Jobson's poetic paeans to Duras set to music by Bartok, Satie and Prokoviev. The record also featured a version of the theme to the film of India Song by Argentinian composer Carlos D'Alessio, who worked extensively with Duras. There were three pieces too by Reilly, two of which, The Sea Wall and Destroy, She Said, were named after novels by Duras. Given Jobson's pivotal role in all this, perhaps it's no surprise that he too has flitted between artforms, going on to write and direct his own feature films.

Such umbilical connections go some way to illustrate the reach of Duras beyond pure literature. It is a reach that embraces a sensual mash-up of word, music and movement, with time and space locked together in a fusion of of ideas and imagery. It is a world that the Lyceum's staging of The Lover looks set to make flesh with exotic abandon.

Commissioned by the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, an edited version of this essay appeared in the programme for The Lover, co-produced by the Lyceum, Stellar Quines and Scottish Dance Theatre from January 20th-February 3rd 2018.

ends

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