Marguerite Duras, author of the best-selling novel "The Lover" and one of the most widely read French writers of the postwar era, died today [March 4, 1996] at her home in Paris. She was 81.
Miss Duras, who was also a prolific playwright, film maker and screenwriter, was best known for the way she used her early life in French Indochina as the inspiration for many of her works, including "The Lover," the story of her clandestine teen-age romance with a wealthy young Chinese man. Yet perhaps what most characterized her 53-year literary career was her simple, terse writing style, as if language itself were merely a vehicle for conveying passion and desire, pain and despair. The mysteries of love and sex consumed her, but she had no room for sentimentality in her works, or indeed, in her life.
I write about love, yes, but not about tenderness," she said in a 1990 interview. "I don't like tender people. I myself am very harsh. When I love someone, I desire them. But tenderness supposes the exclusion of desire." Ever provocative in her use of language, she always bowed to the supremacy of words. "Acting doesn't bring anything to a text," Miss Duras wrote of her work for cinema and theater. "On the contrary, it detracts from it -- lessens its immediacy and depth, weakens its muscles and dilutes its blood."
In the theater, this seemed to matter little, and her plays continue to be performed regularly in France. However, despite the enormous success of her screenplay for Alain Resnais's 1960 classic, "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," few of the 19 movies she wrote and directed herself did well, not least because words often entirely replaced action. Until her 70th birthday, her novels had a loyal albeit small readership. With the publication of "The Lover" in 1984, however, Miss Duras reached a mass audience in France and abroad. The book sold more than two million copies and was made into a well-received film in 1992 by Jean-Jacques Annaud.
Because she considered her words to be sacrosanct, she often had stormy dealings with movie directors who adapted her novels, among them Peter Brook, Tony Richardson and Jules Dassin. And when Mr. Annaud altered her screenplay for "The Lover," Miss Duras broke with him and turned her text into yet another semi-autobiographical novel, "The Lover From Northern China." She described that book, published in 1991, as a "reappropriation" of "The Lover," yet once again she seemed to be reinventing her life to a point where it became impossible to know whether her original novel, Mr. Annaud's film or her second version of the story was the closest to reality. To Miss Duras, of course, this did not matter.
She was born on April 4, 1914, in Gia Dinh, near Saigon. Her parents, Henri and Marie Donnadieu (she changed her name to Duras in the 1930's), were teachers in France's colonial service. She was only a child when her father died, and her first memories were of economic hardship, above all after her mother invested the family's savings in a disastrous rice-farming venture.
After attending school in Saigon, Miss Duras moved to France at the age of 18 to study law and political science. After graduation, she worked as a secretary in the French Ministry of the Colonies until 1941, but by then Nazi Germany had occupied France. In 1943, she joined the Resistance in a small group that included Francois Mitterrand, who remained a friend until his recent death.
In 1939, Miss Duras married the writer Robert Antelme, who was arrested and deported to Germany during the war. By the time he returned from Dachau concentration camp in 1945 (he was the subject of her 1985 book "La Douleur," later published in the United States as "The War"), she was already involved with Dionys Mascolo, who was to become her second husband and with whom she had a son, Jean.
In the late 1940's, Miss Duras joined the French Communist Party, and though she later resigned, she always described herself a Marxist. Yet perhaps her strongest political stance was her contempt for Gen. Charles de Gaulle. "He never pronounced the word Jew after the war," she said in the 1990 interview. "Many people think I am Jewish, and that always pleases me."
Her first book, "Les Impudents," was published in 1943, and from that time, she lived off her writing, gradually building a body of work that included more than 70 novels, plays, screenplays and adaptations. She eventually acquired a country home in Normandy, but her book-lined Left Bank apartment on the Rue St.-Benoit remained her Paris home from 1942 until her death.
For many years, she struggled with alcoholism -- a subject she frequently addressed in her writings -- and her health was further shattered by emphysema. But in the 1980's, long separated from Mr. Mascolo, she also found love again in an unusual relationship with a young homosexual writer, Yann Andrea Steiner, with whom she shared her final years.
Late last year, struggling again with illness, Miss Duras published "That's All," a tiny 54-page book that seemed intended to be her literary adieu to her readers, to Mr. Steiner and to herself. Written between November 1994 and last August, with each occasional entry carrying a date, it consisted of poetic bursts of love, fear and despair, as if all too aware that her death was near.
The very last entry, on the afternoon of Aug. 1, 1995, read:
"I think it is all over. That my life is finished.
"I am no longer anything.
"I have become an appalling sight.
"I am falling apart.
"I no longer have a mouth, no longer a face."
She is survived by her son and Mr. Steiner.
Credits: This article originally appeared in The New York Times.