Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Jan Cornall on Memory, Memoir and Marguerite Duras

Poet, memoirist, singer and legendary creative writing teacher Jan Cornall is an inspiring woman in her own right. In this post she talks about her heroine and inspiration, Marguerite Duras, who would have been 100 years old this year (2014).
When Walter [Mason, co-host of the Universal Heart Book Club] asked me to write about my favourite memoir, I knew what book it would be. I also knew I should write about something else, because surely by now I must be over my obsession of all things Durassian. I could for example, write about the various memoirs of Diana Athill or Anne Manne’s brilliant work, So This Is Life.

 What about the many works of the queen of creative non fiction, Annie Dillard? or the Burmese author Pascal Khoo Thwe’s From The Land of Green Ghosts?  But no, it’s not possible, for I must turn once more to my literary hero, even though her famous novella, The Lover, while not technically a memoir (though regarded as autobiographical), did in fact have its beginnings as such.

The story goes, that at the age of seventy, after almost dying from an alcoholic detox treatment, the French writer Marguerite Duras found some old notebooks and a photo album in the back of a cupboard in her house in Neauphle le Chateau.

Marguerite Duras
She immediately became consumed with writing pieces to go with the photos, and on typing them up, her companion Yann Andrea convinced her it should be a novel. He sent it off to the publisher, Editions de Minuit, who recognising its potential, increased its usual print run to 25,000 copies, only to sell out on the first day.

The brilliant stroke of this ‘memoir-ic’ work is its focus on an image that was not in the album,that could only exist in memory. Duras called it the ‘absolute photograph’.  It’s an image of a young girl on a Mekong ferry. Duras said: ’The photograph could only have been taken if someone could have known in advance how important it was to be in my life, that event, that crossing of the river.‘  Pictures such as this one —a young girl at the crossroads of her life, on the threshold of adulthood, are gold for memoir writers, for without them we have nothing to say, nowhere to go, no story to tell.

Marguerite Duras was born Marguerite Donnadieu in 1914 in French Indochina, the federation of colonies and protectorates which from 1887-1949 included the regions of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Duras’ parents were schoolteachers in the French Civil Service and moved often within Indochina to take up their various postings.


In Phnom Penh, Marguerite was seven years old when her father died.  Choosing to remain in Indochina but refused a widow’s pension because of bureaucratic problems, her mother continued to work on the low teacher’s salary and raised Marguerite and her two older brothers as best she could.

They moved again, back to the Mekong River towns of Vinh Long and Sadec in Vietnam and under an assisted scheme for French civil servants, also took up land in Prey Nop (Cambodia). Duras’ mother poured her life’s savings into establishing a rice paddy farm, which she believed, would make her a millionaire, but the first crop was ruined when the land was flooded by the sea. The flood was an annual occurrence (which the corrupt land agents well knew) but Marguerite’s mother refused to bow to the forces of nature. She borrowed money at exorbitant interest from Indian loan sharks and hired hundreds of workers to build retaining walls from mud and bamboo. The rice was planted again and the walls held fast, until burrowing crabs caused them to collapse and the crop to be destroyed once more.

It was around this time, when Marguerite was fourteen or fifteen, that she met a rich Chinese man on the ferry.  At first out of curiosity and later in an attempt to save her family from poverty, she began a relationship with him. How far that relationship went we will never know, as the line between truth and fiction in Duras’ writing is always blurred.

The narrative of The Lover circles back again and again to the absolute (absent) photograph, the image of the girl on the Mekong, bringing with it scenes, scenarios and snippets from Duras’ early life to swirl, eddy and flow like the river itself;  inviting the reader to enter her non linear, sense associative world of memory.

When first released the experimental, accessible nature of  the writing in this fictional memoir contained a raw truth and vulnerability that moved its readers. Reviewers called it ‘absolute literature’ and ‘spoke of the grace, the radiance and inner drive that carries the words.’

Duras herself described it as ‘ecriture courante, an invisible force that appeals to the imaginative linking of disparate elements” which she calls” an ideal writing, one that she had sought for some time and finally achieved in The Lover.’

In the end scenes of The Lover the echoes of the absolute photograph are there; the girl is on a steamer heading for France, water all around — always the image of water. Duras left Indochina when she was eighteen never to return, carrying with her the sensory impressions and events of her childhood which were to inform not only the content, but the rhythms, tone and form of her future writing.

In 1984 when The Lover won the coveted French literary prize, the Prix Goncourt (which Duras felt she had deserved much earlier in her life), she disassociated herself from the book and a few years later wrote another version of the story called The North China Lover. While her publisher was appalled that she would ‘rewrite‘ her biggest success, for the fanatical fan like myself it simply throws more light and intrigue into the mix.

Duras has a cult following, no doubt about it, and thousands of academics have written treatises on her work. A few like myself have even gone following her footsteps in Indochina, as I will do again this year with a group of writers, exploring Vietnamese culture and landscape while drawing on Duras’ writing for our inspiration.

Jan Cornall exploring Duras territory in Cambodia.
For me the trip will have a two fold purpose: to share my obsession and discoveries with others, and to work on my own memoir about searching for Duras in Vietnam. My compass and map for this work is none other than The Lover. If  I can succeed in weaving together the strands of feeling,  memory and image as Duras has taught me, then perhaps I can finally leave her alone and find another hero to follow. 
Jan’s trip Indochine Journey heads off to Vietnam Aug 16-30. Information here 
Read more about Jan’s obsession with Marguerite Duras and the process of writing her memoir, My Mother Duras, here
We welcome your engagement and comments in the comments box below. And recommend you look at our bookstore links (above right) when searching for your own next literary treasures.

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