Duras, Marguerite Entries

Hiroshima mon amour


After watching and utterly falling for Alain Resnais's and Marguerite Duras's 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour back in March, I was so enamored of the language—sparse, yet compelling enough that I recited phrases from the film to myself for weeks after watching it—that I had to search out Duras's original screenplay and spend some time absorbing the words at a slower-than-speech pace. Doing so only increased my admiration for Duras's work here, while at the same time helping me realize how much the visual and audio elements of the film augment and alter the words spoken. Having read with interest Amateur Reader's recent post on watching and reading plays, it was an intriguing exercise to go back and read a screenplay of a film I've already watched and savored.

In particular, Elle's hypnotic near-monologue from the opening of the film makes a different impression when stripped of the haunting score by Georges Delerue and Giovanni Fusco, and of the shocking and heartbreaking newsreel footage of war devastation (and its counterpoint, near-abstract images of lovers' bodies). Emmanuelle Riva's cadenced delivery of these lines emphasizes the way in which Duras's prose veers, under pressure, into poetic verse and back out again. The score, in turn, underlines that growing pressure underlying Elle's narration, as she tries to convince her Japanese lover that she has seen Hiroshima, that she has witnessed and at some level understands the devastation of the war. Take the following passage, from close to the beginning of the film (all marks and emphasis mine):

      Quatre fois au musée à Hiroshima.
      J'ai regar les gens. J'ai regar moi-même pensivement, le fer. Le fer brû. Le fer bri, le fer devenu vulnérable comme la chair. J'ai vu des capsules en bouquet: qui y aurait pen? Des peaux humaines flottantes, survivantes, encore dans la fraîcheur de leurs souffrances. Des pierres. Des pierres brûlées. Des pierres éclatées. Des chevelures anonymes que les femmes de Hiroshima retrouvaient tout entières tombées le matin, au réveil.
      J'ai eu chaud place de la Paix. Dix mille degrés sur la place de la Paix. Je le sais. La température du soleil sur la place de la Paix. Comment l'ignorer?

The meaning in English is more or less:

      Four times at the museum in Hiroshima.
      I watched the people. I myself watched, pensively, the metal. Metal burnt. Metal broken, metal become vulnerable like flesh. I saw the bouquet of bottle caps: who would have thought? The preserved human skins, floating, surviving, their suffering still fresh. The stones. Burnt stone. Shattered stone. The anonymous hair that the women of Hiroshima found, fallen out, on waking in the morning.
      I was hot in Peace Square. Ten thousand degrees in Peace Square. I know it. The temperature of the sun in Peace Square - how could you not know it?

However, many of the rhymes and echoes (in particular the "eɪ" sound common among the bolded syllables above) don't translate into English. Try to read it in French even if you don't understand the words, and notice how the rhyming or echoing words are grouped together, often in the shorter sentences. The rhyming/echoing "eɪ" sounds are generally on the accented syllable, and often directly precede a comma or period, which strengthens the stress on those beats. They are repetitive yet syncopated, building on each other to create a rhythmic tension which is alleviated by the counterpoint of the longer sentences, which descend back into a more prose-like rhythm (although the underlined syllables create another, minor rhythmic line). The overall effect is insistent, incantatory. Elle is building a story, a representation that is meant to convince her lover of what she "knows," what we all "know": the devastation and cruelty of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. But representations of something felt in the body tend to be problematic in Duras. The insistent yet fragile structure created by Elle's voice is cut short by Lui's stark refusal: "Tu n'as rien vu à Hiroshima, rien." (You saw nothing at Hiroshima, nothing.")

Although Duras communicates much of this rhythmic play via punctuation, the text alone simply does not have the power of the full filmic package.1 The score underlines everything I've been talking about with regard to the building rhythmic anxiety: frenetic piano, flute, and string parts underline brilliantly the tension during her speeches about the museum, while his refusals are marked by silence, or the single, elegant line of (I'm guessing?) a clarinet. Just to illustrate the exact points Duras is making, my analysis comes nowhere close to the experience of actually watching all elements come together:

The cuts back from the bomb footage to the lovers' bodies provide another method of contrasting the physical immediacy of Elle's current situation with the theoretical nature of her "knowledge" about the bomb. And the questions of reality versus representation are brought to yet another level by the fact that this is itself a piece of art, being viewed by an audience, yet it incorporates the same real newsreel footage that Elle keeps referencing. As the viewer, I feel I am coming face to face with the "reality" of the war, just as Elle feels she was brought face to face with it by going four times to the museum. My reaction was the same as hers: I wept. The impact of these images does not feel negligible, does not feel like something that can be so cleanly dismissed. And yet of course, my feeling is just as illusory as Elle's: our weeping does not indicate any privileged knowledge of Hiroshima under attack. That kind of knowledge is kept locked in the bodies of those who were there, and any attempt to communicate it in language (as Elle does with her own trauma later on) will lead only to forgetfulness, not to shared understanding.

Notes on Disgust

I've decided to jot down a few notes for each of my posts about how the book in question might make use of disgust, even if said book is not directly related to my Disgust Project. This is primarily so I can get a better idea what the most common uses of disgust might be.

Hiroshima mon amour is remarkable for how little disgust it elicits, considering its subject matter. The opening 15-minute montage, in particular, shows very graphic images of disfigurement following the atomic blast, yet (at least personally) I wouldn't say disgust is my primary emotion on viewing these images. I think this is because the disgust impulse has either been superseded by grief and pity, or has reached a tipping point of extremity into horror. (Since I'm American, there may also be a certain amount of cultural guilt around the knowledge that "we" were the ones responsible for the atrocities pictured. Despite the fact that the bomb project was not exactly a democratic decision and happened in any case long before I was born, and despite my strong dislike of nationalism, witnessing photographic evidence of the devastation wrought by one's own country is for some reason more upsetting than witnessing similar devastation wrought by others. As such, most of the disgust I feel when viewing these images is directed inward, if not toward "me" at least toward "us," rather than outward toward "them.")

Speaking from the small amount of reading I've done thus far, and from my common sense, disgust is a largely dehumanizing emotion, used to police boundaries between the "safe" and the "contaminating" (us and them, clean and dirty, etc.). The degree to which Hiroshima mon amour succeeds in breaking down those us vs. them boundaries can be measured by its communication of horror and grief (however limited or suspect they may be) rather than disgust, to the viewer, despite the inclusion of images which could easily disgust. Bottom line: Transformation of disgust into grief via sympathy.


1Which is not to say that I disagree with Amateur Reader's overall point: I enjoy reading plays and agree that we can stage them effectively in our imaginations. But the combined imaginative power of Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais far outstrips my own.


I read Hiroshima mon amour as part of Caroline's Literature and War Readalong. Thanks for giving me the motivation to pick this one up, Caroline—I knew I would love it and I did.

Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein + Hiroshima mon amour


I can feel a Marguerite Duras fixation coming on.

While fairly impressed with her late novel L'amant de la Chine du nord, I wasn't completely drawn into Duras's milieu until David and I watched Hiroshima mon amour, the 1959 Alain Resnais film for which she wrote the screenplay. To put it bluntly, Hiroshima mon amour blew. me. away. The opening sequence reduced me to sobs, overlaying Emmanuelle Riva's and Eiji Okada's stark, dreamlike narration (a stylized argument, which at times seems almost to veer into poetic verse, about whether or not Riva's character has or has not "seen" the devastation of Hiroshima) with footage of said devastation and of the hospital and museum Riva's character mentions. And the film as a whole raised fascinating questions about authenticity, storytelling, trauma, and the ability of humans to connect and empathize. Since Duras' 1964 novella Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein shares many of these same preoccupations, I thought I would attempt to write about them together, even though I know that I will be overwhelmed with material!

Both Hiroshima and Ravissement, then, are deeply concerned with the extent to which it is (im)possible to step inside another person's experience. In the opening scene of the film, Riva's character (known simply as "elle" or "her") makes a repeated claim to have witnessed the events of nuclear devastation in Hiroshima, not at first hand but through visits to bomb victims in the hospital, trips to the museum, and viewings of the newsreels. As she amplifies on her experiences, speaking in mesmerizing circuits of repeated words, Eiji Okada's character "lui"/"him" occasionally interrupts her to deny her authority: "Tu n'as rien vu à Hiroshima." ("You saw nothing at Hiroshima.") So did she? It's a complicated question. On one hand, some of her claims are quite radical:

J'ai eu chaud, Place de la Paix. Dix mille degrés sur la Place de la Paix. Je le sais. La temperature du soleil sur la Place de la Paix - comment l'ignorer?
I was hot in Peace Square. Ten thousand degrees in Peace Square. I know it. The temperature of the sun in Peace Square - how could you not know it?

Obviously, this Frenchwoman can only "know" that the temperature in Peace Square reached ten thousand degrees in the way one knows a fact from a history textbook: with her brain rather than her body. Likewise there is a world of difference between visiting an interpretive museum exhibit, even an extremely well-constructed one, and "knowing" an event through first-hand knowledge either personal or cultural. On the other hand, her empathy just as obviously exceeds the theoretical: watching those newsreels and museum exhibits really has imbued her with some part of the horror of the situation. In fact, as a viewer watching the scenes of devastation ourselves, we are in the exact same situation. Resnais and Duras make us question Elle's claims to understanding, even as they put us in an extreme position of identification with her. After all, if I am sobbing as I watch this film (which I was), how can I fully dismiss the power of simulacrums to convey experience? As she herself acknowledges later on, we as outside observers are limited in our ability to both feel and act: "On peut toujours se moquer. Mais que peut faire d'autre un touriste, que justement pleurer?" / "You can always scoff. But what else can a tourist do, but weep?" Later on in the film, Riva's character is possessive about her own traumatic war-time experience; her Japanese lover can listen and feel pain, but he can't truly understand.

Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein, too, questions the ability of any person to tell the story of another's trauma—or even to claim absolute certainty about what that trauma was in the first place. Lola Valerie Stein (self-styled Lol V.) remains a cypher throughout the novella, which is narrated by her eventual lover, Jacques Hold. Jacques meets Lol through another lover of his, Tatiana Karl, an old school friend of Lol's who was present on the night, ten years before, which directly preceded Lol's mental breakdown. Exactly what precipitated this breakdown remains a subject of contention throughout the novella: while it's clear that Lol and her fiancé both met an older woman that night, and that the fiancé left with said woman as dawn was breaking, Lol's emotions at each step of the evening are puzzling, as is her present relationship to the past. For example, Tatiana recalls that for most of the dance Lol didn't seem to mind her fiancé being enamored of another woman, sitting calmly throughout the evening until the couple left the ballroom without her. Was she ever in love with her fiancé? Was she in love with the woman who replaced her in his affections? Was she in love with some mental image of the couple together, and herself as an observer of their love? Was she teetering on the brink of mental disaster the whole time, and this night was merely the straw that broke the camel's back of her mind?

Tatiana is invested in one version of past events, and Lol—uncommunicative, shocky, and prone to telling bizarre, easily-detectable lies—is of little use as a witness. Jacques himself is all too aware of his inability to fathom Lol's inner world; not only was he not present on the famous night of the ball, but Tatiana, who was there, disagrees about whether it's even the crucial event in Lol's past. She feels that Lol has always been missing some crucial component, that her "self" has always been somehow absent, and that the seeds of her breakdown were present since long before the night at T. Beach.

     Je lui ai demandé si la crise de Lol, plus tard, ne lui avait pas apporté la preuve qu'elle se trompait. Elle m'a répeté que non, qu'elle, elle croyait que cette crise et Lol ne faisaient qu'un depuis toujours.
     Je ne crois plus à rien de ce que dit Tatiana, je ne suis convaincu de rien.
     I asked her if Lol's breakdown, later on, didn't prove to her that she had been wrong. She repeated that no, that she, she believed that this attack and Lol had always been one.
     I no longer believe in anything Tatiana says, I'm not convinced of anything.

Thus not only do we have competing accounts of what happened inside Lol while she watched her fiancé fall for another woman, we have a debate about whether it even matters. Tatiana and Jacques are also unsure of the degree to which Lol has recovered from her breakdown: the slick surfaces of her immaculately-maintained home and marriage seem to indicate "recovery," yet Tatiana at least is invested in the idea of Lol's continuing malady. And what is that malady in the first place? It becomes clear that Lol is, for some reason and in some way, obsessed with her past, but what is she remembering and experiencing when she thinks of it?

This brings up another commonality between Ravissement and Hiroshima, which is a preoccupation with memory and forgetting, and the pain involved in inevitably forgetting something one had sworn to remember. In the film, Riva's character gestures at this idea with the statement

De même que dans l'amour, cette illusion existe, cette illusion de pouvoir jamais oublier, de même j'ai eu l'illusion devant Hiroshima, que jamais je n'oublierai. De même que dans l'amour.
Just as in love, this illusion exists, this illusion of never being able to forget, I had the illusion when confronted with Hiroshima, that I would never forget it. Just as in love.

But the inability to forget—or more accurately, the ability to never forget, to remember forever, is just that: an illusion. Even as these characters are haunted by an inescapable relationship to their past traumas (to the point where several people identify each other as synonymous with those traumas), what dwells inside them is not precisely "memory" but an ever-changing set of reference points combining past, present, potential and imaginary. When Lol moves back to the town of S. Tahla after ten years away, for example, her memories of the town seem to start out sharp, not having been added to much in the intervening years, but soon they become eroded through frequent applications of new experience.

[E]lle commença à reconnaître moins, puis différement, elle commença à retourner jour après jour, pas à pas vers son ignorance de S. Tahla.
      Cet endroit du monde où on croit qu'elle a vécu sa douleur passée, cette prétendue douleur, s'efface peu à peu de sa mémoire dans sa matérialité. Pourquoi ces lieux plutôt que d'autres? En quelque point qu'elle s'y trouve Lol y est comment une première fois. De la distance invariable du souvenir elle de dispose plus: elle est là. Sa présence fait la ville pure, méconnaissable. Elle commence à marcher dans le palais fastueux de l'oubli de S. Tahla.
She began to recognize less, then differently, she began to return day after day, step by step towards her ignorance of S. Tahla.
      This spot in the world where they say she lived her past grief, this alleged grief, is little by little erased from her memory by her corporeality. Why these places rather than others? Wherever Lol finds herself, it is as though she is there for the first time. She no longer positions herself at the unvarying remove of memory: she is there. Her presence renders the city pure, unknowable. She begins to walk in the sumptuous palace of forgetting S. Tahla.

Thus being back in her home town erodes Lol's past knowledge of it, just as she seems unable to see again the shapes of her past self and her former fiancé when she revisits T. Beach at the end of the novel. Her attempts to reenact the past with a new cast of characters, and force it to provide her with something that was missing the first time around, are dream-like and fascinating, asking similar questions and evoking a similar mood to the relationship between "Elle" and "Lui" in Hiroshima mon amour. I am eager to read more Duras from this period; where should I start? Moderato Cantabile? L'après-midi de M. Andesmas? Recommendations very much welcome. In the meantime, both Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein and Hiroshima mon amour come very highly recommended.


This is the first ten minutes (most of the amazing opening sequence) of Hiroshima mon amour. I think it's incredible film making for both the ideas and the aesthetic interaction of words, music, and images, but I will warn you that there are EXTREMELY GRAPHIC IMAGES of devastated human and animal bodies after the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.


All translations here are mine, but this book is available in English as translated by Richard Seever. Also, I should add that I don't have an actual transcript of the Hiroshima mon amour screenplay, so some of my transcriptions may be slightly off.

L'amant de la Chine du nord


Inspired by Richard's commitment to multi-lingual reading and blogging, I've decided to try to work on my languages as well, and read more novels in the original French. How many is "more"? Well, last year I read a grand total of one. So, in order to top that, this year I'll need to read...two. Maybe the year after that I'll read three. As you can tell, I'm practically signing up for À la recherche du temps perdu already.

Considering that last year's pick, J.M.G. Le Clézio's Ourania, was something of a struggle for me and took several months to complete, I'm startled to find that I've already finished my first French book of 2010: Marguerite Duras's L'amant de la chine du nord (available in English translation as The North China Lover). Duras's book is actually a re-working of her earlier novel L'amant; it re-envisions the story as a film, and retells it from a more complete, possibly mature angle. Both L'amant and L'amant de la chine du nord are fictionalized memoirs dealing with Duras's sexual coming-of-age as a young - very young - Frenchwoman in 1920s Vietnam (then French Indochina). Well, let me be blunter: it tells the story of her first consummated affair, with a wealthy 28-year-old Chinese man, when she was fourteen.

Given that plot there's obviously a lot to talk about here vis-a-vis sexual and gender dynamics, but let's get some formalist stuff out of the way first: Duras's prose is vivid and lush, and the fact that she wrote this novel as if giving screen directions (including camera pans, fade-ins and fade-outs, etc.), makes the reading experience overwhelmingly visual. This kind of narration is often a turn-off for me; I tend to find it choppy or overly mannered. But in Duras's case I think it works perfectly for two reasons. In the first place, this is one of those books in which the setting is almost as much of a character as the characters themselves. The hot monsoon nights, the flooded rice fields, the night sounds of the young Vietnamese night guards singing outside the gates of the main character's colonial boarding school - presenting all this to the audience front-and-center brings it to the foreground, and persuades the reader to concentrate on it, to see it. And secondly, in a film all the viewer knows about a character's motivations is how she sees them acting - she has no direct access to their interior monologue. A cinematic approach, then, plays perfectly into one of Duras's main themes in this novel: the ambiguity of human actions.

For L'amant de la chine du nord does not leave the reader with any clear answers about why the characters act as they do, or how we ought to feel about it. Compared to, say, Lolita, which argues pretty plainly for Humbert as a delusional, dirty old man and Delores Haze as his victim, Duras's moral universe is extremely murky. The main character, known only as "l'enfant" ("the child"), comes from a desperately poor family of French settlers in Indochina; we later learn that she has already had several offers of marriage/concubinage from men in their thirties, which her mother has pressed her to accept in order to alleviate the family's poverty, but which she has refused. In her boarding school, certain teachers and even students choose to prostitute themselves in the streets. In this light, her meeting with and choice to pursue her wealthy lover (known in the novel as le Chinois or The Chinaman) seems a clear economic decision, the best she can do in a bad situation.

But things are not so simple. There's no question that l'enfant lusts after le Chinois - that her psyche is, in fact, super-saturated with lust. She has incestuous thoughts about her younger brother, with whom she is extremely close. She is already involved in a semi-sexual relationship with one of her female school friends, and the two of them fantasize about taking the place of their prostitute teacher - the idea of forbidden sex being thrilling to them. From practically the moment she meets le Chinois, she is fascinated by his physicality - she is the aggressor in their relationship, and it seems as though she is acting from real feeling, not just aping the actions of adults in order to produce a desired effect.

At the same time, it's not completely positive for her, or comfortable to read; her experiences of actually having sex, especially at first, involve a lot more pain and suffering than pleasure, and she seems perplexed by the strength of Le Chinois's emotions when he falls in love with her. He is weeping about how his magnate father will disinherit him if he marries her, and she is teasing him and wanting him to tell her more about life in China. Duras does a creepily effectual job at blending L'enfant's precocious sensuality and sexuality with certain other, very kid-like, qualities in her. She kind of just wants to experiment and learn about the world, and also to have sex. Would she want to have sex if it weren't for her family's poverty, and the possibility of getting her hands on some of Le Chinois's money? Would she want to have sex if she hadn't been prematurely sexualized by the men who want to buy her from her mother, and by her feelings for her brother, and by the boarding school atmosphere? One can't help asking these questions, but at the same time they're a bit pointless: if those things had been different, she would have been a completely different person.

And here's another thing that's unusual in this type of story: L'enfant and Le Chinois enjoy each others' company. You never get the sense that Lolita and Humbert ever have fun together, but L'enfant and Le Chinois go out late at night to restaurants in the Chinese section of town, tell each other stories, laugh at each others' frankness. To be fair, there is also a lot of crying in the book, and overall it's somewhat melancholic, but unlike Kristin Lavransdatter it also has its fair share of mutual enjoyment of the present moment. And although the affair (inevitably) ends, and everyone feels sad about that for a while, L'enfant doesn't really suffer as a punishment for having sex, in the way that Lolita, Tess Durbyfield, and other literary sexual victims do (dying in childbirth, no less! Talk about sexual punishment). Duras's protagonist goes through a mixed emotional experience and then gets on with her life, but one never gets the sense that she is suffering, or enjoying herself, as a vehicle for the author to make a point about who is right and who is wrong. Duras's book is the most non-judgmental treatment - in either a positive or negative way - of sex between a very young person and an older person, I've ever come across. I wouldn't call it primarily a love story, but neither would I say it's primarily a tale of oppression. (And speaking of oppression: the racial dynamics among the transplanted white French, colonized Vietnamese, and wealthy landowning Chinese are another whole fascinating subject.)

The whole tale brings up interesting questions about the triangulation of love, lust, liking, and money. If L'enfant is more or less engaging in sex work, does that mean she doesn't love Le Chinois? Does it mean she doesn't like him? If her first feeling upon seeing him is one of lust, does that invalidate the money motive? To what extent are the desires for money and sex interwoven? And what should we, as readers, be hoping for as we read this story? Duras allows all of these elements to coexist in uneasy harmony, which in itself is an admirable feat.

(Because of the strong, thought-provoking themes of young female sexuality, I'm counting this novel toward the Women Unbound Challenge.)

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography