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Book Review: Writing by Marguerite Duras, Translated by Mark Polizzotti

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Writing is a stream of consciousness collection of essays by French author and film director Marguerite Duras, best known for her novel The Lover and her screenplay for the film Hiroshima Mon Amour.

One of her last books, Writing reads as a running meditation on the act of writing. She touches on the many subjects, especially death, that have compelled her to write. As much as she directs some of her prose to the reader, the essays quite often seem like Duras’s dialogue, discussion, even argument, with herself and why she writes.

The five essays in the volume are almost poetic in structure; isolated thoughts about a topic set on the page.

In “Writing,” the title essay, Duras tries to set down the myriad things that influence her work — her house, her love life, even an afternoon spent watching the death of a fly.

“I swear it. I swear all of it. I have never lied in a book. Or even in my life. Except to men. Never.”

“Insults are just as strong as writing. It’s a form of writing, but addressed to someone.”

Duras tells a story in the second piece, “The Death of the Young British Pilot” about a British airman, age 20, who died on the last day of World War II, and how his death affected the village in Northern France where his plane went down. His death is still as affecting today as it first was in 1944, to Duras, the village, and the reader. She dedicated Writing to him.

“And then one day, there will be nothing left to write, nothing to read, nothing left but the untranslatable fact of the life of that dead boy who was so young, young enough to make you scream.”

“Roma,” a cinematic story, finds a couple in Rome, watching night fall near the Piazza Navona and having a conversation about film, love, and the relationship between a Roman general and his captive, the Queen of Samaria.

“You seem to fear the visible side of things.”
“I’m afraid as if I were suffering from Rome itself.”
“From perfection?”
“No … from its crimes.”

In “The Pure Number” Duras muses on the word “pure,” discussing everything from how olive oil is graded to how “purity” was used in Nazi Germany. It’s short, chilling, and very effective. It starts off innocently enough:

“For a long time the word pure was co-opted by the cooking oils trade. For a long time olive oil was guaranteed pure, but never other oils, like peanut or walnut.”

In the final essay, “The Painting Exhibition,” Duras talks about an old painter, involved in his solitary act of creativity. She has viewed the act of writing as solitary and lonely throughout Writing, so this essay serves as the perfect coda.

“There are many of them. They’re all turned toward the wall. All the paint missing from the tubes went onto those canvases. That is where it now is, on the canvases whose progress it halted.”

Writing is a lovely little volume that would serve as a nice addition to a reader’s other books by Duras, or as a great introduction to a very original thinker and artist.

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  • Igor

    Wonderful article! Thank you for reminding us of this fine writer and bringing her to our attention.

    Much appreciated.