Marguerite Duras’ affecting book The War – La douleur is a collection of texts based on her war diaries. Before beginning my review, I have to mention that I’ve read the French edition and don’t know how close to the English it is. It seems that the two last texts, two short stories, have been left out in the English edition but I could be wrong. I’m not going to review them here. Each of the texts covers another time period.
La douleur – The pain is the first text in the book and is also the longest and appears to be the only one that she left as she found it. Duras said that she couldn’t remember writing this diary and that, to her, it seemed more powerful than any of the literary texts she’d ever written. La douleur, which was written during April 1945, describes in painful details, how Marguerite Duras waited for the return of her husband, Robert L., a member of the resistance, who had been deported to Buchenwald in 1944.
Duras managed to convey the anxiety of those waiting and the incredible difficulties to take care of someone who came back. They knew to which camp Robert had been brought and so, knowing the Germans had lost the war, they followed the news closely and went to the centres to which those who returned came and questioned them. Duras knew that Buchenwald had been liberated, but she didn’t know if by that time Robert was still alive. Once she found someone who had seen him, there was still the fear that he might have been among those shot by the fleeing Germans. Why, she wonders did they shoot them just minutes before the arrival of the Allies? In Buchenwald alone 51,000 were shot, while 20,000 survived. Possibly, he was among the survivors but if so, he might still die of exhaustion or an illness. A little later, when they hear that the German cities are literally burning, another anxiety joins the fears she had before. He might be trapped in a fire storm and get killed that way.
In the end, two of her friends travel to dacha (Robert had been moved a few times) and bring him back. Before they arrive, they warn her – she might not recognize him. The tall man weighs a mere 38 kilograms and looks horrific. He’s very ill and his survival is almost a miracle.
Monsieur X – Pierre Rabier is the second text in the collection. It describes the cat-and-mouse game a Gestapo official plays with Marguerite Duras. He pretends her husband hasn’t been deported yet, meets her often, wants to have an affair with her. He may think he’s the stronger one, but Duras plays a game with him as well. She learns everything about him and later uses it to help sentencing him to death.
After the war
Albert des capitales and Ter le milicien both describe how Duras and other members of the resistance take part in torturing and forcing people to give them information that will lead to their or other people’s sentencing. In these two pieces she changed names and wrote about herself in third person, calling herself Thérèse.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I’m familiar with Marguerite Duras and love her writing but I still thought this would be just another WWII memoir. It isn’t. Most memoirs fous either on the war – on the battle field or the home front – or on the camps. I don’t think I’ve ever read a memoir by someone who was waiting for someone and about the challenges of the return. There’s so much going on in these pages. Every day, there’s a new anxiety regarding her husband and every day the people in France find out more details about the war. The French sent 600,000 Jews to the camps. One in 100 came back. They didn’t know any details about the camps until the end of the war. Other arresting details capture that for France the end of the war also meant the end of the occupation. Or what it was like to see Paris at night illuminated again.
As I wrote before, some of the texts deal with what happened to collaborators. Duras seems to have taken an active part in their arrest and punishment. I couldn’t help but wonder what I would have done. I can absolutely not imagine myself watching someone being tortured or even torturing someone.
There were also aspects that were especially interesting for me, as a French person, because the liberation and its aftermath, the coming to power of de Gaulle have led to problems France is battling to this day. Marguerite Duras mentions that de Gaulle only wanted to emphasize that the Allies won the war. He didn’t mention the camps, nor did he want them mentioned because it had to be about glory not about pain. Possibly this explains the choice of title because she thinks you have to discuss the pain. You have to hear the people who suffered. I’m afraid that the logic behind not mentioning the camps isn’t only linked to “glory” and such. If you don’t talk about the camps, you don’t need to talk about those who were deported to the camps and the people who sent them there. Ultimately, this leads to the refusal to admit responsibility and the denial that there were collaborators.
French politics aside, this is one of the most important WWII texts I’ve ever read. The writing is tight, evocative and detailed, just what I had expected from Marguerite Duras.
The War – La douleur is the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next readalong is dedicated to war poetry. Discussion starts on Wednesday 31 May, 2017. You can find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.
37 thoughts on “Marguerite Duras: The War – La douleur (1985) Literature and War Readalong April 2017”
Sounds like an unusual and effective take on the War. But like you, I would struggle with the punishments, however awful the person had been….
Those chapters were offputting. Really nasty.
“Really nasty” in what way?
There are two things that struck me. The first was in the chapter about the Gestapo man. She never made him feel her hatred. That was so scheming that it put me off. I can understand that she wanted to bring him to justice but to meet him again and again, describing many, actually positive things about him and then help getting him executed. The second was the torture chapter. It’s very detailed and she took an active part in the interrogation. It was really nasty.
I was interested in the chapter about the Gestapo officer but after the above comments, I’m not so sure.
That chapter isn’t too hard to read but her role in the whole thing is dubious. I can’t help feeling that way. There’s no torture in that chapter.
So there’s torture in other chapters?
Yes, in the third, Albert des Capitales.
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This was my first exposure to Duras, and it was a powerful one! I did not expect what I got; I certainly rank it very high among the war biographies I have read. So thank you for making yet another excellent selection. I really appreciated the fact that she showed herself as someone who receives pain but also inflicts pain. I certainly did not enjoy reading about the torture, but I think it leads to questions that should be asked much more frequently: How much can and should we forgive? And how much forgiveness should we expect from others? Do the ends justify the means? Can the ends ever justify the means? The more I think about the book, the more philosophical I become. 🙂
I’m quite happy with this year’s choices. House Made if Dawn was hard going but the others were all outstanding.
I agree, it does lead to important and uncomfortable questions. I’m aware it’s easy to say – I wouldn’t have done this. I can’t know. I hope. It’s courageous to admit what she did. There was some controversy in France about this book but I’ve forgotten what it was. I’ll have to read up on it a bit more.
Duras is an author I’ve yet to get to grips with in any detail. While this does sound like a very powerful book, it might not turn out to be the best entry point for me. Like you, I suspect I would struggle with some of the ethics here…
I’m pretty certain you’ll like her but I agree – not the best starting point. I always recommend Moderato Cantabile. The Lover is good but not her best, in my opinion.
Your last comment is interesting as Moderato Cantabile is where I started last year and I’m keen to read more. (I would have read this if I hadn’t been shadowing the Man Booker International). Your review has made me even keener to read it as, like you, I thought it would be a straight-forward war memoir.
As for the question of torture, I can only imagine that our feelings in wartime are different to peacetime.
You won’t be disappointed, Grant. It’s much better than expected and the various texts are very different. Too bad you couldn’t participate.
I agree with you comment about wartime feelings being different but still . . . I can understand that you want to bring someone to justice but torture?
I’ve just read TJs review of this as well. It sounds immensely powerful but a tough read. I’ve not read Duras but I’ll take your tip to start with Moderato Cantabile.
It’s tough but worthwhile. She mentions so many things I had not heard of or not seen described this way. It’s really impressive.
Moderato Cantabile is amazing. I hope you’ll like it.
I’ll probably pass on this then and consider Moderate Cantabile instead.
I think you’ll like that much more.
Superb post Caroline.
This sounds very much worth reading. I tend to like to read history as journal entries.
I was not aware of the issues concerning de Gaulle that you mention. It is something that I want to learn more about.
I have heard a lot about the fate of collaborators but never from the the point of view of someone who participated on their punishment.
Thus I think that I would get a lot out of this book.
Thank you, Brian.
I think you’d find this extremely interesting. Many French people idolize de Gaulle but my feelings aren’t as positive. He had a tendency to want to deny certain things and a lot is still posing problems today.
I have never read anything written by someone who took part in the after war punishing outside if a courtroom either.
My comment is a bit off topic, but I wanted to write because I recently read my first Angela Carter short story. One of your long-ago posts brought her work to my attention for the first time. I’m excited to read more of her work. Thank you for introducing her to me.
I’m so glad to hear that, Jackie. Which short story was it? I’m curious. She’s definitely one of the most amazing writers. Ideas, language, vocabulary, imagination. She offers so much.
The story was “The Company of Wolves.” Fascinating!
It was featured in the podcast called Selected Shorts. Each episode has well-known actors reading short stories. It’s a nice way to be introduced to new-to-me stories and authors.
I know that one well. It was made into a movie. That podcast is worth looking for it seems.
Wonderful review, Caroline. I loved reading your thoughts on the three texts, especially on ‘The Pain’. I didn’t know that Charles de Gaulle didn’t want to talk about the camps. That is sad. I also didn’t know that 600,000 French Jews were sent to the camps. It made me remember something I read in the paper recently which said that Marie Le Pen and her friends said that the French government was not responsible for sending those to the camp. It is sad that people are already in denial even though memories of the horrific happenings of the war are still alive.
Thank you, Vishy. It’s a very controversial topic, also during this election period, as you pointed out. She was referring to the Vel d’Hiv incident/round up. There’s s good movie starring Jean Reno about this. Sarah’s Key refers to that as well. I only watched the movie as I’m not to keen on that kind of WWII novel.
Forgetting or denial are dangerous.
I have read Sarah’s Key. Such a beautiful and sad book. I remember reading about the Vel d’Hiv roundup in it. Thanks for telling me about the Jean Reno movie. I would like to watch that. Can you tell me what is the name of that movie?
Is it good? I’m glad to hear it. I felt unsure about it.
The movie is called The Round Up in English and La Rafle in French. Let me know what you think should you watch it.
I liked Sarah’s Key very much, Caroline. I don’t know how it compares with other Holocaust literature though. I didn’t know about the Vel d’Hiv roundup before I read the book and so it was a learning experience for me. I will try to watch The Round Up / La Rafle soon and I will let you know what I think about it. Thanks for telling me about it.
Great review, Caroline. I’ve only read Dura’s l’Amant and thought it was OK. It will take me some effort to read these stories as I can’t take scenes of torture.
Thank you, Carole. I find L’amant overrated. She’s written so many better books. It’s worth to read part one La douleur. And the second. You could skip part three and the continue with the two short stories.
This was another excellent choice for the War readalong Caroline. La Douleur was so different to most wartime stories that I’ve read as it deals entirely with the aftermath. It was a compelling read and the reader agonised along with Duras about whether Robert L had survived. I thought she was unsparing of herself by including the piece about the informer being tortured. Not an easy read but understandable
I’m glad you liked it as well. It was totally different. And so intense. I also had no idea what it meant to return. All te physical aspects, in what bad shape they really were. Not just skinny.
She was unsparing. I can’t imagine many would admit to what she did after the war.
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