Literature and War Readalong: The War

I’ve been meaning to read Marguerite Duras for a while now, so Caroline’s April selection of Duras’ The War for her Literature and War Readalong was most welcome. Despite having Duras on my TBR list, I went into the book knowing almost nothing about either the author or the book. I was still surprised by what I got; even though the subtitle is “A Memoir,” I did not expect to read something that felt so extremely personal. I am still digesting all the thoughts and feelings and reflections that are contained in this fairly slim volume.

Duras was born in Vietnam—French Indochina at the time—and moved to France when she was 17. During WWII, she worked for the Vichy government, but was also active in the Resistance. Her first husband was a political prisoner and sent to Buchenwald. In The War, she processes her experiences during and right after the war in the form of diary entries and short stories. Each section is preceded by a short introduction that is almost as telling as the text itself.

The first part, the one that affected me the most, is made up of diary entries Duras wrote while waiting for her husband to come home. She claims that she can’t remember writing them, and based on the pain that is palpable on each page, I believe her. Almost daily, she goes to the centers for freed people returning from Germany, gathering information about who is coming back and trying to find out if anyone has seen her husband. The people know that Germany is close to surrendering, they know which camps have been liberated, and now they try to calculate how quickly the survivors might be expected to be home. The wait is excruciating, and Duras goes from glimmers of hope to extreme despair. Her husband is finally found alive, but barely. It is a struggle to nurse him from the brink of starvation back to health. Reading about it is painful; I can’t imagine living through the experience.

Part II of the book describes Duras’ interaction with the Nazi officer who arrested her husband. He is intrigued by her and tries to manipulate her into having an affair with him. He does not realize that she is using him as well, gathering information that will ultimately lead to his death sentence. Part III is made up of several descriptions of the workings of the Resistance: torturing people to force them to give up information that leads to their and other people’s downfall. Though written in the third person, Duras states that she is one of the protagonists, one of the torturers. The book concludes with two short stories that are “invented,” according to Duras.

This book deeply affected me. I don’t think I have ever read such a moving description the experiences of those waiting for someone to return from the war. In the first part, she also touches on how one should process the experience of war, and it is clear that she does not agree with the preferred sentiment of focusing on the victory and ignoring the bad and the pain that had to be afflicted in order to win. (I frequently thought of Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower, which compiles responses to the question of whether one can and should forgive another for the atrocities committed during WWII.)

When I read about Duras online after finishing the book, I came across the statement that Duras believed that “all must share the crime of the Holocaust,” that as humans, we share so many similarities that we cannot simply distinguish between good and bad people. I think this becomes obvious in the different roles she takes on in this book: she both endures and inflicts pain. She is both repulsed by and attracted to some of the people she deals with. During the trial of the Nazi officer who arrested her husband, she testifies against him but also explains how this man helped several Jewish women to safety. Keeping Duras’ belief in mind helps in understanding this book. As I already said, the book affected me just reading it outright, but knowing Duras’ opinion made me appreciate it even more and helped me see it as a whole, rather than a collection of separate pieces.

 

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14 comments

  1. I’ve read several of Duras’s books. I’ll have to add this one to my TBR list.
    One book not often read is ‘Les petits chevaux de Tarquinia’ (it is in English too!)
    There is NO action…only and exchange of thoughts, feelings, desires and fears.
    Yet I read every page.
    Duras describes the monotonous vacation days of 4 middle age adults.
    And of course no book by Duras with without alcohol.
    Bitter Campari. The pervasive consumption of alcohol throughout the story (mentioned 50 x) sharpens the feeling of boredom, emptiness during the vacation.
    “C’est la magique!” (pg 48)

    • So far, I only have Duras’ The Lover, but I definitely want to read her other writings as well. Despite my limited experience with her, I can imagine that she would be able to make anything sound interesting, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

      • Duras’ most popular book The Lover….haven’t read it yet…I really should. Moderato Cantabile was good (woman with issues in marriage and lover) but I really enjoyed The Sea Wall (Une Barrage Contre Le Pacifique). This was a look at her relationship with mother and brother as young ingenue in French Indochine.

  2. Wow Duras had quite a life, complex as well as some of her beliefs. Her memoir sounds fascinating & moving. thx for the review.

  3. This sounds extraordinary. Often its the very personal stories which speak to us most deeply and so actually end up having the wider relevance or impact. I’ve not read any Duras but I really feel I should.

  4. Very thought provoking – and it seems this book has a very relevant message nowadays. I’ve read that France has a complex relationship with what happened in the war, but I find it hard to be judgemental. There are no absolutes and we cannot know how we would behave in a given situation, so it seems to me unreasonable to condem others outright.

    • It is always easy to judge someone else’s action when you’re not in that person’s position. I’d like to think that I would do the right thing, but what if that would endanger my children’s life? Would I still do the right thing? I don’t know.

  5. I found the first part extremely moving as well. i don’t think I managed to capture that in my review though. Possibly because I read it a few weeks ago.
    I found it harrowing and shocking. There are still so many things I don’t know about WWII – or its aftermath.
    A lot of this is so topical – the Holocaust discussion – France’s responsibility. No wonder it’s part of the discussion surrounding the election.
    Thank you for joining me.
    I wasn’t sure the short stories were part of the English edition. I like the first one very much. It’s very typical of her writing – not the story, just the way it is written.

    • I think you wrote an excellent review of the book! I wish I could have read it in its original language. I am a bit discouraged that there is still so much I don’t know about the war and its aftermath, even though I read so much about it. I didn’t even know that de Gaulle and Mitterand were both active in the Resistance, and that is something that I should know since it is part of contemporary history.
      I liked the two short stories as well, and I want to reread them once I have a little more distance to the book as a whole. And I will look for my copy of The Lover.

      • Thanks, TJ.
        There’s so much to know about it. Mitterand first worked for the Vichy regime before changing sides. At least as far I remember. Duras’ take on politics us from a very communist point of view but a lot of what she wrote is true.
        The Lover is very good but not my favourite. I loved Modrato Cantabile. Hiroshima mon amour is outstanding as well. It’s a film script. Maybe you’ve seen the movie. It’s brilliant. I’ve read a few others that were good but I still have some on the piles.

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