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.