1914 – 1996 A.D.
by Kathleen McFadden
When Marguerite Donnadieu’s father died when she was 4 years old, her mother decided to stay in Indochina (now Vietnam) with her children. Marguerite’s mother supported them by playing the piano at the movie theater and teaching French until she decided to purchase land in Cambodia and develop it into a rice plantation. But Marguerite’s mother did not understand the power structure in her adopted country and the necessity of paying off the local officials. She went bankrupt trying to have dams built to protect her rice paddies from saltwater flooding.
Many years later, Marguerite would transform these youthful experiences into a novel called The Sea Wall. But much would happen in her life before she began to write. She moved to France at age 17, studied law at the Sorbonne, and changed her last name to Duras, the name of a French village near her father’s childhood home.
She married the poet Robert Antelme, and during World War II, the two joined the French Resistance. Along with the horror of war, Marguerite had her own personal hell to bear. In 1942, she gave birth to a stillborn child. Then Antelme was captured by the Gestapo and sent to a concentration camp. He survived, but by the time he returned to France, Marguerite had fallen in love with someone else. Nevertheless, she nursed Antelme back to health before she left him.
After the war, in reaction to her first-hand experiences with Nazi Fascism, Marguerite joined the Communist Party, but within a few years, she turned her back on party politics. Marguerite had published two novels during the war, but in 1950 began to write in earnest. Her novels explored the themes of love and alienation, often in abstract and feminist terms.
Her Communist sympathies may have kept her from winning the 1950 Prix Goncourt, France’s top literary prize, for The Sea Wall, but in 1984, she did win for her autobiography, The Lover. The book enjoyed a print run of almost three million copies, was translated into 40 languages, and was made into a film in 1992. Marguerite also published screenplays and directed movies. In all, she penned some 40 novels and wrote and/or directed a dozen plays and films. Marguerite was born on April 4, 1914 and died on March 3, 1996.