Reading early works by established, respected writers always reminds me of looking at a baby’s face: how it seems impossible to know the ways the face will sharpen and appear, how soft it is, sometimes indistinguishable from others—but also, when I look back in photos when the baby grows up, how hard it is to imagine that face turning into something other than what it has become.
The second book by the French writer Marguerite Duras, Easy life, which Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan have just translated into English for the first time, may not be attention-grabbing in itself. The thrill of reading comes from seeing all the ways in which Duras was already the writer she would become for the next 50 years, from recognizing how the interests she nurtured throughout her career were already underway.
If Durasa’s power comes in part from the way her voice captivates you with its intensity, this early novel gives us a glimpse of how she learned to wield that voice. IN Easy life, Duras tries, often unsuccessfully, to shed light on complicated and abstract themes: identity and gender, violence and desire. Per Lover, her best-known work, which she published 40 years later, sharpened the tools at her disposal, replacing excessively vague descriptions with short, concrete scenes. Most importantly, the novel allows the murkiness of everyday emotions to live on the page without straining to explain them, trusting the universality of human experience to make these ideas legible to the reader.
The action takes place in France in the middle of the 20th century, Easy life is a fairly straightforward story, told mostly in a familiar, linear form. The protagonist, Francine, is 25 years old, still living at home and struggling with the breakup of her family. We follow her attempts to understand her place in these events and to understand her relationship to the wider world. The novel opens immediately after a heated argument between Francine’s uncle Jérôme and her brother Nicolas, which Nicolas starts after learning that Jérôme is sleeping with his wife Clémence. Jérôme soon dies from his injuries. Francine is burdened with guilt: she is the one who told Nicolas about his wife’s affair. Clémence soon leaves Nicolas and her newborn to stay with her sister; Francine, feeling responsible, helps care for the child, allowing him to suckle her breast at one point.
The book contains all the signs that the readers of the novelist might know. As in so much of her work, Duras creates an atmosphere where violence is palpable and constant—not an impulse built into a single character so much as a chemical floating in the air. Although it is usually men who act out the brutality, it is often women who act as catalysts. Women are often left to deal with the consequences.
After the second and more devastating death in the family, in which Francine also feels involved, she leaves her mother’s home and goes to the town of T, near the sea, to grieve: “Who was I, who did I consider myself until now? … I couldn’t locate myself in the picture I just came across. I hovered around her, so close, but between us there was something like an impossibility to connect.” This is the part that reads most like a mature Duras: the fluidity of identity, the inability to ever fully understand other people’s wants, needs, and intentions, let alone one’s own. Also, thinking back to the baby’s face, it’s the mushyest. The ideas – the mystery of the self, the inexorable passage of time – are grasping and intricate, and Duras, trying too hard to pin them down, often loses them.
Duras connects the last part of the novel quickly and clumsily, with Francine receiving a marriage proposal from her brother’s friend. Moving associatively, not linearly, Lover it is celebrated for its bold form. Meanwhile, there is something disappointingly predictable, almost anachronistic – reminiscent of Jane Austen or the Brontës – about the way Easy life it ends as if it were an ordinary marriage plot.
wrote Duras Easy life 1943 at the age of 30. She wrote Lover— based on an affair she had with an older Chinese man while living as a teenager in Indochina — in 1984, at the age of 70. The first paragraph Lover introduces us to the image of the aged face of our narrator: “One day, I was already old, a man approached me at the entrance to a public place. He introduced himself and said: ‘I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but… I prefer your face the way it is now. Ravaged.’” After reading both books in quick succession, I also felt that awe, the power, and the crackle of that destruction.
Lover takes place through repetitions. Despite its experimental format, Duras particularly unfolds its story through specific moments, actions, visual elements: the narrator’s face at different ages, photos of her son, the clothes she wears. It allows us to sit within contradictions, tensions that are unwilling or unable to be alleviated. Skipping decades between passages, colliding seemingly disparate images, Duras illuminates not only the complexity of the affair but also the inextricable connections between the themes she has explored throughout her career. Lover examines almost every idea, in other words, that Easy life it does, but with a dexterity that can only be acquired with experience and time.
What, then, can we glean from the smaller, softer objects made by people who later give us the same obsessions in sharper, clearer form? No less important is the knowledge that almost everything we write is practice. If Lover is singular, Easy life is proof that singularity is built, slowly and thoughtfully, through the constant circulation of the same handful of preoccupations, through deconstruction and questioning of form. Making art almost always means failure, but in that failure comes the acquisition of more and more tools that could help us fail better, more daringly, the next time.