The Muse of Trouville
In 1979, aged 65, the iconic French writer Marguerite Duras was exhausted, creatively emptied out and drinking herself to death. For many months, the only thing that had sustained her was writing fragments of letters to an imagined addressee, perhaps as notes to be turned into an epistolary novel but mostly because she needed a confidante and would have to create one if he didn’t exist. The notes were full of exclamations like ‘I must stop drinking at night, I must go to bed early so that I can write you long letters and not die.’ These were perilous times for Duras who, despite a hectic life in the thick of political and artistic movements, was lonely, in a way that not only ate at her soul, but undermined her creative vitality. She had always needed to give voice to her inner violence, either in difficult love affairs or in her difficult texts and films, but here she was, old and ugly and all washed up. What would become of her now?
At about this time a gentle young student called Yann began writing to Duras, whose work he admired to the point of obsession. He was studying at Caen on the northern coast of France, he was 27 years old and he wrote charming, delightful letters. Generally, Duras did not pay much attention to her fan mail, reading what was sent to her but never replying, and yet she found herself starting to look out for his letters. Then, towards the end of 1979, she went to Caen as a guest of the university film club, which was organizing a debate on her India Song. Yann was among a group of students who accompanied her for a drink in a local bistro afterwards. At the end of the evening, he identified himself and offered to walk her back to her car. They parted amicably with no indication of the turn their lives would take, but after this evening, Duras wrote back to him. And then, overwhelmed with the desire to confide in someone who so obviously loved her work, she wrote again, and more explicitly. What must this young man have felt, when Duras suddenly began replying, telling him about her alcoholism, confiding the intimate sum of her life? History suggests that fans do not always want to be pounced upon by the object of their idealism; he must have been terrified, because his letters instantly dried up and several months passed in silence. He could have had no idea that for Marguerite Duras he would look like the realization of a consoling fantasy.
Yann must have had sterner stuff inside him, however, or a presentiment of what advantages there might be for a young man under the protection of a legend of French literature, or maybe he was just honestly curious or sympathetic towards her distress. In any case, in September 1980 he telephoned her. One morning, not long afterwards, he came out to the apartment in Trouville to visit, and more or less never left. From the moment he stepped over her threshold, Yann became Duras’s muse, her pet and her slave. She would turn him into literature, writing their story over and again, sometimes with a greater layer of disguise, sometimes quite openly, renaming him Yann Andréa Steiner, spilling their intimate secrets to the world. But she also needed him for pragmatic and psychological reasons. She took up his time and attention, she demanded his absolute loyalty and complicity, and she needed his practical help, driving her around, carrying her in his arms when she was too frail to walk, typing for her, protecting her from the outside world, putting up with her bad moods and her humiliating remarks. Although they began their relationship in a soggy alcoholic mess, he prolonged her life by getting her into detox at a critical moment.
And what was in it for him? ‘I can’t live without her,’ a friend of Duras’s, Michèle Manceaux, quotes him as saying. ‘She’s a drug; I’m her main focus, the focus of all her attention. No one has ever loved me like that. Her writing about it, about the passion, it doesn’t kill me, I’m no longer me, Yann, but she’s made me exist to the power of a hundred.’ Yann received, then, the classic payback of the muse, a chance to be vitally enmeshed in the creative genius of another, to be transformed and immortalized, and he seemed to be satisfied by it. Like the young Alice Liddell who inspired Lewis Carroll, or Elizabeth Siddal with her lover Dante Gabriel Rossetti, he entered into a world peopled with the fantasies and fictions of his mentor, and became one of them in his turn.
There must have been enormous narcissistic benefits to this, much more than we generally assign to the model in art, because there were also some notable disadvantages to the relationship for Yann. There is no doubt that in previous times Marguerite Duras was an extraordinary person to be around – accounts abound from former friends, lovers and husbands testifying to her charm and vivacity, the sheer depth of engagement she wrought from life. She had been a fierce defender of the poor and the disadvantaged, a fearless member of the Resistance and a writer whose unusual style had resulted in a unique contribution to literature and cinema. But as she aged, her drinking got out of hand and her difficult personality became increasingly disordered; she could be breathtakingly vain, controlling, irrational, demanding, and depressed. Not that many young, healthy men with their lives ahead of them would give up sixteen prime years to care for an often crotchety, drunken old prima donna.
Marguerite Duras’s good fortune was particularly marked when we consider how difficult it was for women writers in her era to find supportive, let alone inspirational partners. Colette’s first husband, Willy, or Henri Gaultier-Villars, was certainly keen that she write, but in order to encourage her, he locked her in her room until she produced sufficient pages. The novels she wrote during their marriage were turned over to him and published under Willy’s name. Katherine Mansfield fell into a relationship with John Middleton Murray that was based on the heady fantasy that they could be mutually supportive geniuses. In the event, Murray was jealous of Mansfield’s talent and horrified by her consumptive illness. The sicker she became the more he avoided her, eventually sending her away on a more or less permanent basis to the South of France while he remained safely in England. Martha Gellhorn’s marriage to Ernest Hemingway was doomed from the start because she insisted on remaining a war correspondent and returning to China directly after their marriage in 1940. Hemingway wanted his women docile and submissive and simply could not understand Gellhorn’s inability ‘to tag along and like it’ as his other wives had done. They fought, physically at times, over her continued desire for a writing career, and the marriage ended acrimoniously. Even Simone de Beauvoir never found the relationship that she needed; Sartre took more of the credit than he really deserved for founding the doctrine of Existentialism and then, as their affair waned, he encouraged Beauvoir to pimp for him from amongst her students at the Parisian college where she taught. Beauvoir, loyal to a fault, went along with it all in the vain hope of retaining Sartre’s love. None of these men were muses to the women writers, if we understand the concept of the muse to be the source of creative inspiration, and a loving, willing, even selfless, helpmate of the artist. In all of these artistic relationships, the man could not help competing with the woman, even when, as in the case of John Murray Middleton or Willy, his talent was clearly the smaller.
‘Do women artists have muses,’ Francine Prose wonders in her study of the role, ‘and are there male muses?’ The problem is often a pragmatic one, she considers, given that so few men are really willing to take on the slavish domestic duties that often accompany the role. And if, like Leonard Woolf, they are, Prose suggests that the dimension of romantic inspiration dies. Virginia Woolf was always grateful to Leonard, but she did not use him to create. Taking as her paradigm the relationship between Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton, who, when he came to visit, would lie back on a cushioned couch and demand stories from Blixen, Prose argues that when the male muse does exist, he ends up playing the role of the Sultan to the female artist’s Scheherazade. He provokes her to creativity so that she may appease and placate, so that she maintains his interest in her as a storyteller or a sexual woman, and he remains in consequence cheerful and unthreatening. The male muse inspires only on his own terms, and so he manages to hold the balance of his companion’s life – even if just her emotional life – in his hands.
The case of Yann and Marguerite provided a different kind of model. Yann was there purely for Marguerite; he was not seeking to launch his own career off her fame, or to enter into competitive rivalry with her. Nor did he need to be placated or persuaded of the value of her work. He had arrived as a fan, and he remained one. Marguerite adored him, and stenciled directly from their lives onto the written page (which Yann typed up). If she quickly became dependent upon him, it was not just for his practical support, but as the person who simply gave her the strength and the compulsion to write. And writing, for Duras, was the most valuable part of her life. In her last few months, when she was too weak and ill to do anything more than talk a little, Yann wrote down everything she said, and Duras, who had always found her own spontaneous babble to be scintillating, was able to end her life and her final, posthumously published book, C’est tout (1995) with the words ‘I love you. Goodbye’.
But their relationship was not the eccentric paradise it seemed, for it was fraught with underlying difficulty. Yann was homosexual and Marguerite found this hard to accept: what she really wanted was a full relationship with him, despite their age differences. Both parties talked freely about the binding love they shared, and Duras would claim that they had had sex, but nothing could stop Yann from disappearing for a night or longer without warning, leaving a distraught Marguerite behind. ‘How many of her companions at that time were spared the phone calls in the middle of the night,’ wrote her biographer, Laure Adler, somewhat wearily, ‘from a panic-stricken Marguerite wanting the police contacted so that they could search the streets and hotels for Yann?’ Duras must have found these disappearances painful and humiliating and she was a good hater, a good grudge-bearer. She had cut many people out of her life for much less, and in punishment, she frequently treated Yann with bitter contempt. But if we look more closely at Duras’s work, we can see that this kind of intense emotional turmoil did not undermine her writing life but was, in fact, essential to it. The male muse, in the case of Marguerite Duras, had to be the kind of man who slotted neatly into her literary landscape of tortured, unconventional and sometimes shocking relationships.
For Duras’s work is full of unorthodox erotic scenarios. In Moderato Cantabile (1958), bored, bourgeois housewife, Anne, turns up again and again at the seedy café where she witnessed a crime of passion take place, meeting a man there, Chavin, who questions her obliquely about her life and her desires. In The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein (1964), the eponymous Lol finds satisfaction lying in a field of rye outside a hotel where her friend, Tatiana, has gone with Lol’s lover. In the film Hiroshima mon amour, for which she wrote the screenplay in 1960, the female protagonist uses a transient relationship with a Japanese man to remember the traumatic love she found with a German officer during the war. In these scenarios and many more, Duras pursued her distinctive literary concerns. Her special territory was the account of a disturbing relationship, or the shocking, unexpected expression of the violence that always lurks behind even respectable façades.
French literature is arguably more at ease with representations of sexuality than that of any other nation, more accepting of its fundamental place in human nature and more sympathetic to its caprices. Duras pushed this acceptance to its outermost limits, focusing on her characters at the moments where bullying desire obliged them to commit actions that were bizarre, immoral and inexplicable. More than any other woman author, Duras explored the dark intransigence at the heart of sexuality, the determined madness it provoked, and she often did so from a very personal perspective.
‘Sexuality,’ wrote the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, ‘plays havoc with our logic, with our just-so cause-and-effect stories, with our modern obsession with security in human relations and with our ability to make promises. […] It is this that has made our sexuality mad, bad and dangerous to know. Our erotic lives uncover the fact that our preferences do not necessarily accord with our standards.’ If sanity is the name we award to the best versions of our selves that we can muster, Duras’s originality was to suggest that sanity is in that case a rather polite and fallacious piece of individual PR. Something vital is being stifled inside that sane outer casing, and the reader never fears for a character in a Duras novel as much as when they are leading orthodox and well-regulated lives. The sort of madness provoked by intense desire provided a place where, she suggested, we might find a far more authentic, if somewhat alarming, portrait of our true selves.
If Duras was fascinated by the obscene, by that which should be ob-scene, kept offstage and away from polite society, it was because she believed it held a vital truth. But she also had a natural inclination to be honest and self-revelatory to a degree that was almost excruciating. Partly this was a strange form of vanity. Partly it was an intuitive conviction that the troubles arising from the deepest and darkest parts of the soul made for the most compelling writing. And so, for Marguerite Duras to have a relationship – an exclusive, intense, bewildering relationship – with a gay man was fertile literary ground to her. The 38-year age gap didn’t hurt, either. She set about producing works that celebrated the restorative power of vibrant youth, or probed the existential angst that came from being forbidden the object of desire. But then she turned to a novel that seemed to be a respite from her hopeless longing for Yann, although in many ways it could be seen as a direct consequence of it.
This book was called The Lover, (L’amante, 1984) and it covered already well-trodden ground. It was the story of Duras’s childhood in Indo-China, which had already provided the outline for her first novel, published in 1943, Les Imprudents. This history then became the focus of the novel that gained her widespread recognition in France, The Sea Wall (Un Barrage contre le Pacifique, 1950), and now here it turned up again in a final, spectacular flourish. The story itself was certainly one worth telling. Duras grew up in a complicated mix of natural splendor and emotional poverty. Her schoolteacher parents had moved to Vietnam before she was born, seduced by the promises made by the colonial French government. Her father died when she was still a small child and her mother, a brutish character, argumentative, vindictive and easily depressed, was left with three small children on her hands and a living to earn. Of these three children she really cared only for the eldest son, a born waster with a violent streak. Duras wrote powerfully and pitifully of the violence she had to endure at the hands of her mother and older brother, and the solace she sought (of a sexual nature, she claimed) with her younger brother. In her early teens the family moved to Cambodia, once again lured on by the prospect of riches to be made in farming. The mother had saved up and bought a concession, unaware that the land would be inundated for half the year by the Pacific ocean. Driven half mad by frustration and despair, she attempted to build a wall against the sea. Such a project was destined to fail. By this time, the 15-year-old Marguerite, despite being considered by her mother scrawny and ugly and unlikely to attract a man, had turned into an attractive waif of a girl, compact, reserved, with a petulant mouth and a luminous, penetrating gaze. She found herself the reluctant object of the attentions of a much older Chinese man. Her mother, sensing money to be made, encouraged the affair, while Marguerite did her best to overcome her dislike of his ageing, pockmarked skin and his lack of charm. Being sold by a neglectful mother must have inflicted a deep narcissistic wound, and it accounts for much in Duras’s subsequent life and work.
Duras would tell the story so many times and in so many different ways that the boundaries between life and art became confused not just for her reading public but for Duras herself. What was notable about The Lover, however, was the merciful airbrushing that the story received on this particular recounting. Duras wrote it as she always did, recreating to the point of hallucination her forceful mother and the sensuous landscape of Indo-China, feeding off the anger of her dysfunctional family to reach the deepest and most intense emotions. But the affair at its center is an erotic masterpiece, and the lover is no longer a depraved voyeur but a silky-skinned object of male beauty. In the midst of her love affair with Yann, when she was now the older, richer, physically uglier partner in the transaction, Duras had manufactured a consoling version of her past. Her young female narrator was the epitome of desirability, and the sex this time was good (even if the relationship was still torturous). Duras had given herself the erotically satisfying adolescence she should have had, in place of the erotically disastrous love affair she was living. Not that she ever claimed this book as a work of autobiography. In fact, she tried to insist on its fictionality, only the general public, far more avid for a tale of attractive star-crossed lovers than for an upsetting act of maternal pimping, did not want to believe her.
Her publishers, Éditions de Minuit, who had never before printed more than 10,000 copies of a book, took a risk on an initial print run of 25,000. They sold out in one day. Within a couple of months 450,000 copies had been sold, and in a couple of years, the two million mark was passed. The book won international acclaim and the Prix Goncourt, and for the first time ever, Newsweek devoted a whole page to French writing with its review. But within a year, Duras had disowned The Lover. She called it an airport novel, something she had written while she was drunk, a book she had never really liked. The next book she published about a love affair was an altogether more rebarbative read, an explicit account of an older woman with a gay man who felt only disgust for her body. She was back on form.
How should we evaluate the presence of Yann Andréa as muse in Marguerite Duras’s life? It is true that he caused her emotional pain, and that his presence in her life was as much a source of profound frustration as it was of joy. What was their relationship exactly? He wasn’t a son to Duras; she didn’t need filial affection. He was far more than a useful servant and secretary. They loved each other, lived as a couple, appeared together on the cover of Le nouvel observateur. But the erotic component was missing, the part of any relationship in which Duras was most interested and most invested. She felt it keenly.
And yet, Marguerite Duras thrived all her life off her inner contradictions and her refusal to embrace convention. If Yann was an insult to her sense of herself as erotically attractive, he was still a fabulous gesture of defiance to the cultural tendency to consign older women to sexless invisibility, and her declining years were far more tolerable with his attentive, helpful companionship. Most importantly, he arrived in her life at a point when things had looked hopeless, when she had felt isolated and lonely and sinking towards death, and he had given her something to write about and someone to write for. The spur to creativity he provided saw her through another dozen or so books, of which The Lover, regardless of Duras’s ambivalence, brought her international fame. Duras undoubtedly suffered from insecurity and the rage of frustration and fear of her own bad temper. But we should think of the tender and unfailing vigil Yann kept over her in the last years of her life, and that late flowering of books when it had seemed that all was lost, and wonder how many women, let alone how many artists, get to be so lucky.
Victoria Best is an academic who taught French literature for ten years at Cambridge University. Recently, she has moved into study support in order to have time to write more widely. She blogs at Tales From The Reading Room.