Marguerite Duras: a life

Laure Adler <em>Victor Gollancz, 424pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0575067705

Marguerite Duras is best known in this country for the bestselling The Lover, which presents a sanitised version of events from her brutalised adolescence, and for the equally notorious La Douleur, in which she confronted the violent aftermath of the Second World War in France and her own involvement in torturing a collaborator. Her fiction elides fantasy and autobiography according to her own recipe. She understood that the imagination is linked, in complex ways, to the unconscious self, to the mysterious inner space she called "the shadow". To convey this insight, she invented fractured narratives, defying commonsense notions of identity and storytelling.

Laure Adler, who knew Duras fairly well for a number of years, has written a biography, interweaving historical facts with critical appraisals, that at times reads like a novelistic meditation, full of epigrams. She presents an account of a character named Marguerite Duras, and she adds her signature to her creation.

Duras was born in 1914 in Gia Dinh, near Saigon. Her father was a teacher who rapidly abandoned his small family, returning to France. Her mother, also a teacher, did not love her new baby, partly perhaps because she was so ill after the birth, that she was separated from her infant daughter for eight months. The child was cared for by a hired boy. These early traumas were compounded by Marguerite's sexual abuse, at the age of four, by a boy of 11; by the cruelty unremittingly inflicted on her by her brother, Pierre, a very disturbed child in his own turn, and by the continuing knowledge that as a daughter, she was considered worthless. Her mother effectively sold her to the Chinese man whose relationship with her is so romanticised in The Lover, which was later filmed.

All her life, Marguerite searched for love and affection, using the only language she had for it - sex. Adler praises her as a woman tremendously gifted for the pleasures of lovemaking, but these were inextricably bound up with ideas of giving and receiving pain. Duras was not free in some idealised way; her sexuality expressed tremendous anxiety and rage, and who can wonder? None the less, just as the unforgettable landscape of Indo-China gave her the enduring images for her art, so the emotional atmosphere of her childhood made her into a writer determined to master experience by investigating language, a serious professional who succeeded in a heavily male-dominated literary establishment and who uncompromisingly continued to invent her own disturbing visions of the world.

The young Marguerite studied law in Paris, embarking on the characteristic pleasures of student life. She was never friendly with Sartre and de Beauvoir, though their political circles overlapped. She took a job in the Colonial Office. The first book she ever wrote was a commission: a work of propaganda outlining the virtues and greatness of the colonial empire. With an offensive worldview structured according to notions of white superiority, the book demonstrates the racism then endemic among white intellectuals.

When war broke out, Duras effectively became a collaborator, working for the Book Organisation Bureau, under the constant surveillance of the Bureau of Propaganda, in charge of allocating paper to publishers, all under the thumb of German censorship. Gradually, she became involved in the Resistance, while also working on her first novel, getting married and taking a lover, making friends with her Resistance comrade Francois Mitterrand. After finding a literary godfather in Raymond Queneau, she left the Book Organisation Bureau and concentrated on her underground activities. She took "every risk there was to take" and volunteered for the "most delicate of missions". When her husband was arrested and interned, Duras did not scruple to initiate a relationship with the relevant Gestapo officer, to try to bribe him to help. The ambiguities of this situation are at the root of the violence in La Douleur. Duras ended the war a communist. It was the ideal she believed in, less so its corrupt incarnation.

All her life she wrote prolifically, as well as scripting and directing innumerable films. She became a celebrity and an alcoholic, who almost died on many occasions. At the same time, she was a beloved friend, an amusing and passionate lover, a generous hostess whose doors were always open. People dropped in for supper and found the kind of boho charm that, in the early days, was not backed up by serious money. Duras cooked exquisite Vietnamese dishes, went slumming with boyfriends, scribbled erotic texts, laboured unceasingly at her version of the nouveau roman. She protected her wounded self by becoming increasingly megalomaniac and paranoid. She died not fearing death.

Adler speaks of her "gentle presence". The novels are what she gave back to life: a generous gift, considering.

Michele Roberts's most recent novel is Fair Exchange (Virago, £6.99)