THE FRENCH nouveau roman has been one of the least charming literary modes of the last few centuries: 39 ways of looking at a Venetian blind, for none of which will the writer take responsibility. There is a sort of inverted boasting about it; the stance of "I don't know any better than you" seemed in its day wry and sophisticated, but now appears coy and fake-ignorant. Plot is vulgar; character is old-fashioned ("But how can we ever know what someone is really like?" the nouveau romancier feebly and self-excusingly cries); tenses and persons are fiddled with (past to present, first to third-distancing devices to keep book and writer at arm's length from the reader); above all, the tone is cool and unimpressed. While to ask about truth -- how true, for instance, was Marguerite Duras' The Lover? -- merely displays a coarse and prelapsarian mind. Autobiography filtered through a bad memory may as well be called fiction: why not?
This new collection of texts (as Marguerite Duras would, and does, prefer to call them) is tricked out with typically irritating explanations of their status. "This text has remained unpublished for forty years. Now I can't remember what it's about. But it's a text that takes off on its own. It might well work in the cinema." We'll be the judge of that, the uncowed response to that final remark might be; and one is also impelled to ask how you manage to rewrite a story when you can't remember what it was about in the first place. Another chapter begins with this advertisement: "I give you the torturer along with the rest of the texts. Learn to read them properly: they are sacred." Here we are reminded that feyness can quite happily co-exist with arrogance in a writer, and that the "I can't remember composing this" line (genuine as it might be) also implies "But I certainly think it's worth publishing." YET PICK your way past these nettles and strands of barbed wire, and Marguerite Duras' book proves forcefully interesting. Four chunks of diary or as-it-were diary (readers mustn't be too sure of the status of what they're getting) plus two very short stories evoke the paranoid reality of occupied (and just-liberated) Paris with a rich conviction enhanced by the spare, almost arid technique. The lack of drama in the prose, plus the absence of heroics or sentimentality in the tone, powerfully set off the violent reality of the subject matter.
In the title memoir (the most normally dramatic piece in the book) Duras' husband is rescued in the nick of time from Belsen (by the young Francois Mitterrand, no less) and agonizingly nursed back to life. "Monsieur X" recounts the nervously symbiotic relationship between Duras the re'sistante and a Nazi collaborator, in which it rapidly becomes unclear who has power over whom (the moral world of this piece is reminiscent of Greene's The Tenth Man). "Albert of the Capitals" describes without flinching or special pleading a torture session in which Duras was the interrogator, while "Ter of the Militia" concerns a likable, womanizing collaborator motivated not by political belief but by a taste for action -- the hardest sort of enemy to deal with, since he accepts his probable fate, and declines to bear a grudge against you, his executioners.
It is in areas like these, where the moral line blurs, where the enemy becomes understandable and human, where you get too close and the vision begins to blur, that Duras is at her strongest. If these four texts were indeed written during or just after the war and have remained largely unrevised, then they display a clarity of mind and eye remarkable in a 30-year-old. But there is a daunting chilliness there too: when Robert L., Duras' husband, returns from Belsen, he has barely got his strength back when she tells him that she is going off with a Resistance comrade called D. "I said that even if D hadn't existed I wouldn't have lived with him again. He didn't ask me my reasons for leaving. I didn't tell him what they were." Is it sentimental to feel that the fellow deserves a better explanation than this; and is it unreasonable to feel that we, as readers, deserve one too?