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A new look at Marguerite Duras, who, at 70, shocked the literary world

The first English translation of the French novelist’s second book, ‘The Easy Life,’ captures its experimentation — and melodrama

At 70, Marguerite Duras published, to much acclaim, “The Lover,” an autobiographical novel about her sexual awakening at age 15 in Saigon, with an older, wealthy man. She had alluded to this deflowering in others of her many novels, but this one got the most attention, winning her the Prix Goncourt in 1984 and turning her into something of a literary icon. This explains the excitement, in some corners of the literary world, over the publication last month of the first English translation of Duras’ novel “The Easy Life,” which came out in 1944, in French, when the author was 26.

Among those excited by the book’s new life is Kate Zambreno, an avant-garde autofictionist who contributed the introduction to the English edition.

Taking a cue from her literary heroine, Zambreno gets personal in explaining her approach to the book: “I take notes on Duras with my breast still out. The baby’s father and her sister are in the kitchen, making hot chocolate, tofu for soup.”

With a well-thumbed stack of Duras novels on her nightstand, Zambreno has background on the book to impart: Although the work was criticized for a “muddled narrative” and a “lack of control,” Gallimard published “The Easy Life” (“La Vie Tranquille”) anyway, recognizing “a true writer’s voice.” Zambreno praises the book’s fractured nature. It’s a style, she says, that would become the author’s “trademark in later works — the instability of point of view, of her sense of self, a woman alone in a room, staring at a mirror, attempting to both disappear and find herself.”

Annie Ernaux writes about deep pain with cool restraint

I confess I had not read Duras before “The Easy Life,” so I prepared myself for an undisciplined, experimental work — an idea that was both alluring and off-putting. What I found was indeed unruly and unusual.

The opening of the book struck me as almost comical, with its torrent of melodramatic plot combined with a total absence of character development. As the curtain rises, the narrator Francine’s brother Nicolas has killed their uncle Jérôme because Francine spilled the beans on Jérôme’s affair with Nicolas’s wife, Clémence. In the wake of this, Clémence takes off, leaving her young child, Noël, in the care of Francine. Nicolas tentatively reconnects with his own longtime other-woman, Luce, but eventually lies down on the train tracks and kills himself. After his death, Luce comes after Francine’s own boyfriend, Tiène.

“Chaos, boredom, chaos,” as the narrator summarizes it.

For my part, I couldn’t help recalling what they used to say at the end of every episode of “Love of Chair,” the soap opera parody in “The Electric Company” — “And … what about Naomi?”

But back to the so-called easy life.

In Part 2, Francine takes off for the beach to absorb the weightiness of it all. “It did happen, Jérôme’s death, but Nicolas is also dead. Clémence is gone, Noël is abandoned. My parents have become quasi-insane, finished.” But she has begun to doubt that it really is her fault. If it were, she thinks, shouldn’t she feel some remorse? In any case, the chaos and boredom continue as she watches impassively from the beach when a man drowns himself in the sea. The people at her hotel are so appalled by her flat reaction to the death that they kick her out.

The famously unstable point of view surfaces in the beach hotel section. The narration begins to alternate between first and third person — “Here, in my room, it’s me. It’s as if she no longer knows it’s her” — and what seems to be the main idea of the book emerges. “If I had known that one day I would have a story, I would have chosen it, I would have lived with more care to make it beautiful and true so that I would like it. Now it’s too late.”

Now she’s stuck with this chaotic, boring story, which she’ll be playing with for the rest of her writing life — dead brothers, crazy mothers, unclear responsibility for one’s actions, the constant undertow of the erotic.

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Those of us who read mainly to escape chaos and boredom are not the target audience for “The Easy Life.” More intellectually and philosophically motivated readers, and certainly anyone who already knows and loves Duras, should plunge right in.

You can hope to have an experience similar to that rhapsodically described by the translators, Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes, in their afterword. “We channeled Francine’s boredom, her chaos, her youth and inherent old age. We let ourselves feel her fatigue, her containment, and her fragmentation, in turns. That’s how you translate Duras: you become one of her dreamers and degenerates.”

I, on the other hand, remain a philistine and a hayseed. Perhaps Annie Ernaux can cure me.

Marion Winik, a professor at the University of Baltimore, is the author of numerous books, including “First Comes Love,” “The Big Book of the Dead” and, most recently, “Above Us Only Sky.”

The Easy Life

By Marguerite Duras. Introduction by Kate Zambreno. Translated by Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes

Bloomsbury. 208 pp. Paperback, $18

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