France's Marguerite Duras Unveils a Secret Love Affair 55 Years Later in Her Sensual Best-Seller

Hers is a face cracked and lined by old desires and hatreds, ravaged by time and alcoholism. The coolest of observers, she is the first to acknowledge its ruin. “I have a face laid waste,” Marguerite Duras has written. Still, Duras, at 71, reigns today as a grande dame of French literature. Seated at her writing table, she greets a guest at Neauphle-le-Château, her home near Paris. “How is it doing, is it selling? Do you like it?” she asks anxiously, peppering her visitor with questions about the health of her new book, The Lover (Pantheon, $11.95). In France, where it was published last year, Duras’ best-selling novel won the prestigious Prix Goncourt. In the U.S. it is the surprise literary hit of the season, a searing prose poem about sexual awakening and forbidden love in Indochina.

For Duras, an intellectual with an impressive list of 41 novels (The Sea Wall, The Sailor From Gibraltar, Moderato Cantabile), films (Hiroshima, Mon Amour), plays and collected writings, this book is her first major commercial success. In this sexually heated, 117-page novella, she writes of a love affair between a 15½-year-old French girl and an older Chinese man; pure auto-biography, according to the author. “For a long time I wanted to write about this part of my life,” Duras explains, “this turning point between adulthood and childhood. But I had never found the strength to start it.”

Duras was born in Phnom Penh, the youngest child of Emile and Marie Donnadieu, two French schoolteachers based in Indochina. After her father’s death from amoebic dysentery when she was 4, Marguerite moved with her mother and two brothers, Pierre and Paul, to a house outside Saigon. Her childhood was shadowed by the family’s difficult financial problems and by her resentment toward her older brother, who dominated their mother’s love. She speaks of him as “coming from the devil.” She and her other brother, whom in fact she worshipped, swam in a mountain stream and sunned themselves in a garden filled with mango and fig trees.

The turning point came when she was the age of her heroine. A cool schoolgirl who dressed in a man’s hat and gold-lame shoes, she stepped into the waiting limousine of a stranger, a Chinese man 12 years her senior. “Yes, my fears spoke, but I didn’t listen,” Duras says. “I think my pleasure for living was stronger than my fears.” Nor did she tell her mother that she was having an affair. “It disgusted me to share such a confidence about my private life,” Duras says.

The liaison ended one and a half years later when Duras headed to Paris to study math at the Sorbonne. “He loved me too much for me to love him,” Duras says in her husky voice.

Duras’ life since has been marked by many affairs. One of the most passionate was with Robert Leroy, her first husband and a member of the Resistance during World War II. They divorced in 1946. “I suffered too much because of him,” Duras says. “I don’t think it was love. It was a sort of adoration.” She refuses to talk about the years she spent with a man she refers to only as D., the father of her son, Jean, born in 1947.

In spite of her turbulent private life, Duras, who began writing at 18, has been a prolific author. (She adopted the pen name Duras from a village in the south of France where her father once owned property.) She has also spent many years battling alcoholism. But in 1982, near death from cirrhosis, she checked into the American Hospital in Paris. Duras’ present companion, the writer Yanne Andrea, 32, gave moral support during her drinking battles.

Today a certain measure of tranquillity has come to Marguerite Duras. She lives surrounded by mementos, including sepia-tinted portraits of her family. There are no photographs on display of her first lover. But some years after the Second World War, when he came to Paris with his wife, there was a phone call. “And then he told her,” Duras writes in The Lover. “Told her that it was as before, that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he’d love her until death.”

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