PRACTICALITIES <i> by Marguerite Duras translated by Barbara Bray (Grove Weidenfeld: $15.95; 143 pp.) </i>
The eminent French writer Marguerite Duras has had, since her earliest publications, fierce supporters and detractors. Admirers of her work will find in this collection of essays amplification and background thought to her fiction, but others are likely to consider the musings just another set of Gallic pronouncements.
Much of Duras’ fiction has been autobiographical; her works best known in this country--the decades-old screenplay “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” and the recent novel “The Lover"-- both are startling in their intimate portrayal of women. Certain personal themes recur in these pages: alcoholism, motherhood, the writer’s life and endless variations on the erotic: homosexuality, desire, frigidity (“the desire of a woman for a man who hasn’t yet come to her”).
“Practicalities” is ostensibly a series of interviews a young friend conducted with Duras, now 75. There is no trace, however, of the interview format. The questions have been left out entirely, and Duras’ “answers” read as though they were a series of reflections and opinions crystallized over years and penned perhaps in the solitude of her study. But it is fitting that this curious interviewer-subject relationship underlies her book; a fascination with the complexity and power of human relationships lies at the core of her writing, whether she is recounting an early erotic experience (or is it a fantasy?) or considering the idea of “house and home.”
Duras’ writing always speaks of mysteries. One of the pieces in this collection, “The Cutter-Off of Water” (the translation in general puts across the stern poetry of Duras’ thought, but occasionally sticks too close to the original, as if fearing to incur the author’s wrath by altering a syllable), speaks of the central importance to any story of what we don’t know. Her reflections center on an incident reported in the newspaper: A workman came to shut off the water at the house of a retarded couple because they couldn’t pay their bill. The couple killed themselves, along with their young children. It was reported later that the wife, who witnessed the shutting off, did not protest. The “silence of literature,” Duras observes, is what happened between the shutting off of the water and the moment when the family lay down quietly on the tracks of an oncoming train. She concludes that “silence isn’t a masculine thing. From the most ancient times, silence has been the attribute of women. So literature is women too. Whether it speaks of them or they actually write it, it’s them.”