Marguerite Duras: Internet Essayist?
On Leaving a Public Record of Your Mistakes
Marguerite Duras, whose 1984 novel The Lover is sometimes credited as an early work of autofiction, tends to repeat herself.
“The story of my life doesn’t exist,” she writes in The Lover. “Does not exist.”
This tendency makes her writing feel unaffected. Why use a new word, when the word you’ve already used does its job well? It’s the opposite of unsure, clumsy writing, the kind with evident thesaurus use, showing readers its own efforts. Rather than mulled over and unduly analyzed, her emotions feel immediate. It’s as though we’re inside her mind, which is reeling, dwelling, seeking.
She might’ve been a writer who felt comfortable online. Although she died in 1996, just as the Internet was becoming commercially viable and three years before LiveJournal was founded, her approach to writing publicly about herself presaged the bloggers, essayists and meme accounts who’re trying to do the same.
In a newly translated collection of her essays—Me & Other Writing—Duras is unabashedly self-interested. Of her mother, she writes, “she is not the main hero of my body of work, nor the most permanent. No, I am the most permanent.” Even when she is describing political events, such as the 1980 workers’ strike in Poland, she does so through personal anecdotes. She considers calling a friend, but worries that the wrong reaction—that is, a reaction that mismatches her own—might make her feel alienated, undercutting the news’ significance. Instead, she calls a Polish airline and chats with a stranger; they connect; they’re both moved; they hang up.In telling and retelling her stories—in allowing both versions to exist in the world—Duras allows her past and future selves to stand beside one another.
This all may seem narcissistic, or at least navel-gazing, and maybe it is. But it’s also something else: an acknowledgement of her own subjectivity, the incompleteness of her experience and her perspective. Although she is unabashed, she isn’t strident; she doesn’t claim all-knowingness. All she can understand wholly is herself; often, not even that. “It’s just my opinion,” she seems to say. And this frees her up to say a good deal.
In this way, she writes about her mother, Flaubert, a murder trial, and ready-to-wear fashion (a solution to the elitism of haute couture, she writes). She writes about the apocalypse and how much TV she watches. (“Television is nothing, nothing,” she writes. “And yet we watch it anyway, and we watch it along with the rest of the country, we’re there listening to the same things at the same time. And also learning things together, which isn’t so bad.”)
It seems that the personal essay in its current form—a fusion of anecdote and popular culture, sometimes hastily written, sometimes with a touch of theory, depending on the outlet—is not just a product of the Internet or sites and apps that profit from oversharing. It was, for Duras, a deliberately chosen mode of writing. She wrote for periodicals as a way to make money, and, secondarily, as a way to experience what she thought of as the more social world of nonfiction-writing, steeping herself in politics, culture, crime, and fashion. Still, her work slipped away from logos, from grounding facts and details, and into her own free associations.
Maybe the most salient similarity between her work and the Internet essay genre is her tendency not to overthink it, to rely instead on whatever associations her subconscious makes when she’s decided to sit down and write quickly.
“I have language at my disposal,” Duras writes in the short essay “Flaubert Is…,” a piece that begins as criticism and expands into a series of riffs and musings. “It’s when I stopped working that I found it at my disposal. When I overworked my books I didn’t have it at my disposal.” This laissez-faire attitude works well when you’re your own subject. “You have to let go,” Duras continues, “because you don’t know everything about yourself.”Maybe the most salient similarity between her work and the Internet essay genre is her tendency not to overthink it.
In order to let go, you must have something you’ve been holding onto—a body of knowledge collected over time, from reading and observing. Otherwise, spontaneous writing runs the risk of shallow breadth. Duras read avidly, amassing references and influences, which may be why her dashed-off reflections aren’t broad and shallow, but assured and direct, and moving in their directness. As she put it, “it’s when intelligence is at the pinnacle of its power that it goes quiet. And that’s when the writing flows.”
Social media is both ephemeral and permanent. We treat it like conversation—casual, flowing—yet we also treat posts as statements of record. Duras’s body of work—and her fractured newspaper essays in particular—is a reminder that it’s okay to press send, to publish your drafts.
The other risk of writing quick pieces for public consumption is the possibility of getting it wrong. Internet writers and social media users are familiar with this scenario: a typo riles pedantic readers, snarky readers, some well-meaning readers, and readers looking for a reason to be critical. On Twitter, revision isn’t an option, but deleting is a commonly practiced one. The etiquette here is murky: is deletion too concerned with saving face, and not concerned enough with keeping a public record of the information we share? Should Twitter act more like a newspaper, publishing corrections as addenda? Or should users be allowed to control their public image, at least on social media?
And what about the posts that aren’t incorrect or offensive, but personally cringe-worthy a day or a week or many years later—the hot takes we’ve grown out of, the jokes that aren’t funny, the photos of exes, the gushy vacation captions? Do we delete them, presenting a cohesive image—a brand—to our friends and followers? Do we leave them be, a record of our messiness and malleability? Is it self-interested to care?
Because social media has, for better or worse, turned many more of us into sharers rather than listeners, active rather than passive, it’s instructive to look at how writers, who share actively, have handled these questions. In reconciling their changing selves with their published and therefore fixed stories, writers as various as Tolstoy and Stephen King have denounced their own work, which isn’t quite deletion, but close. Duras, on the other hand, has not denounced her own work. Instead, she reconsiders the same events over and over, canting her view on the past as her present self changes.
After she learned that the man who The Lover is based on died, Duras wrote a second account of the affair called The North China Lover. It’s in third person, more distant, gauzier. She references her earlier book in the later one; the effect is that her emotions seem layered. She hasn’t lost her earlier feelings; she’s added to them. Of the object of her love, a much-older businessman, she writes, “he’s a little different from the one in [The Lover]: he’s a little more solid than the other, less frightened than the other, bolder. He is better-looking, more robust.”
In writing this, she is not revising her earlier accounts to include newer, more accurate scenes, feelings, information; instead, like a critic or scholar, she values her past perceptions as artifacts of the time in which she wrote them. It’s telling that Duras nearly named the book The Lover Revisited. She doesn’t denounce the past, or delete it, or revise it. She revisits. She repeats. She tells it again, and although the facts of the telling are the same, the texture has changed, reflecting who she is now.
In telling and retelling her stories—in allowing both versions to exist in the world—Duras allows her past and future selves to stand beside one another, presenting a multi-faceted self—not a brand, or a monolith. She left behind a public record of her messiness, her shifting self. If it turned out she got something wrong, she revisited, she said it again. In doing so, she didn’t erase the record. She added to it.
This is true not only of her fictional work, but her shorter periodical pieces, too. “I’ve already said it and I’ll say it again,” Duras writes in Me & Other Stories. “It’s never the same. You have to say things again.”