Destroy, She Said – Marguerite Duras and the radical power of subversion. (fiction review)

You’re all remarkably interested in her,’ says Bernard Alione.

‘Yes.’

‘Might one inquire why?’ – his voice is stronger again.

‘Literary reasons,’ says Stein, laughing.

He goes on laughing. Alissa watches him, enchanted.

‘So my wife’s a character in a novel?’ says Bernard Alione.

He sneers. But his voice is still strained in spite of his efforts.

‘A perfect one,’ Max Thor answers.

In the 1970 first published in English edition of Destroy, She Said Marguerite Duras has added a couple of paragraphs at the back entitled ‘notes for performance’ indicating the novel can be used as a play.  In these notes she makes suggestions about characters physical appearances, inflections, movement styles etc. Towards the end she makes this interesting point: No one actually ‘cries out’, even when the word is used: it indicates an inner reaction only.

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This is an excellent summation of Destroy, She Said, a novel rife with pent-up frustrations, and the interpersonal attack human creates will make on another human creature they perceive for whatever reason, may be weaker than themselves. It’s a wholly political novel, written in 1969 under the pro economic modernist and contemporary industrialist presidency of Georges Pompidou. In fact when one of the two main characters describes herself and her two contemporaries as German Jews, she is referring to a famous anti-nationalist student slogan of 1968.

Max Thor stands up.  He meets Stein in the hall. He is radiant with happiness.

‘You didn’t tell me Alissa was insane,’ says Stein.

‘I didn’t know,’ Says Max Thor.

However, when Pompidou tried to appropriate the novel as a symbol of the destructiveness of modern youth, he made an error.  The ‘Capitalist destruction’ Alissa is bent on is not the destruction of buildings and institutions, but the annihilation of ‘civilized’ egoism. Marguerite Duras herself said “Destroy… annuls the others” meaning that this is the most radically revolutionary of Duras’ novels providing a kind of crescendo for a lifetime of work, in terms of her political points. Destroy She Said may not be the most exquisitely beautiful of her works (there is an ocean of exquisite beauty in Marguerite Duras, so which work can be seen as the apex of all that is far beyond me to judge) but it is the most aggressive and forthright that I have read.  The way the three main characters descend upon Elizabeth Alione is ruthless in the unapologetic self-serving nature.  Characters are often cries in Duras’ novels, and always haunted by the unsayable, but these three are unencumbered by their own philosophical positions; rather they are inquiring as they conquer.

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Barbra Bray (translator) writes in the introduction to the English translation, that Duras’ characters have always managed somehow to dissolve barriers between them despite overwhelming gulfs in recognition of person hood.  In Destroy, She Said this is no longer a tendency but a fully realized notion. In Destroy, She Said Alissa, Max Thor and Stein are almost interchangeable.  Their relationships and identities are always interchanging, subtly shifting and merging and admit none of the men and women’s usual possessiveness and competition. Even Alissa and her antagonist Elizabeth (or should I say her ‘prey’) can meld into one in certain scenes in the novel.

‘In the book I haven’t written there was only you,’ says Alissa.

‘How strongly,’ says Max Thor, smiling, ‘how strongly sometimes one feels one mustn’t write that book. I shall never write any books.’

‘Can one really say a thing like that?’

‘Yes, and mean it.’

‘Stein will write,’ says Alisa. ‘So we don’t need to.’

In many ways Elizabeth represents many Duras heroines prior to this novel: middle-aged, bourgeois, elegant, attractive, whose life is all emotion. Through the eyes of the three young people she emerges as weak and in need of conversion, but in typical Duras style, we see her differently to those around her. To quote Bray again, “The character, in spite of having now been marked down for demolition, is much the same; it is the author who has moved on.”

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It is this inter subjectivity in the novel, especially revealed through the use of ‘he’ and ‘she’, that keeps the book far from any form of realism. There is no need within the novel to puzzle out the relationship between Alissa, Max Thor and Stein despite their constant interwoven narrative, declarations of love, and mutual intentions. Prior to this, Duras’ concepts of love were more or less conventional, always straining toward an impossible fulfillment. In Destroy, She Said, the battles between men and women are abandoned. Stein and Max Thor both love Alissa without jealousy and  Stein counsels Alissa in not reacting to Maz Thors feelings for Elizabeth Alione. This counseling is a direct reference to Bakunin and the anarchist notions of “not suffering”.  “The psychological implications of all this are not even glanced at.  They are not the point. The book presents a pattern rather than relates a narrative,” states Bray in the introduction.

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It is Duras’ habit of seeing what she writes and writing what she sees that moves the structure to its natural powerful reduction. The novel Destroy She Said owes as much to the image as to the word.  When the book is made into the film, the images becomes beautifully dependent on the word. The result is something condensed as always with Duras, physical ambiance kept to a minimum. None of the other hotel gusts are ever seen. The Tennis is only ever heard. In the dialogue there is no analysis and no suppositions about what anyone things or feels. Characters are oblique as necessary to give meaning, not representations of real people. The result is a radical novel, as difficult to grasp as it is enticing to read. One gets the feeling of holding a subversive text, though the revolution is never within one’s grasp. In this way, Georges Pompidou was accurate in that it was a novel with timely tale to tell, but perhaps not as neatly prescribed as he hoped.  Perhaps, also far more radical than he could be comfortable with.

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