Let Me Love You Like a Woman

‘The Easy Life’ by Marguerite Duras, translated by Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes



I’ve always found the question of what it is that a character wants very boring and annoying. I’ve heard it asked many times in creative writing workshops when someone, usually a woman (and sometimes that woman is me), has handed in a story where there are lots of pretty sentences that convey a deep emotionality but where nothing in particular happens. The general consensus is that that’s not enough when it comes to narrative prose. The protagonist has to want something.  Because when you know what someone wants, you know what needs to happen next. Most stories function teleologically; the protagonist moves in the direction of the object of their desire. What is remarkable about Marguerite Duras’s The Easy Life is that not only does it feature a heroine who is consistently out of touch with—and even actively in denial of—what she wants, but Duras has also managed to translate that heroine’s struggle into a compelling narrative, all while maintaining the depth of the feminine interiority contained in her prose.

The novel was published 1944 but has only just been translated into English. Translators Emma Ramadan and Olivia Baes met in a master’s program at the American University of Paris and, upon discovering their shared love of Duras, decided to collaborate on translating the author’s books that had yet to be published in English.

The Easy Life begins in the immediate aftermath of an irrevocable act of violence. The narrator, Francine Veyrenattes, trails behind her brother, Nicolas, and their uncle, Jérôme. The two men have just been in a fight, and Jérôme, who has been having an affair with Nicolas’s wife, is mortally wounded by his nephew. All three characters walk slowly back to the home that they share in Les Bugues, a small town in the French countryside where the majority of the story takes place. Over the course of the next two weeks, Jérôme cries out in excruciating pain as Francine tends to him with doses of morphine prescribed by the country doctor, who is appalled at the cruelty of the family for not reaching him sooner: “He’s dying! Those are death rattles. Why didn’t you call me earlier?” Jérôme eventually dies a lonely death that is mourned by no one in the family, except perhaps his lover, Clémence (Nicolas’s wife), who flees afterward, leaving behind her small son, Noël. Francine’s parents refuse to make the sign of the cross over Jérôme’s dead body before closing the door of his coffin, and there is no funeral. The novel is littered with neglect and abandonment, and none of the characters in the family display care or tenderness toward each other, except for Francine, who loves deeply, albeit quietly.

The drama here is riveting in its subtlety. Most of the events unfold through covert glances and actions which are intended to go unnoticed but which we witness by way of Francine’s captive and probing attention. We learn that Nicolas’s plan to fight his uncle was not his own but was slyly planted by Francine, who discovers the affair when she hears the two lovers whispering through the wall beside her in the middle of the night. The information Francine gathers by way of her careful, sensory attunement to the lives of those around her is the seed of everyone’s eventual undoing, including her own.

[Duras] gives credence to the body and how worthwhile its sensations, smells, and hungers are in and of themselves.

But Jérôme’s death opens a newfound potential that the Veyrenattes family has never experienced before. For the first time in their sleepy, monotonous lives, full of nothing but “chaos and boredom,” there is a sense that something could happen. The first half of the book moves toward a latent truth: Francine, on some level unknown to others and perhaps even to herself, wanted Jérôme to die because she longed for the creation of this space of possibility. Francine explains, “No existence seemed desirable to me, and the one we led probably suited me as well as any other. So I would never have killed Jérôme. But, on the other hand, I knew that Nicholas, he could do it.” It is easier for Francine to disclose the affair to her brother than it is for her to admit the stirrings of desire for something other than her own life. The feminist undercurrent of the novel is that every act must be done via men because Francine is not allowed to have her own life. She is essentially invisible to everyone in the family, and yet she bears witness to all of their lives in great detail as she cares for them. Indeed, we do not even learn her name until thirty pages into the book, and even then, it is spoken in a hushed tone by Clémence, right before she flees the farm.

The only character who ever comes to really see Francine is her lover, Tiène, who appears out of the woods to live with the family, seemingly from nowhere. Francine reflects on their relationship:

I believed Tiène loved me. I couldn’t explain the curiosity he had about me any other way. . . . He thought about me, he was interested in me. Perhaps it was only me who kept him in Les Bugues. I wanted him to speak, to speak to me the whole night about me, without forcing me to answer.

This doesn’t exactly happen, but being witnessed and cared for by Tiène activates a certain agency within Francine. In French, his name can be heard as a form of the verb tenir, which means to hold or to keep, which is most often conjugated in relation to another (tenir à). Tiène comes to hold something for Francine and vice versa, though what that is can’t be pinned down. It is something that transpires between the two of them, both verbally and physically. As such, their relationship dances around an absence. The jouissance of Tiène’s name epitomizes Jacques Lacan’s famous 1965 pronouncement that “Marguerite Duras knows what I teach without me.” Lacan meant that her writing exemplified his theories of language and its relationship to desire without her ever having read his work.

Marguerite Duras.

THROUGHOUT THE EASY LIFE, Francine is permitted to work, to care, and to be an object of desire, but she is not allowed the selfhood that would enable her to acknowledge her own wants and act on them. She cannot do; she can only witness. The novel bears out the power of her attention, the potent force that emerges from states of receptivity. A recurring image of the novel is that of someone watching over another person sleeping or perhaps pretending to sleep (we can never be sure). A touching instance is a memory Francine recalls of Nicolas asleep on the ground of a country field when they are younger. She witnesses, with utmost tenderness, his small child’s breath slightly moving the blades of grass in front of his mouth. The Easy Life can be read as an ode to this particular form of care: the love that one feels in one’s heart for life lived, pure and simple, even if that love is never acknowledged by another.

What matters, then, is the way that one relates, the quality of one’s attention for its own sake. Not the desire for an object but rather how it feels to desire—or to want to. In her essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” Hélène Cixous writes about how important it is for women to give voice to their own subjective bodily experience in text and how different this form of writing is from the masculine, “phallocentric” prose that makes up most of the literary canon. She writes,

Let’s leave it to the worriers, to masculine anxiety and its obsession with how to dominate the way things work—knowing “how it works” in order to “make it work.” For us the point is not to take possession in order to internalize or manipulate, but rather to dash through and to “fly.” Flying is a woman’s gesture—flying in language and making it fly.

For Cixous, essentially feminine writing expresses an excess born of feeling rooted in the body. (The English translation of Cixous’s essay misses the double meaning of the French voler, which can be translated as either to fly or to steal.) This movement, this “flying,” pervades Duras’s work, which gives credence to the body and how worthwhile its sensations, smells, and hungers are in and of themselves. Perhaps this is why the air in her books is always scented with flowers.

The part of me that doesn’t care about plot wants to say that these details in Duras’s writing are enough, and yet she gives us much more. Francine’s witnessing is not only pleasurable in itself, it is also the catalyst for the whole drama that unfolds. The quality of her subtle listening, the pain and longing that reverberate beneath it, produce a tremendous and palpable force that echoes throughout the text. Though we do not get to hold Duras’s words in our bodies and mouths in the original French, we are nevertheless very lucky that we get to read them in English for the first time.

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