Fans of Marguerite Duras (1914-1996) may be excited to learn that her debut novel, “The Impudent Ones [Les Impudents],” written in her mid-20s, has received its first English translation by Kelsey L. Haskett.
Duras was celebrated during her lifetime. She won the Prix Goncourt and other praise for novels and screenplays, including “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” an iconic film directed by Alain Resnais.
To prepare for this review, I reread Duras's bestselling autobiographical novel “The Lover [L'Amant],” published in 1984 and set in 1930s French Indochina. In that book, a nameless 15-year-old French girl ferries across the Mekong Delta to boarding school in Saigon. She meets a nameless older, wealthy Chinese man with whom she has an affair — all sex and no words — that lasts for two years until she returns to France. The girl comes from a bourgeois family on the decline; Papa is dead and Maman struggles to hold together her two older boys and the girl. Despite the breach of social and racial mores, the family acclimates to the girl's affair because they need her lover's money to settle her oldest brother's debts.
The “Impudent Ones,” published more than 40 years earlier in 1943, reads like a dress rehearsal for “The Lover,” minus the temporal fluidity and linguistic skill. Core themes are similar: French family manqué, deceased father, fallen daughter (Maud) with two older brothers. Similar to “The Lover,” Maud's amorous life provides an opening for her eldest brother Jacques to be bailed out.
A strange, dislocating passivity infects the characters in “The Impudent Ones.” "Like fog, boredom covered Jacques's life, and in this haze, reality faded and became elusive." Similar dislocations and ennui are present in “The Lover,” with more artful handling by a writer in her prime.
In “The Impudent Ones,” the Grant-Taneran family from suburban Paris travels to the domain of Uderan, on the edge of the Dordogne and Lot-et-Garonne in southwestern France, aiming to escape the burdens of Jacques's misdeeds. Maman covers for Jacques's sins, bringing the family to the edge of financial ruin.
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Because the Uderan property has gone to seed, the Grant-Tanerans lodge with neighbors, the Pecresses. If the Taneran manse spells landed gentry, Duras suggests otherwise — "The ceilings leaked and grass grew between the tiles in the bedrooms." The dwelling "seemed practically beyond use."
The Tanerans interact with local families, allowing Duras to make trenchant observations about the villagers and explore class differences deriving from ancient landowning rights. For example, Mme Pecresse wonders if Maud, 20 years old, is marriage material for her feckless son John, sowing horror in Mme Taneran. The clear implication is that the Pecresses are socially beneath them.
Before long, George Durieux from Bordeaux gallops in on horseback. He owns property near Uderan and visits on holidays. Maud falls in love and ultimately goes to live with him, setting tongues wagging. But other than sleeping together, their interactions are virtually nil; Maud literally sits in the dark, hiding behind closed curtains while George leaves during the day. She refuses entreaties from her family. With her pregnancy, the scandal is complete.
“The Impudent Ones” is not a particularly enjoyable read. Its interest is as a window into Duras's process. Two enlightening afterwords enhance this volume — the first by translator Haskett and the second by Duras's biographer Jean Vallier. Duras comes forward as an assertive young woman, self-confident in her writing.
The book's setting carried great meaning for Duras. She was born and raised near Saigon but spent 1922 to 1924 in a small town in Lot-et-Garonne where her deceased father owned property. Duras's mother worked hard to educate her daughter at the Sorbonne. Duras soaked up theater in Paris during the 1930s and likely wrote the first draft of “The Impudent Ones” under German occupation. Literary influences included Ibsen's “A Dollhouse” and Chekhov's “The Seagull,” as well as Emily Brontë's “Wuthering Heights.” She convinced famed publisher Gaston Gallimard to read her debut novel. Despite favorable comments, he turned it down in 1941. It would be two more years before “The Impudent Ones” was published.
Haskett identifies two threads in this debut novel that Duras carried forward: "the introduction of a complicated web of family relations," and the "impressive use of descriptive passages." Missing is the "dépouille" style of Duras's later work, "in which everything is pared down to the essentials."
Haskett notes that problems of lucidity and cohesiveness present challenges for reader and translator. Nevertheless, the English language version of “The Impudent Ones” is significant. Whether or not it is great literature, the book offers a roadmap for what was to come.
Martha Anne Toll is a DC based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, “Three Muses,” won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing in Fall 2022.
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