The literary evening got underway against an unusual background: that of the honking of horns and jubilant cheering as Belgium celebrated a World Cup victory on the streets of Brussels outside. Inside, journalist Laure Adler quipped to the packed hall how touched she was that so many people had turned up to listen to her on the same evening as a national football match.
The Frenchwoman had her Belgian audience on side and didn’t lose them for the duration of her interview about the life and work of the French writer Marguerite Duras, who would have been 100 this year.
Adler, whose 1998 biography of Duras has been reprinted this year, explained how she found Duras to be a writer who pushed the boundaries not only in literature but also in cinema and theatre. Duras is a writer she admires greatly and with whom she has identified ever since reading Un barrage contre le Pacifique at a particularly low moment in her life. Duras was also a writer who Adler had the opportunity to meet on several occasions.
Not everyone has always been so admiring of Duras. Adler mentioned the intellectuals Duras hung around with, many of whom mocked her. In fact, when Adler first approached Gallimard with her idea for a biography of Duras, the response was “You’re mad! No-one is interested in that!”
But Gallimard did publish Adler’s biography and in the intervening years has reprinted Duras’s works in its Folio paperback editions, opening the author up to a new generation of young readers. In China, the author of The Lover and Hiroshima mon Amour is the most read foreign writer!
Back to the drawing board
Adler’s biography on Duras took a while to see the light of day, not least because no sooner had she finished her first draft than Duras entrusted her archives to the Institut Mémoires de l’Édition Contemporaine (IMEC), providing a mass of new source material for the biographer. Adler threw her 700-odd pages straight in the bin and made a fresh start.
If the tales that Adler touched on during her public interview in Brussels this week are anything to go by – Duras’s childhood in Vietnam, her World War II experiences in France, her marriages and affairs, her alcoholism, her relationship with her French teacher mother and her absent father…- the story of the writer’s life almost sounds like a novel in itself.
The evening's interview was interspersed with readings of Duras’s work as well as audio clips of Duras herself speaking, with images of the late author projected on two large screens throughout. The event, organised by Brussels’ international literature house Passa Porta, provided a fascinating insight into a woman whose work I first studied on a film course at university. Given that it’s her centenary year, maybe this is the year to revisit her work; there will certainly be plenty of opportunities to do so.
Copyright Bellone 2011-2014
I cannot wrap up this post without mentioning the venue of this week’s event: La Bellone. What a wonderful architectural discovery in the centre of Brussels! From the main street (Rue de Flandre 46) the building isn’t particularly striking, but enter and the main corridor opens on to a covered courtyard dominated by a magnificent 17th century façade. Built by Cosyn, the same architect who designed the Maison des Boulangers (Roi d’Espagne) on Brussels’ central square, this hidden gem is today a listed building.