My mother had green eyes. Black hair. Her name was Marie Augustine Adeline Legrand. She was born a peasant, daughter of farmers, near Dunkirk. She had one sister and seven brothers. She went to teachers college, on a scholarship, and she taught in Dunkirk. The day after an inspection, the inspector who had visited her class asked for her hand in marriage. Love at first sight. They got married and left for Indochina. Between 1900 and 1903. A sort of commitment, adventure, a sort of desire, too, not for fortune but for success. They left like heroes, pioneers, they visited the schools in oxcarts, they brought everything, quills, paper, ink. They had succumbed to the posters of the era urging, as if they were soldiers: “Enlist.”
She was beautiful, my mother, she was very charming. Many men wanted her over the years, but as far as I know, nothing ever happened outside of her marriages. She was brilliant, and had an incredible way with words. I remember her being fought over at parties. She was one of a kind, very funny, often laughing, wholeheartedly. She was not coquettish, all she did was wash herself, she was always extremely clean. She had a sewing machine but she didn’t know what to have it make. I, too, until I was fourteen or fifteen, dressed like her, in sack dresses. When I started to become interested in men, I picked out my outfits more carefully. Then my mother had me sew incredible dresses, with frills, that made me look like a lampshade. I wore it all.
I’ve written so much about my mother. I can say that I owe her everything. In my everyday life, I don’t do anything that she didn’t do. For example, my way of cooking, of preparing a navarin of lamb, blanquettes. My love of ingredients, she had, too. I bore everyone at home with that. When there’s no extra bottle of oil on hand, it’s a problem. That’s normal. What’s abnormal is buying only one bottle of oil. What can you do with just one bottle of oil? What a disaster! What I’ve also inherited from my mother is fear, the fear of germs, along with the constant need to disinfect. This stems from my colonial childhood. Although my mother was very smart about practical things, she didn’t concern herself at all with the domestic realm. As if it didn’t exist. As if the house were a temporary thing, a waiting room. But the floors were washed every day. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone more clean than my mother.
When my father died, I was four years old, my two brothers seven and nine. My mother then became the father as well, the one who earns a living, the one who protects, against death, against illness—at the time, there was a fear of cholera. All three of us were crazy about our mother, and we must have made her happy. She needed it, she showered us with a hysterical love, especially, even then, my older brother. Back then, she continued to teach for our benefit, and then, to increase her meager middle-of-nowhere teacher salary, she bought that notorious land with her twenty years of savings. Everyone’s heard the story, her failure, her fury at having been duped. A failure that for me came to represent tragedy, much more so than a department store burning down. She nearly went insane. I remember the epileptic seizures that would rattle her until she lost consciousness. We were terrified to see her like that, we would scream our heads off. During that time, she no longer laughed, it was a disaster. We no longer had anything and the loan sharks were after us. We witnessed it all. I would think: Is this really what life is?
My mother, though she loved us, was never affectionate. I, too, am wary of affection. Never did we embrace in our house, never did we shake hands, never did we say hello. Never did we say Happy New Year, or Happy Birthday, that would have made us laugh. Maybe a little wave when one of us left, and even then! It was later that I realized I missed that. When I arrived in France, you had to kiss people on both cheeks, ask them how they were doing, that whole song and dance, I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
What I wrote, my mother didn’t like, not at all. She would tell me nonstop: “You, you were made for business. You must get into business.” My mother, daughter of farmers, regretted all her life not getting into business. From the beginning, she understood nothing of my books. She was sort of illiterate when it came to literature. No doubt this profession she couldn’t tolerate was the reason for our first separation. She saw only the side that wasn’t serious, the literati, Parisian, journalistic side of writing. The tabloid side. Of course, she appreciated my success, the articles on my books. She had formed me in her image, I don’t know if it was pride. Maybe I was her way of acting out a sort of revenge on life.
My mother had been a teacher first and foremost, and she was proud of me because I had been her student. A good student. I passed the exam for my school certificate at eleven years old, they had to make an exception for me. The teachers, at that time, were good at teaching spelling. I scored twenty out of twenty in dictation. The highest grade possible. It was a day of immense joy for my mother. Everyone wondered where I had come from. I remember, they pointed at the little girl, at the end of the bench, where did she come from? She came from the middle of nowhere. Where, for four years, I had spoken nothing but Vietnamese. I was afraid. It was in Saigon. The exam took place in a big empty middle school. It was the first time I had seen so many white people. My mother took it hard that my brothers couldn’t pass the exam. They couldn’t do anything, school didn’t interest them, they dropped out at around ten years old. Then my mother bankrupted herself on correspondence courses for them, the Universal School, the Violet School for my older brother. They lasted only two days.
She took teaching very seriously. My mother and the other teachers, they’re the ones who brought French culture to Vietnam. A hundred thousand students must have passed through her classroom. She was much beloved, no doubt also because of her great generosity. She couldn’t stand for a student not to go to school because they were too poor to buy the supplies. At that time we lived in a magnificent house with a tiled floor. She would lay down mats all over for the young girls who lived too far from school, and she would feed them at night. It came naturally to her. That’s why I’m still a little reticent when people talk to me about certain aspects of colonialism. The teachers were truly passionate public servants, who killed themselves working and who had miserable salaries, the most miserable of all, the same salaries as customs officials, postal workers. My mother, when she bought her land, had no idea about the dirty bribes and under-the-table dealings. I think it’s because of my mother that I’ve retained a sense of honesty. I thought to myself the other day: I am honest, painfully so, like my mother was.
I wasn’t really aware of it and I didn’t care when my mother would tell me that I was her best student. I was simply interested in my studies. What really had an impact on me was when someone other than my mother told me that I was a good student. She would have done anything for me to be a math professor. So I enrolled in advanced mathematics. Halfway through the year I dropped out.
I admire that after her failure with the land my mother did not give up. She had retired from teaching, but she went back to it by creating the French School that was soon full of Indochinese and French students. The classes she taught there were so straightforward that all the kids understood, even those who had been worthless in other schools. Word got around to the families and her school was soon jam-packed. She knew how to manage her staff, with that incredible authority she always had over people.
Although she was a teacher, my mother didn’t read. She never read anything. She didn’t buy us books. The only books I read, as a child, were the books that she had to give away as prizes: Victor Hugo, whose Les Misérables I read two or three times, in comic book format, illustrated by Gustave Doré. I remember a book by a woman about Indochina, Christiane Fournier. One by Pierre Loti also, others by Delly, Roland Dorgelès, and a novel, The Bachelor Girl by Victor Margueritte. Only textbooks were worth something to my mother, who didn’t like when I read. She would yell, she would say that if we were reading then we weren’t working. I remember that even so she still had me read certain things by Michelet, the type of writer that suited her. She used to say: one of the greatest writers of all time. Which I’ve always agreed with. And also Renan. Right now I’m rereading his history of Christianity, The Life of Jesus, one of François Mitterrand’s favorite books, if I remember correctly. And also the books about Joan of Arc.
I find that in literature, no writer’s mother compares to mine. My mother, she was a great character, a comical character, too. She had all the attributes of a great character. She was capable of madness, like the affair with her land, but she also possessed a great lucidity. She embodied those contradictions that make for great characters, like when she nearly died upon learning that I enrolled in the Communist Party. But she is not the main hero of my body of work, nor the most permanent. No, I am the most permanent. Writing is to write for oneself.
I believe that I loved my mother more than anything, and that it came undone all at once. I think it happened when I had my child. Or else during the film based on The Sea Wall. She didn’t want to see me anymore then. Finally, she let me back into her home, saying to me: “You should have waited for me to die.” I didn’t understand, writing it off as a whim, but it wasn’t at all. In what we believed to be her glory, she saw only her failure. That created a rupture and I didn’t make any effort to get closer to her again because, from then on, I no longer saw any possible understanding between us. Other disagreements followed. And then didn’t she also have that excessive preference for my older brother? I’ve spoken about it so much. She loved her eldest son the way one loves a boyfriend, a man, because he was tall, handsome, virile, a Valentino, while my little brother and I were like fleas next to him.
I think one of my mother’s problems is that she never had any love affairs with men. I have the feeling that she was completely ignorant of what it could have been like. People told me that my father was very much in love with her. And that she wasn’t with him. I wish her preference for my brother could have been bearable. But it became unbearable, especially when, egged on by him, she would beat me. He would watch her and say: “Harder!” He would hand her scraps of wood, broom handles. She really roughed me up, yes, she would hurl herself at me when I slept around. She didn’t slap me, she kicked me and hit me with a stick, with the help of my brother. One day things became clear for me, but too late.
We didn’t confide in my mother. Yes, when I was little, I told her everything, I stopped with that Chinese lover. My brother told me that I was acting like a stranger. She was always oblivious of that whole part of my life. For example, she never knew that when I was twenty, in France, I was forced to have an abortion. The guy was very rich, I wasn’t yet an adult, his parents didn’t want there to be any trouble, they drew up fake certificates, they wrote on them: appendicitis.
Today, my mother, I don’t love her anymore. When I talk about her, like I’m doing now, I get emotional. But maybe it’s me faced with her, my reflection, that makes me emotional.
At the end of her life, she was as detached from me as I was from her. Fortunately, she had her son. She lived in Touraine. I only went to see her in order to feed her, because she said that no one cooked meat like I did. I would drive for six hours to cook her a steak. She thought only of her son. She was always in a state of constant worry for him. I don’t know how she lived like that. Today, she is buried with him. There were only two places in the family plot. It would have been impossible for all that not to have degraded the love I had for her.
If I express care, emotion, when I talk about her, it’s because I think about the injustice she suffered as well as the injustice she perpetrated. The image I have of her is not a very good image, is not a very clear image. I see her again preventing me from kissing her, pushing me away with her hand: “Leave me alone … ” I still write about her, she’s still here. But, for example, today, I find my father much more beautiful than her. On my walls, I have tons of photos of my parents. In this one here, look at how carefree my little brother is, and how my older brother already has that controlling, knowing smile. I have separated myself from them in life. We separate ourselves from people by writing. But now with death approaching, that woman seems much less harmful to me than before.
Back then, I saw with a real joy, like an unexpected revenge, my brother and my mother screaming at each other for stealing the money that I brought home. Money that I was given from the boys in those private lessons I took who were more or less in love with me. And when I wanted to pay for the burial of my brother’s mistress, my mother succeeded in taking the money for herself. Today, I tell myself I don’t have any right to reproach her for those things. I accept that she loved two of her children less, but when I see similar situations around me, I think to myself, okay, it happens, but it always makes me very afraid for the child loved less.
I wrote that my mother represented madness. Doesn’t every child think of their mother as a sort of lunatic? Don’t we often hear: My mother is a lunatic, a madwoman? That doesn’t preclude love. I myself am a mother. Am I crazy? I don’t know, but I have raised my son very poorly. I had lost a child before him, at birth, and he suffered for it. I spoiled him too much. I was afraid all the time. In the end, I think motherhood makes you obscene. A mother indulges in all of her games. I remember my mother playing war in front of us, singing “The Regiment of Sambre and Meuse.” She would hold a stick like a shotgun and she would sing, then she would cry, cry, thinking about her brothers who died in Verdun. We would cry, too. Then after we would say: “Whatever, she’s crazy.”
—Translated from the French by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan
Marguerite Duras was one of France’s most important and prolific writers. Born Marguerite Donnadieu in 1914 in what was then French Indochina, she went to Paris in 1931 to study at the Sorbonne. During World War II, she was active in the Resistance, and in 1945, she joined the Communist Party. Duras wrote many novels, plays, films, and essays during her lifetime. She is perhaps best known for her internationally best-selling novel The Lover, which won the Prix Goncourt in 1984. She died in Paris in 1996.
Olivia Baes is a trilingual Franco-American writer and actress. She holds a bachelor’s degree in comparative literature and a master of the arts in cultural translation from the American University of Paris.
Emma Ramadan is a literary translator based in Providence, Rhode Island, where she co-owns Riffraff, a bookstore and bar. She is the recipient of an NEA fellowship, a PEN/Heim grant, and a Fulbright for her translation work. Her translations include Anne Garréta’s Sphinx and Not One Day, Virginie Despentes’s Pretty Things, Ahmed Bouanani’s The Shutters, and Marcus Malte’s The Boy.
From Me, and Other Writing, by Marguerite Duras, out today from Dorothy, a publishing project.