'Love and deceit in wartime. The author’s existential ‘unknown masterpiece'

Henriette Korthals Altes for the Times Literary Supplement

Marguerite Duras’s second novel, La Vie tranquille, first published in 1944 and now translated into English for the first time by Olivia Baes and Emma Ramadan as The Easy Life, has often been overlooked by critics. Duras herself initially dismissed it, explaining that she did not recognise herself in the books she wrote up to Moderato Cantabile in 1958. Yet in the 1960s the book was hailed as an “unknown masterpiece”, one “that explains and heralds her later work”. Readers familiar with her subsequent writing, in particular The Lover (1984) or A Sea Wall (1950), will recognize familiar territory. A coming-of-age tale, it chronicles a young woman’s search for identity, the intensity and violence of family ties, the push and pull of romantic entanglement and ambiguous, if not incestuous, relations between siblings.

Written during the dark years of the occupation, a period of her œuvre better remembered for War: A Memoir (1985) and her posthumously published Wartime Notebooks (2006), The Easy Life is conspicuously shielded from historical turmoil. Set in a timeless rural Périgord, it opens on a scene of almost biblical proportions: a man killing his uncle for sleeping with his wife. The narrator, Francine, recounts the dying agony of her uncle Jérôme, the claustrophobic atmosphere of a poor household forced to stick together and stay silent to protect Nicolas, her brother, from the law. The killing unlocks a shifting series of love triangles: Francine relinquishes her love for her brother and starts a liaison with Tiène, a family friend who has come to work on the farm. Nicolas falls in love with the alluring yet fickle Luce. Seemingly innocent, they are like “two young animals playing”. This fraught idyll, where lives are attuned to the rhythms of nature and the farm, is described with a poetic energy alive to the overpowering discovery of sexuality. The second part of the novel sees Francine, shattered by the suicide of her brother, retreat to a seaside resort on the Atlantic coast to grieve. There she is beset with hallucinated memories of their closeness, realising that she has lived vicariously through him. Her sense of disassociation is described with clinical precision in Duras’s more recognisably pithy prose: “I was no one, I had neither name nor face”.


Read the full article on TLS (Times Literary Supplement)