Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"True Down to the Last Detail": Narrative and Memory in Marguerite Duras's "Monsieur X."

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

"True Down to the Last Detail": Narrative and Memory in Marguerite Duras's "Monsieur X."

Article excerpt

Marguerite Duras's La Douleur (1985) [1] is a collection of six disparate texts concerning her experience of World War II. This essay focuses on the second text in the volume, "Monsieur X. dit ici Pierre Rabier" ["Monsieur X., called here Pierre Rabier"]. "Monsieur X." tells the story of Duras's chance encounter near the end of the Occupation with a French Gestapo agent who several weeks earlier had arrested her husband, Robert Antelme, for involvement in the Resistance. It also tells of the relationship she subsequently maintained with him in order, she says, to obtain information about her husband's whereabouts. At the time of these events, Francois Mitterr and was the leader of Duras's and Antelme's Resistance group, and in Une Jeunesse francaise [A Frenchman's Youth]: Francois Mitterrand, 1934-47, Pierre Pean offers alternative versions of many of the events Duras recounts in "Monsieur X." That there are differences in these two authors' stories is not surprising. But the bold and characteristically impru dent claim Duras makes in the foreword to "Monsieur X.," that "This is a story that is true down to the last detail" (90, 71), does tempt her readers to take interest in counterclaims. [2] Duras's statement can of course be taken simply as artistic hyperbole intended to alert readers of her fiction that "Monsieur X." is indeed a true story, however accurate in its details. But taking Duras at her word and investigating discrepancies between her version of the affair and Nan's is a worthwhile task nevertheless, for it sheds light, as I will show, on the very sticky process of turning memories into narrative.

While some of the differences between Duras's and Pean's accounts can be attributed simply to divergent interpretations of events by the various actors involved, others are more difficult to explain. Certain details in Une Jeunesse that contradict or at least differ from those in La Douleur are presumably verifiable facts (taken from court transcripts or corroborated by several witnesses, for example) and thus seem to belie Duras's prefatory assertion. If we admit some aspects of Pean's "historical" account to be more accurate than Duras's, to what then can we attribute the inaccuracies in the latter text? Did Duras deliberately fictionalize some details, as she did with Rabier's name, thus making a significant if above-board exception to her unequivocal statement ("It's out of respect for the wife and child of that man, called here Rabier," she writes, "that...I take the precaution of not calling him by his real name" [90, 71])? Did she change some details in order to render her story more dramatic, as Lesl ie Hill suggests she did in the first autobiographical text in the volume, "La Douleur" (125-26)? Or are the "mistakes" due simply to faulty memory?

While an attempt to determine a final "truth" about the historical events recounted in "Monsieur X." would be very naive indeed, taking note of the variances between different versions of the story is, again, worthwhile, for such an analysis reveals something about how remembering and narrating-activities in which the authors of and actors in these two narratives are inevitably engaged-intersect. An analysis of the several different narrative voices and moods in Duras's and Pean's texts allows us to explore how memory-often though of as a fragmented, disorderly, and unreliable source-and narration-an inherently completing, ordering, and meaning-imposing force-both can and cannot be reconciled in the genesis of a historical or autobiographical narrative.

In the first half of the this essay, I will look at "Monsieur X." by itself, paying particular attention to elements of its narration such as mood, tense, and chronology. In doing so I will explore in "Monsieur X." the relation between what Gerard Genette calls "story" (the "signified or narrative contents") and "narrative" (the "signifier, statement, discourse or narrative text itself") (27). …

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