The Sea Wall by Marguerite DurasIn many ways this novel is shocking. I think of it as Southern gothic. I can re-imagine it set in an isolated cabin in Appalachia. Instead it is set in Vietnam and the isolated cabin is home to a French mother and her two teen-aged children, a boy and girl. Their immorality in taking advantage of people to get money is shocking. So is their “deadly solitude,” idleness and despair. The crumbling sea wall is a symbol of their wasted life.
What’s fascinating too is that the story is quasi-autobiographical. It’s set in the early 1920’s when France had a program to encourage citizens to migrate to colonize what was then French Indochina – today’s Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The author (1914-1996) grew up in poverty in Vietnam after her parents immigrated there. Her parents were both teachers, but after her father died her mother lost her money on a bad land investment and Duras and her two siblings grew up in poverty.
The Mother: She’s mentally ill. She lost all her money in a Quixotic attempt to build a log sea wall to hold out the tide. It washed away in a day with the first seasonal flood. She dreams of the lost sea wall; her debts; the leaky roof; corrupt land agents; her illness; her aging; her death. She locks away anything of value (such as canned goods) and keeps the key around her neck.
Every night the mother “works on her accounts.” (There is no money coming in, so there is nothing to be accounted for.) She dreams of re-building a sea wall that will keep out the tides and make her useless land valuable. Like a gold prospector who believes the lucky strike is just over the next hill, she is obsessed. She has “towering attacks of screaming rage” and she hits both son and daughter. They are 17 or 18 and she is old and weak, so they just take it. One time she beats her daughter on-and-off for two hours. The mother has epilepsy and she is also manic depressive. She has energy and grandiose dreams one day and then days when she can’t function or even get out of bed.
The Girl: She waits by the side of the road where hunters in fancy cars sometimes drive by with guides. She wears her best (only) dress. She hopes someone will stop. One does – a wealthy but unattractive man with a fancy car. With her mother and brother’s encouragement she leads him on, never fully having sex with him, but taking him for what he’s worth. He gives her a valuable ring and then she breaks up with him. She’s essentially in love with her brother.
The Boy: He’s good-looking, but due to poverty, has decayed teeth. He’s in love with hunting and cars. He hunts birds and small animals and an occasional deer. Other than fish and the rice grown by the peasants on their land, his hunting provides the only meat they ever have. He dreams of killing the land agents who ripped off his mother. He hates his sister’s rich male friend but he loves the man’s fancy car.
Their poverty is acute. The run-down shack has a leaky roof and no electricity. They all have one basic set of clothing and one pair of shoes. The mother wears the same dress every day and when she washes it, she sleeps. They have an old jalopy they use occasionally to drive into a town but it’s “missing parts” - such as a windshield, doors, bumpers, fenders.
Their “isolation and solitude” is self-defined. They are surrounded by Vietnamese peasants and they have an elderly live-in Vietnamese couple who run the rice farm and cook for them. The children swim and play with the local peasant kids, so what they mean is that they are isolated from other French people. The only time they see other French people is on their rare trips to town.
The daughter’s rich boyfriend changes their life because he drives them into town almost daily. There they eat and drink champagne in a bar at his expense. Later the family goes to a big city (Saigon?) for a few weeks to pawn the ring the rich man gave the girl. In that trip the boy breaks away and picks up a married woman. The comedy of the wife trying to pour enough booze into her husband so that she can run off with the boy is a great passage of writing.
There’s another passage of first-class writing on a terrible subject. The author’s description of the starving peasant children who die around them every year is told in a matter-of-fact, unsentimental, almost scientific way. It’s the most horrific description of child mortality - dying of malaria, worms and other diseases - I have ever read.
I liked this line: “Intelligence may be a routine way of thinking which may blind us to our own circumstances.”
Duras was a prolific writer, author of dozens of novels, short fiction and screenplays. Her book, The Lover, won France’s Prix Goncourt in 1984. It’s by far her most rated and reviewed work on GR. She was also a film director of almost 20 films; notably she wrote the script for Hiroshima Mon Amour. Some critics consider The Sea Wall her best literary work.
I read and reviewed her short novel Emily L, and a collection, Four Short Novels, all of which I enjoyed, but I’m amazed at how different her writing style was in Sea Wall (1952). Emily L and the others are lyrical, dreamy, understated; Sea Wall is blunt and “in your face.”
Top and middle photos: a museum in Vietnam called The Lovers House after Duras novel The Lover. When Duras was 15 she had an affair with a wealthy 27-year old Chinese man who lived in this house. Photo of the author from 1955 when Duras was 41. Both photos from traveller.com.au
Bottom photo of Duras when she was 17. From https://www.abaa.org/blog/post/margue...
Curved Sea Wall
The sea wall
When I left school, I landed a job in the library of a small provincial town in New Zealand. It was the s, and it was a plum job for a country girl. She saw "something" in me, and invited me to share her reading tastes. I was beguiled. She introduced me to the 19th-century Russian novelists and short story writers I might otherwise have missed Chekhov and French writers, past and present. The story of a widowed school teacher who has been drawn to Indo-China, and spent her life savings on a piece of worthless land in Vietnam was, in an odd sort of way, the story of my own family.
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I was hoping that the novel would add some of the details missing in the film. I was not disappointed. The daughter of peasants, she had been so bright at school that her parents had allowed her to go to college. After that, she had been a schoolteacher for two years in a village in northern France. That was in Occasionally, on Sunday, she stopped to gaze at the Colonial propaganda posters in front of the town hall. Basically they were sold a bill of goods.
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Each Vietnamese setting became a visual and sensory metaphor for the various developmental stages of the protagonist. Key words: autobiography, Judith Butler, Cholen Cholon , colonisation, crossing, gender, juxtaposition, Marguerite Duras, Julia Kristeva, liberation, liminal space, mapping the body, Mekong, Kate Millett, Other, post-colonial, prostitution, sexploitation, sexuality, sexual politics. London: Psychology Press. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality.