Dennis Johnson of Melville House Books, who sees himself as an outsider, is critical of the mainstream of American publishing. I've heard him talk about publishing a couple of times, now, both times thanks to the Literary Press Group of Canada, of which LLP is a member. He's one of the more original voices in contemporary publishing.
Interview with Fatima Soulhia Manet, by Annie Heminway
[Photo: Danica Bijeljac]
Born in France, Fatima Soualhia-Manet is an actress and stage director. Working in Paris since 1984, she a co-founder and member of the theatrical group DRAO, which has staged five productions since 2003. Her video productions include Processus d’actrices and Traverses ou l’âge d’or de la Loco.
Soualhia-Manet’s current projects include an adaptation of Jane Evelyn Atwood’s photo book Too Much Time and Lukas Bärfuss’s play Quatre images de l’amour.
This interview was conducted by Annie Heminway, with the collaboration of Mathilde Lauliac. It has been translated into English by Zoran Minderovi?. The original French version appears on this site here.
Why Duras? Why now?
Because Marguerite Duras is a great intellectual, a thinker who must be rediscovered.
What makes this woman and her thinking interesting is the idea that “All is in all.” She looks at people and the world in a spellbindingly political manner. Now is the time, we feel, to make her uncompromising public statements and unyielding opinions known. Christophe Cazamance and I chose the interviews. Topics addressed in our show include cooking, political activism, alcoholism, and childhood. We were more careful when we dealt with the subject of writing. We wanted to give a voice to this “little slip of a woman.” Duras used to define herself as a person “with crime in her blood.” But here is a free woman who is expressing herself with an astounding directness.
In contemporary France, the comprehensive worldview exemplified by her thinking is a thing of the past.
She is an eminently modern woman. She is a presence in her world. We are all moved by the fierceness and precision of her thought.
While a show based on written material allows poetic licence, there are constraints when a performance relies on audio and video documents. How did you and Christophe Cazamance handle these constraints?
We didn’t have any constraints. Mediating her powerful thoughts brought us infinite enjoyment: an extremely demanding and never-ending task.
After selecting the interviews we found interesting, we listened to them and deciphered them. We then constructed a basic narrative, which evolved and keeps on evolving. The narrative developed into an invisible drama. In this drama, as we direct it, it is Duras who comes to the fore.
I needed to master her diction, her breathing, her rapid delivery and distinctive phrasing. Needless to say, I endeavored to grasp the essence of her ideas. Paradoxically, this is physically strenuous work. However, I did not try to imitate her. I looked for a meeting of our minds.
I also needed to conjure up her bodily presence, the force and tranquility that she emanated.
I read voraciously, also absorbing interviews and documentaries in order to be imbued with the logic of her thought. As I work, I remain vigilant, because our performance is like a poem that is being crafted each night.
The play is based on interviews, but there is a variety of sets (kitchen, beach, school... ), suggesting that this is not merely a collection of interviews. Why this variety? Is this a way of using words and images to recreate particular scenes from her life?
In our performance, one could say that the interviewer enters the Duras house. There is a white floor surrounded by black sand, a metaphorical representation of a blank page.
In staging the show, we envisioned a design with minimal props, that would tell the story of “Planet Duras.” One enters the Duras house via islets marking the large white rug that is surrounded by black sand. There is a small kitchen, a dressing area displaying the MD uniform, where the actress can change, a book islet (the interviewer’s spot), the orange chair and orange ashtray, a small flowerpot (with marguerites), the glass of whisky, the tiny truck. And one hears the soundtrack: children at play, sounds of the sea... All this allows us, and the viewer, to enter Duras’s intimate space.
And the costumes? We first see the Duras attire – the skirt, the green blouse, the sailor top. However, toward the end, Duras, wearing a black blouse and black pants, appears timeless. How did you choose these costumes?
We chose the costumes ourselves. We rediscovered the young Duras by looking at photographs and by listening to interviews. Initially, we wanted a more feminine look: black skirt, a close-fitting vest, dainty ankle boots with high heels, the green blouse (a homage to Duras’s Green Eyes). However, after the second costume, which was the MD uniform (black skirt, white jersey turtleneck), I felt compelled to shed the Duras image, because I didn’t want to “embody” her.
From this moment, I play the Duras everybody knows, the Duras of Bernard Pivot’s program Apostrophes: an image remaining in the collective consciousness. Finally, the third costume, a black jumpsuit, is my way of becoming myself, once again, while still being Duras. It is also a way of distancing myself from her. As I continue to restore her distinct phrasing, a new Duras emerges.
Miraculously, although I’m wearing a costume from our times, one still sees and hears Duras talking about alcohol and childhood.
This metamorphosis was a crucial staging decision. Hence the play’s title, “Marguerite and I,” and we could have also called it “Marguerite and us.” Duras is indeed timeless. We all hear echoes of her voice in our mind.
Due to staging and the layout of the auditorium, there is little physical distance between you and the audience. How is this significant?
The show is based on radio and television programs. We wanted to revive the art of conversation in an intimate setting.
Literal closeness is a way of inviting the audience into the Duras house. The staging allows close-ups. The spectator is privileged to witness the perpetual flow of Duras’s thought. One can see how her thoughts are being shaped… This closeness enables the audience to truly hear and see Duras. As she reflects, Duras is as close as she can be to the spectator. The show questions certain ideas and shatters received notions. The spectator lets Duras speak out and speak up.
During the second half of the performance, Duras is in direct contact with each spectator. In other words, the viewer takes the interviewer’s place.
The play is conceived as a question-and-answer game. Do you have a favorite answer?
Jacques Chancel once asked Duras: “Do you accept the idea that some people don’t think the way you do?”
She answered: “Er... I don’t.” Her frankness, her radical spirit, her sincerity are summed up in that response.
She is free of all pretence.
What made me laugh so much was the spontaneity of that answer.
One moves from comical moments (hearty laughter and all) to a terribly serious subject – alcoholism. The show makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you think. Just as Duras does?
Yes, Duras has two sides. Her demeanor radiates authority, but then she suddenly bursts out laughing. “She enjoyed pretending to be a statue,” remarked Michel Piccoli. But she was full of life, mischief, intensity, and paradox. She was very funny. I’d say her sense of humour was sort of English.
Yes, Duras makes you think. She was not a solemn person – far from it. She playfully assumed a solemn persona, like an actress, but this was merely a character. She was a passionately passionate woman.
Relating the story of alcoholism was an important decision for us. Duras thought seriously about alcohol and about God It is quite unusual to hear a woman speak of her alcoholism with such openness.
She explores the dark areas, the inner grottoes of human beings. She is unpredictable, disconcerting. One literally hears and discerns her thought as flint-like. We wanted to show all these facets of her personality that many may not know. One cannot boil her down to Duras as Pythia.
To what extent do Duras’s writings about Indochina resonate in you, an Algerian, or a person of Algerian extraction?
I’m a Frenchwoman of Algerian extraction; I have never lived in Algeria. Duras’s words remind me of my parents’ story, since they knew French Algeria. I was deeply touched by her descriptions of life in Indochina. I’m referring to her childhood, her memories of her little brother, her mother’s struggles, the family’s utter destitution, and the experience of being poor in the white European community.
You've had only rave reviews. Is it your dream to spark a rediscovery of Duras’s work, to acquaint the public with rhythmic beauty of the Vietnamese language – langue-Mékong, which permeates her writings?
Our ambition was to rediscover the woman as she was, far removed from myth of the Duras statue. I do think that the show will inspire people to immerse themselves into her writings.
People are truly astounded when they discover Duras as a person who is so human and brimming with irrepressible life-energy. As a result, they really want to reread Duras. Curiosity about Duras has been rekindled, and we us overjoyed to have risen to the challenge. Duras still has many detractors. After seeing the show, some have made peace with her.
We have not thought about the rhythm of the Vietnamese language in Duras’s writings. However, your question is quite relevant, and I wonder how the langue-Mékong, as you call it, pervades the singular musicality of her prose style, her peculiar arrangements of words on a page, and the flow of her speech. This is something I would like to explore.
And if Duras were in this auditorium tonight, in her straight skirt and turtleneck, how would she react upon seeing and hearing you?
She would happy to know that her thoughts about men and women and about the world still speak to our times. And if she were still among us, I’m sure she would have a few things to say to us. We really miss her.
© Fatima Soualhia Manet, Annie Heminway, and Zoran Minderovi?, 2014
Born in France, Annie Heminway teaches creative writing, world literature and translation online at New York University. She is a literary translator, an editor at Mémoire d’encrier in Montréal and a consultant for the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal and Femmes au-delà des Mers in Paris. The author of some fifteen books, most recently French Demystified and the Practice Makes Perfect series (NY: McGraw-Hill 2011), she is the French editor of Salon .ll.
Zoran Minderovic is an editor (a member of the Editors’ Association of Canada), a writer (a member of PEN Canada), and a literary translator who has translated more than a dozen books into Serbian, including works by Elaine Pagels, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, Julia Kristeva, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Félix Ravaisson.