The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras

The Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras (1950) Original French title: Un barrage contre le Pacifique

DurasThe Sea Wall by Marguerite Duras is semiautobiographical novel. Duras was born in Indochina, near Saïgon in 1914. Indochina was a French colony then. She left Indochina in 1931 to come back to France.

The Sea Wall is the story of an unnamed mother (in the whole book, she’s called la mère) and her two grownup children, Joseph and Suzanne. The husband and father died a long time ago, leaving his family behind without a source of income. The mother put food on the table by playing the piano in a local cinema. She saved money to buy a concession, land allocated by the French authorities to settlers. She put all her savings in it and the land proved to be impossible to cultivate because it is flooded by the ocean every year. The local French authorities knew it. Several families had already been allocated this piece of land and each of them was evicted because they couldn’t pay their debts anymore. The Sea Wall denounces the corruption of the French civil servants sent there. They exploited the ignorance of settlers, making them pay higher than the market for bare land and then evicted the families without a second thought when they could cultivate the land and pay their debts.

DurasSo this family is stuck on their “property”. The mother is embittered by their situation. She tried to build a sea wall to contain the Pacific and make things grow behind the wall. But of course the ocean was stronger. The children are left with no future. The property is a rotten place, they are bored to death but it’s all they have. Leaving would mean abandoning the mother’s dreams. It would mean giving up. It would crush her even more. She’s a central character in the novel, a tyrannical figure who controls her universe and her children. She’s abusive, physically and verbally. Joseph is stronger than her now and she doesn’t dare touching him. But Suzanne, younger and weaker, is a prey.

They barely survive on this desolated land. The days go on and Suzanne is waiting. She’s dreaming of a car who would come with a man in it. She dreams of escaping this place through marriage. And the mother is ready to sell her for fresh cash.

When Monsieur Jo notices Suzanne and starts courting her, her mother sees a moneybag ready to spend cash on her daughter. She pilots Suzanne, ordering her around, asking her to request gifts and most of all forbidding her to sleep with Monsieur Jo without a ring on her finger.

Suzanne obeys but reluctantly. Like the girl in The Lover, she tries to distance herself from the scene. Joseph observes her dealings with Monsieur Jo, torn between jealousy, disgust and blind obedience to the mother.

They make a sick trio, really. I pitied Suzanne. She’s stuck on a dead-end property. Her beauty is her asset. She doesn’t have access to a proper education and marriage resembles more to legal prostitution than to the union of two people in love. And yet, she’s ready to settle for so little. She’s so disillusioned already.

Joseph loves hunting, loves his guns and he has a rather fusional relationship with Suzanne. It felt almost incestuous to me.

The Sea Wall is a great piece of literature on several accounts. Duras did an amazing job on characterization. The way the three main characters are depicted, the way they interact and leave some imprint on you. These are characters you don’t forget. You can picture them in the flesh.

The descriptions of Indochina are also fantastic. The landscapes, the people, Saïgon. It’s so vivid. She mentions the Indo-Chinese and their way of living. They’re dirty poor, with a lot of children who hardly survive. The climate is unforgiving and the land is not rich enough to feed all these humans.

I found the descriptions of the workings of the colony fascinating. On the one hand, I wondered at the mother’s naïveté. How could she think about becoming a farmer without a single hint of how to do it? She was a primary school teacher and then a pianist, for heaven’s sake! How could she be stupid enough to think she could build a sea wall without construction skills? On the other hand, I was horrified to see how men from the French administration took advantage of her. She might have been a silly fool but they were the con men who made her buy this concession.

The Sea Wall was published in 1950 during the Indochina war. (1946-1954) Her novel was nominated for the Goncourt prize but it was given to Paul Colin for Les jeux sauvages. I’ve never heard of this book or this writer. Time made its choice. The Sea Wall is excellent literature, one of my best read of the year, one I highly recommend if you haven’t read it yet.

For another review, have a look at Guy’s outstanding take on this gem of literature.

PS: As you can see it from the second cover of the novel, The Sea Wall was recently made into a film. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t tell you whether it’s good or not. I’m just surprised to see Isabelle Huppert cast as the mother. She looks thin and regal on this picture. And the mother is worn out. I could picture Yolande Moreau playing the mother. She has the physique and the intensity to incarnate this character. I suppose Yolande Moreau is less bankable than Isabelle Huppert. So, after being a redheaded Madame Bovary (a heresy in itself), she’s now a classy woman from the colonies in lieu of a woman who’s at the end of her rope. Sad.

 

  1. July 6, 2016 at 11:07 pm

    Thanks for the mention Emma. I’d never really been that interested in this author until I saw the film of this book (which really is excellent BTW. Huppert has a brittle quality that fits somehow).

    Like

    • July 8, 2016 at 7:28 am

      The novel is great film material, so I’m not surprised the film is good. As a stand alone. But if you read the book first, I don’t see how you can picture Isabelle Huppert in Ma’s role.

      Like

      • July 10, 2016 at 9:16 pm

        I saw the film first which is usually the best way to do it.

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  2. davidsimmons6
    July 7, 2016 at 1:11 am

    You did a terrific job of summarizing and interpreting this novel.

    My question is: were you working from the French original, or given your interest in honing your English reading skills, is this a review of the translation?

    My question stems from an interest in the difficulty of translation.

    Best wishes,
    David

    Like

    • July 8, 2016 at 7:24 am

      Thanks David.
      I read it in French. I don’t read French books in translation. There are enough books originally written in English to improve my English!

      Like

      • davidsimmons6
        July 8, 2016 at 12:30 pm

        Thanks for clearing this up. I had the misconception that your focus was in reading English with communicating in it more secondary. Probably because my experience has been in reading French with communicating in it ( and translating it) more secondary. The purpose of my post was primarily to compliment you on your English skills!

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        • July 8, 2016 at 10:14 pm

          Thanks, David. I try my best not to make grammar mistakes and to use proper words.

          Like

  3. July 7, 2016 at 4:45 am

    This one is on my wishlist. I’ve only read one of hers, The Sailor from Gibraltar, but I really liked it. Thanks for a beaut review:)

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    • July 8, 2016 at 7:23 am

      I hope you can find it. I think you’d be very interested in the description of colonial Indochina.

      In a sense, Ma is a bit like Murray in The Hands. They find themselves in a situation where staying on the land is not possible because the income is nil or two low and they have this sense of pride and this reluctance to leave it behind. It takes a lot of courage to cut your losses when you’ve invested so much in something. Plus there’s this deeply European thirst for being a land owner.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. July 7, 2016 at 9:26 am

    Great review, Emma. I wasn’t aware that Duras had spent her childhood in Indochina, so it’s interesting to read about the semi-autobiographical context. I think I have another of her books somewhere – hopefully your review will prompt me to dig it out.

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    • July 8, 2016 at 7:20 am

      Indochina is also the setting of her Goncourt winning novel, L’Amant.
      Honestly, The Sea Wall deserved a Goncourt.

      Let me know which one you have. For me, her books are divided into two kinds: the “regular novels” (The Sea Wall, La douleur, The Lover…) and the Nouveau Roman kind (The Ravishing of Lol V Stein,…) Your experience with her literature will be different according to the title you pick.

      Provided that you can find it in English because apparently, she’s OOP. Shall I start a OOP Tragedy category for books that are OOP?

      Like

      • July 8, 2016 at 9:06 am

        Well, I thought I had Moderato Cantabile, but I can’t seem to find it now. Maybe it’s hiding in one of the spare rooms. I need to have a proper sort out at home. Is it one you’ve read? It sounds a little more experimental than some of her earlier novels.

        Yes, good idea to start an OOP tragedy category. So many great books seem to fall out of circulation for a variety of reasons.

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        • July 8, 2016 at 10:17 pm

          Moderato Cantabile is one of the Nouveau Roman type, so yes it’s more experimental. It’s a famous one. I think I read it a long time ago but I’m not fond of experimental fiction.
          Hiroshima mon amour is great too. (There’s the film, of course. The book is the scenario of the film, I think. So watching the film is enough)

          Like

  5. July 7, 2016 at 7:17 pm

    The title did not look familiar to me but as you described the book, it most definitely rang a bell. I must have read this back in my student days, when I was devouring all the books I could find at the Alliance francaise in Bucharest.

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    • July 8, 2016 at 7:16 am

      It’s a great book, one of her best, I think.

      PS: There’s a series about Alliances Françaises around the world on France Inter this summer.

      Like

  6. July 7, 2016 at 7:55 pm

    I love Marguerite Duras. She must have written about her experiences in Indochina more than once, because The Lover is set there too. Such a complex, clever writer. Even what seems simple is layered and deep. Sounds like a great read.

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    • July 8, 2016 at 7:14 am

      I love her “regular novels” like La douleur, The Lover or this one.

      The Lover is also based on her personal history. This one combined with The Sea Wall makes me think she was asked to seek attention from rich men.
      The Sea Wall is a combination of a personal story (the characters’ life), of the description of a country and its inhabitants and of the implacable description of a corrupt colonial administration.
      It is a great read.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. July 7, 2016 at 10:18 pm

    This sounds really interesting. I’ve never read Duras and feel I should. May not be able to start with this one, however, as it’s out of print in English (as is most of her work, I think).

    Like

    • July 8, 2016 at 7:08 am

      It never occurred to me that she could be OOP in English. She’s such a famous writer.
      You can find used copies of The Sea Wall for 0,01 USD on Amazon US.

      Like

  8. July 8, 2016 at 6:39 pm

    It sounds brilliant. I’ve got her The Lover, but frankly this is more tempting. She’s oddly hard to find in English now, Grant is right. I’ll have a look though.

    I can’t recall now, did you ever read in the end González’ In the Beginning was the Sea? Reviews at mine and Guy’s (one of many I picked up after Guy’s review I think).

    Like

    • July 8, 2016 at 10:05 pm

      I think you’d like this one better than The Lover. I’m really surprised her books are mostly OOP in English.

      No, I didn’t have the chance and the time to read the González.

      Like

      • July 8, 2016 at 10:47 pm

        I don’t think the Gonzalez is essential (well, what is, but hopefully you know what I mean).

        Like

  9. Jeff
    July 8, 2016 at 10:44 pm

    Not sure I’d go for this novel. I like reality onrush, but I love it when it’s cut with unreality. I can recommend Practicalities. It’s hard to say where diary ends and fiction begins. There’s a lot about the events after the liberation. It’s rather like Blanchot’s recits, only journalistic.

    Like

    • July 8, 2016 at 10:55 pm

      What’s the French title of Practicalities? I can’t find it.

      Like

      • July 9, 2016 at 4:53 pm

        The French title is La vie matérielle.

        Like

      • Jeff
        July 9, 2016 at 11:35 pm

        La Vie Matérielle, apparently.

        Like

        • July 11, 2016 at 7:21 pm

          thanks Jeff and Jackie

          Like

  10. July 9, 2016 at 4:56 pm

    Nous avions lu (oui lu, à tour de rôle) ce livre en classe en première. Je n’avais pas trop accroché. J’ai lu L’Amant ensuite. Mais je n’arrive pas à prendre Duras au sérieux depuis la lecture d’une parodie de son écriture dans Le Hérisson (il y a plusieurs décennies).

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    • July 11, 2016 at 7:21 pm

      Les livres qu’on lit (qu’on annonne) à voix haute en classe laissent toujours de mauvais souvenirs. Des fois, je me dis qu’il n’y a rien de pire pour un écrivain que de finir dans un manuel scolaire ou sur la liste des livres du “programme”

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  11. July 13, 2016 at 2:52 pm

    I’m so glad I’ve got this on my piles. I’ve been meaning to organize a Marguerite Duras week for years – hmmm. Tempting. Or maybe just do it for myself. Great review. Emma.

    Like

    • July 15, 2016 at 10:29 am

      I think you’ll really like this one.
      The Duras week is a good idea but a lot of her books seem OOP in English.

      Like

  12. Vishy
    July 23, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    Wonderful review, Emma! Glad to know that you liked this book so much. I haven’t read Duras in a while. I will add this to my TBR list. The fact that the story is set in IndoChina made me remember a movie called Indochine, which has Catherine Deneuve in it. Is it based on Duras’ novel?

    Like

    • July 23, 2016 at 3:06 pm

      The film with Catherine Deneuve isn’t based on this novel. There’s one with Isabelle Huppert.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Vishy
        July 23, 2016 at 3:09 pm

        Okay. I will try to watch the Isabelle Huppert movie. Thanks!

        Like

  1. November 29, 2016 at 1:12 am

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