As an author of character-driven fiction, I can spend countless hours considering motive. The thinking goes like this: If character provides a story with architecture, then motive shores up the building, giving it substance, giving it style, supplying the walls and windows of conflict and resolution. The master planner in me wants to know, needs to know, the "why" of everything: love, loss, perhaps even death.
Of course, in real life, it's impossible to impose a logical grid over the baffling oddities of mature existence. Everyone knows that the bonds between humans are messy and their behaviors are mystifying. The best writing does not resist, but confirms this.
Whenever I need to be reminded of this beautiful implausibility, I reach for my copy of Marguerite Duras' The War. In this slender memoir of World War II, Duras shares episodes from her life in occupied Paris, where she belonged to the French Resistance under the leadership of the country's future president, Francois Mitterrand. Duras describes war and its tragic consequences with heart-wrenching simplicity. Her language is spare, her voice riveting. The result is like reading a life. Indeed, in her introduction, she claims to have no recollection of having written it: "When would I have done so, in what year, at what times of day, in what house? I can't remember."
She writes of her husband, Robert Antelme, also a Resistance member, who has been captured by the Nazis and sent to a series of concentration camps. Duras is assisted through her grief by her new lover and soon-to-be second husband. He accompanies Mitterrand to Dachau to rescue Antelme, helps transport the virtual corpse home to Paris, and, together with Duras, nurses the man's near-dead body back to relative health.
Duras also writes of her complicated acquaintanceship with the Gestapo officer who first arrested her husband. Despite the obvious possibilities for polemicism, The War is not an account of mortal enemies. Duras gives us characters that are neither right nor wrong, invincible nor immoral. Her protagonists remain fluid in the face of crisis — not because they are selfish, weak, undeserving, or inconstant, but because they cannot, will not, should not, maintain the hypocrisy of absolute position that the triumph of tyranny demands. They are superior to their oppressors.
You must read this gentle meditation on the concessions of the heart and mind that basic survival can require. Duras the writer demonstrates that the monumental themes of existence leap to life most unforgettably in small stories of the overlapping lives of individuals. Duras the woman reminds us that we may all come to such days.
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.