Destroy, She Said: Final thoughts on cinema/theater/novel crossover
Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. This post concludes the discussion of this month’s selection, Marguerite Duras' Destroy, She Said. Tune in here for a live online chat about the book today at 3:30 p.m. CST.
Emily Withrow: For the final discussion post this week, I'd like to discuss Duras' appropriation of cinematic/theatrical conceits for use in Destroy. Duras wasn't just a novelist, she was a playwright and a filmmaker, stepping into a director role for the film version of Destroy after being disappointed with the direction of some of her other screenplays or adaptations. In some of her work, these three roles bleed together, with her writing taking visual cues and the notion of absence/silence from cinema and stagework. Duras' filmmaking is no more approachable than her fiction. (I haven't seen it, but during her 45-minute film "L'Homme Atlantique," Duras speaks over a black screen for 30 of those minutes. I'm not endorsing this—it'd probably bug me, but would also likely make me smile.) I'm attracted to weirdness in art, and to subversive art that pokes at convention.
From the very beginning of the book, the melding of visual/stage art and her novel is obvious: Duras drops details of settings in fragments like you might find at the beginning of a scene, and the narrative is bound as a physical camera might be—we're blocked by walls and minds and other things that get in between us and the characters.
Duras also plays with the voyeurism so requisite in cinema, but perhaps less obvious in literature. (In cinema or theater, this is easy to do with direct interaction, looking at the camera or breaking through that "fourth wall." I'd argue that this is more difficult in books, where that interaction with the reader usually seems more like an ongoing confidential than an uneasy acknowledgement of being watched.) Duras gives us not only our viewing of these scenes, but the viewing of these scenes by the characters. They're looking at each other or not looking at each other—all of this gazing is dutifully recorded. I agree with what Todd said earlier this week, that these read almost as a series of point-of-view shots.
I find myself coming back again to Duras' insistence on the consciousness (and artifice) of construction. The narrative borrows from the writing of theater and cinema naturally in this way. We're given sparse, minimal details on which we can hang our dreaming: the grounds, the dining room, the forest, and the tennis courts. Even the other people in the hotel; I saw them as a cluster of empty zombie-cows who walk, play tennis, and are medicated. I didn't want for more; by the end of the novel, I had drawn myself a map of the grounds, had an idea about the landscape, even—imagined where Max Thor and Alissa's room must be to be watched, where those chairs must be to be seen from the dining room, etc. The floorplan isn't given Balzac or Zola-style, with exhaustive detail; it comes from these moments of watching, as a camera would indicate placement. My mind filled in the rest. I agree again with Todd on this point, about the book purposefully allowing this room for interpretation. I'm sure my blueprint for the hotel would be different from yours, as would my images of our four central characters.
So married was I to these details that I found the "notes for performance" at the end completely disorienting. Untidy hair, blue jeans, and bare feet? But Duras, I'd put them in the 20s with more elegant dress. Ultimately, though, I'm not put off by the notes. Duras has her ideas, but she's clearly left room for interpretation, whether that aligns with hers or not.
The other cinematic-literary crossover word I keep coming back to this week as I reflect on Destroy (and honestly, too, in the process of wondering why so few of you latched onto this book) is "vignette." I wasn't bothered by the lack of conventional plot or traditional character development; the absence of these things and the narrator's indifference to our expectations excited me instead of frustrating me. When I examine this, it's perhaps why I love vignettes, too—they're short, simple, and sketch things out, leaving so much for the reader to put together. I love the imagining that comes along with them. I don't need a complete story, just a moment of entertainment or curiosity. I can't help but wonder if Duras is borrowing from this notion, cutting apart narrative, using these foundational elements without the architectural plan—or at least a different one than we're used to.
I'll leave it at that—this is a huge subject, and I'm sure you all have more to add. Thanks for reading.
Leonard Pierce: I'm going to limit my comments pretty severely, since I haven't seen the film, but I do find the whole subject intriguing; I first came to Duras through her film work, and was further drawn to her writing when I learned that the brilliant French situationist Guy Debord was a fan of her films as well. Destroy, She Said definitely has cinematic qualities, and what's more, they perfectly suit the experimental nature of the work; it's a rare writer who has the capacity to cast her work into a different medium while understanding what makes that medium different.
I'm reminded a bit of William Burroughs' screenplay-format novel The Last Words Of Dutch Schultz, but especially, as I've mentioned before, the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, who was working in a very similar vein as Duras, but not as successfully, to my read. Those who didn't enjoy or were frustrated by the book aren't advised to seek out her films—I've had a few screaming arguments with friends over her 1977 movie Le Camion, which I really enjoyed, but which some fellow critics found insufferably pretentious and boring—but having read Destroy again, I'm more eager than ever to see the film.
Donna Bowman: The lengthy interview that rounds out the edition I think most of us read made me interested to see the film for the sole purpose of understanding the book better. It seems to me that the novel was not written—and perhaps the film was not made—for purposes that are inherent in those forms, but to get at some set of ideas that could be fluidly approached, with different degrees of success, in various forms.
Now, that isn't the way I prefer to approach art. I would like to have confidence when I'm engaging with a work that the form was consciously chosen and the ideas carefully adapted to that form, so that the aim is a successful novel-on-novels'-terms, or a successful film-on-cinema's-terms. It bothers me when forms or media seem to be only occasions that happened to come to hand for whatever the artist was interested in expressing. I believe that these forms deserve more respect than that.
But what I appreciate about this novel, the stage directions that follow, and the discussion of film strategy in the interview, is the opportunity to think through my disagreement with this approach, and to make some kind of judgment about whether this is the approach Duras is taking. The gestures toward a cinematic line of thinking in the novel, and the frank assessment of whether a certain set of ideas worked better in this form or that one (found in portions of the interview), were not so definitive that they put me on the defensive. I'm concerned about Duras' poetic philosophy, but I'm not ready to condemn her for a sin I'm not certain she committed. That uncertainty left me open to the text—more so after reading the accompanying material than during my reading of the novel, actually—and almost always, I feel better when the option to broaden or narrow my horizons is left open. For now, for me, the question of Destroy, She Said is not closed. My judgment is still reserved. But I'm not leaning in a skeptical direction, and that is a good place to be left in.
Zack Handlen: I agree, Donna. I'm generally willing to trust the author's choice of medium, because I believe that an artist creates a work in the only form that work could be created. I remember people criticizing King Of The Hill for being animated, when the show's scope arguably could have been just as well served by live-action, and that just never seemed like a necessary criticism. Animation was how Mike Judge wanted to tell his story, so animation was how he told the story. (Okay, there could've been some sort of budgetary reason, or maybe the networks were trying to capitalize on Beavis & Butt-head, but you get my point.) The artists get to choose, because they're putting the work in, and it's our job to do any backward reasoning necessary to make it all fit.
But with this book, I kept wondering what Duras got out of using text, and what would've been different on film. Unlike Emily, I didn't really have a clear sense of place, but I rarely do when I read. I'm terrible at geography and spatial relationships, and my concept of characters is a series of vague blurs—I become attached to them, but I don't really rely on a visual concept when I read. Which made this more frustrating for me, because while I don't mind a lack of description, I do mind a lack of much else to grab onto. I didn't strongly dislike Destroy, and I think if I'd read it on my own, I would've found it interesting but forgettable. But hearing Emily and Leonard defend it so passionately makes me wish I'd gotten more from the experience, and I think the fact that I was reading this, as opposed to watching it, is my main problem. Maybe I'm too committed to a certain concept of fiction to really appreciate what Duras was trying for, or maybe this is just not a work that can have the widest impact to the largest audience in print. Which means that those who do enjoy it get a lot out of it, while the rest of us just scratch our heads and move on.
Ellen Wernecke: I’m on the opposite side as Leonard: Before Emily mentioned it, I had no idea that Duras was more than a novelist, specifically. I was hoping to see the movie, but I couldn’t find it anywhere—possibly it hasn’t been released on DVD? Given how few authors even write the screenplays for their own books, let alone have any involvement in the ensuing adaptations, I’m sure it would be a fascinating companion piece to the novel. Indeed, the information that Emily describes as missing from the narrative, forced by the change in media, may have improved the experience; then again, my problems with the book weren’t closely related to the specificity a movie might add.
I hope you’ll allow me this one unbearably highbrow filmic reference—I placed the characters in my mind in sort of the less-glamorous annex of the mansion in Last Year At Marienbad. With the dreamlike confusion, the conversations that flow into each other without discernable pattern, only to stop abruptly, and the striking images that never added up, I was reminded of the 1961 Alain Resnais movie during my first read-through of the novel, and even more my second time. I couldn’t find out whether Duras and Resnais were at all contemporaries, so I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the two works were at all related—but I definitely wonder what enigmatic shape Duras’ adaptation might have taken.
Todd VanDerWerff: As I mentioned a few days ago, I read a lot of scripts, and that means that I didn't really have trouble imagining a world for Destroy in my head, or actors to play the characters (and, for the most part, they were people I knew, so you're not going to get the Todd VanDerWerff dream cast version of Destroy, She Said, with Julia Roberts as Elisabeth and a 25 percent less avuncular Tom Hanks as Max Thor). But I do wonder if doing so ruined some of the novel's mystery and sense of menace for me. When I was able to imagine these things concretely, as things that were actually happening, it was a lot harder to view them as the sorts of constructs that Duras intended them to be.
Honestly, I think Destroy may work better as a novel than a film. (I'll admit I say this without seeing the film.) Film tends to make things really specific, while novels allow for room for mystery and oddness, particularly as they take place in our heads. A movie version of Destroy could perhaps capture some of the weird elusiveness of the novel, but it would also force on us a particular vision of the characters. That's not such a big deal in a Harry Potter movie, where the characters are already pretty well described (and illustrated in pencil, for that matter), but in a book where pretty much everything relies on everybody in the readership projecting their own ideas onto Duras' paper-thin constructs, it would be less successful.
Then again, Hiroshima, Mon Amour is a hell of a film, and reading the interview at the end of the edition made me more interested in the film, even as it concerned me that Duras and I seemed to be reading very different versions of the book. It also sounds, from the interview, as though Duras really thought through the differences between media inherent in moving this project from the page to celluloid, and it would be interesting to see how she made that vision work. However, I do wonder if the ideal medium for this work isn't the stage, where everything is unsteady and suggestive by the very nature of the stage itself. I did a good deal of stage directing in college, and while reading this book, I was imagining it as a play, preferably performed in a black box theatre, featuring minimal blocking and scenery and done with elaborate costumes from the '20s or '30s (like you all, I kept imagining this as a period piece). I don't know if I'd make anything more of it on the stage, but it's a work that pretty much cries out to be collaborated on to understand, even as I think the nature of that collaboration would rob the book of some of what makes it compelling. Decisions, decisions.