Lycée to the teenage Duras: “Don’t take anyone’s advice.”

The 6-year-old Duras, her mother, and brothers.

From Marguerite Duras’s 1991 memoir, The North China Lover:

The lycée – the halls are full of students. The child is waiting against a column in the hall. She is isolated, facing outward.

The assistant principal passes by, touches her shoulder. He says:

“I’d like a word with you.”

She follows the assistant principal into his office.

“All right … Of course the students’ mothers have forbidden their daughters to have anything to do with you. You know that …”

The child smiles. She knows it.

“But it’s worse than that. The students’ mothers have informed the head of Lyautey that you aren’t sleeping regularly at the boarding school.” A slight irritation on the assitant principal’s part. “How they found out, I don’t know. You’ve been caught” – he smiles – in the dragnet of the mothers of the students of Saigon. They want their daughters to keep to their own kind. They say” – listen to this – “‘Why does she need a baccalaureate, that little tart? Middle school is enough for people like her …’”

Silence. She asks:

“You’re warning me because of my mother.”

“Of course. You know how much I respect her.” Pause. “Now, in your opinion, what can we do?”

“We can just draw it out. You go on warning me, and I go on not spending the night at Lyautey. I don’t know – what do you think?”

Silence.

“I really don’t know.”

The assistant principal says:

“The head of Lyautey has notified your mother …”

“Sure. But my mother doesn’t give a damn about our reputation – our family isn’t like other families.”

“What does she want for her children, your mother?”

“She wants them settled. So she can die. But she doesn’t know that’s what she wants.”

The assistant principal goes on playing his role:

“You’ve also been skipping school, but I take care of that.”

“I knew it.”

The assistant principal looks at her affectionately.

“You and I – we’re friends …”

The child smiles. She is less sure of it than he is.

“Really?”

The assistant principal confirms it:

“Really.”

She smiles.

Silence.

“This is your last year in Indochina …”

“Yes. Possibly my last few weeks. Even if the principal wants to expel me, it doesn’t matter anymore. But I know he won’t.”

“No, he won’t do that.”

The assistant principal smiles at the child.

“I do appreciate your faith in us. ‘It’s the teaching profession that will have saved Indochina from white stupidity.’ Your mother said that to me one day. I’ve never forgotten it.”

The girl seems preoccupied, indifferent to affront throughout the conversation. She says:

“I don’t think my mother cares about any of that now. She’s had them repatriate her oldest son. Nothing else matters to her now.”

The assistant principal didn’t know.

“Oh, so she finally did it …”

“Yes.”

“That’s too bad. Such a charming boy, Pierre. You know, I met him when he was little.”

Of course she knew it. The child’s eyes fill with tears. He sees it:

“He was horrible to you and your little brother …”

The bell for the start of class. The assistant principal and the girl leave the office together. She asks:

“You knew my mother in Tonkin …”

He is surprised; she has never spoken about her family.

“Yes. You weren’t born yet.”

“What was she like? I really don’t know.”

He is surprised, he answers gracefully:

“Green eyes. And black hair. Lovely. Very cheery, fun-loving, very engaging. Delightful.”

“Maybe too delightful?”

“Maybe …”

“And my father?”

“He was mad about her. Other than that, he was … an outstanding teacher.”

The child knows her mother’s life story. She has often talked with her about it. She says:

“I think she was happy with him all the same.”

“I wouldn’t doubt that. People spoke of her as a woman who had everything. But you can never tell.” He turns toward the child, he repeats: “Never.”

He adds: “It’s true. I was about to say – go on doing whatever you want with your life, don’t take anyone’s advice.”

She smiles. She says:

“Not even yours?”

He smiles with her. He says:

“Not even mine.”

 

 

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