There was a glitzy blockbuster movie out in France recently about Edith Piaf, the tiny French singer they called “The Sparrow.” I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m dying to. Her life makes a compelling story; rags to riches to rags to icon. I’ve always loved her; she’s part of your basic, no-frills Francophile package.

But when you upgrade to the deluxe Francophile package, you get another diminutive icon (pictured above) whose life was even more remarkable and whose legacy doesn’t need remastering…

I’m talking about Marguerite Duras. Yesterday was her birthday (which my humanities prof uncle e-mailed me to tell me yesterday). When she died on March 3rd, 1996, she was the most widely taught living author on the planet. Somebody called me to tell me she’d died that day, so I watched Peter Jennings (ABC News) that night. Not a word.

What that says about American “culture” is nothing we don’t already know. But this is not about the shortcomings of America for a change. It’s just about Marguerite Duras. (Although I couldn’t resist getting that little dig in, could I?)

She was born in 1914 in French Indochina, where she spent her childhood like a wild creature. She grew up in poverty. Her father died when she was four, and she was raised by her mother, who was a real nutcase. She had two older brothers, one an abusive delinquent and another who was slightly mentally retarded. Her mother doted on the bad seed and utterly neglected the other two. She was always extremely attached to her slow brother; the two were so close that they ended up in a sexual relationship at some point in their teens. She had a rich, older Chinese lover when she was in high school. She returned to Paris as a young woman and went to the Sorbonne. Her first husband was sent to Dachau and barely survived. She nursed him back to health when he was freed. She fought in the French Resistance, became a communist and later left the communist party. She had a son with her second husband. She was an alcoholic for many years and then she wasn’t. She went into a coma due to emphysema and came out of it unscathed a few months later. In later life, until her death, she lived with a much younger man, Yann Andrea Steiner, a homosexual and her soul mate. She wrote from the time she was 10 until she died.

Now that’s movie material. The good news is she wrote about all of it.

To say she’s my favorite author really doesn’t cut it. I can’t place her in the same favorites category occupied by colors and ice cream flavors. There just are no words to describe what her writing does for me. But it’s a lot more than chocolate ice cream.

It’s criminal to nutshell Duras, but for you, I’ll try.

Basically, her art lay in her use of denuded language to provoke an intense emotional response and in her ability to defamiliarize the reader, or keep him from being comfortably seduced by the story line. Her novels typically lack much in the way of character development or narrative, and her dialogue is cryptic. The way she manipulated language was downright subversive. She plays with verb tense and repetition to create a dizzying, 360-degree temporal pan of a moment, with dips and lurches like an Oliver Stone camera shot. She forces you to circle that moment until she’s good and ready to let you go, at which point she usually drops you without warning. She can keep you lingering, mesmerized, in a close-up of a wilting flower in a woman’s cleavage, and then she’ll abruptly yank you outside, where you’re hovering above a beach bathed in moonlight and the smell of flowers. She keeps her readers so off balance that they often feel something bordering on panic.

She is a deity.

Most people I’ve met who’ve read Duras either love her or hate her. The French husband of an American friend of mine is in the latter category. One night at dinner, he said “She is the most boring writer I’ve ever read!” and provided this example: “I’m thinking of moving my hand. I may move my hand. I’m going to move my hand. I’m moving my hand. I moved my hand.” He cracked me up! But it’s really not that bad. He had to read her in high school. We all know how well that works.

Duras is considered to be the most important of the new novelists (when she died, François Mitterand said she was to 20th-century literature what Victor Hugo was to 19th). If you’re interested in reading something of hers, I recommend my favorite, Moderato Cantabile (the dinner party chapter is sublime; that’s where you’ll find the flower and beach scenes) or The Lover for starters.

She also made movies, wrote plays and screenplays, and more. Her body of work is so enormous that I can’t even begin to talk about it here.

I hope you’ll read some Duras and let me know what you think!