When I was a college sophomore, I thought everything I needed to know could be learned from a book. My best friend, Claire*, and I decided to create an independent study on the topic that most fascinated and confounded us at that age: love. We spent hours planning the syllabus in her second-floor single, with its faux sophisticated college dorm décor — Christmas lights and black and white postcards of Debbie Harry and Louise Brooks — Claire with her asthma inhaler nearby, and me with my pack of Marlboro reds at the ready, so I could dip outside to smoke.
My theory about books wasn't without supporting evidence. After struggling in high school for two miserable years, while being persecuted by classmates who felt at home in our quaint Maine town and didn't care for my dramatic black eyeliner and bad attitude, I'd been miraculously released from all of this by the work of Plato. I'd been asked to write about his essay, "The Allegory of the Cave," for my application to Simon's Rock; the piece of writing itself, and the invitation to pen a response, convinced me this early-admittance college was nothing short of heaven.
Once I'd dropped out of high school and entered the paradise of college, I'd been required to take a two-semester First Year Seminar based on the great works of the Western canon. I cut my teeth — in terms of critical thinking and writing — on Sophocles, Dante, Shakespeare, and Austen.
The professor who helmed the class in which we read Dante happened to be profoundly in love at the time, and she kept pointing out the few flowers to be found amid the suffering and gore of the Inferno. Influencing me greatly, she showed us that even books that seemed incredibly ancient to my 16-year-old mind were very much alive and in conversation with the important texts of my contemporary life — like Morrissey lyrics and Henry Rollins books.
It all made so much sense. Having grown up the daughter of an aspiring librarian and a Beat poet wannabe, in a book-stuffed house in the woods, I was well aware of the vast reach of writing. Not to mention I'd already taught myself about sex by surreptitiously reading a few choice titles, including Tom Robbins's Another Roadside Attraction and, weirdly, The Man Who Fell to Earth, which was adorned with a spooky, androgynous image of David Bowie from the film adaptation.
Now that I was in college and desperate to experience a great passion, I knew exactly where to look for advice on how to make love happen. Or in the absence of such a transformative development, reading about the topic would at least provide a delicious distraction.
Claire and I knew just the teacher to advise us, Pat Sharpe, who helmed our Intro to Fiction class (a class that was currently sealing my fate by inspiring me to decide — at 16 — I was a writer) and our Feminist Film Theory class. Both were potent symbols of just how incredible and exciting my new life was. If I'd been finishing up my last year of high school as expected, the tastiest elective I could have hoped for was Intro to Psych. Me, I had graduated to studying Maya Deren's experimental film.
There was one writer we knew absolutely had to be on our assigned reading list. Claire, the one to usually introduce me to something cool — especially touchstones of cultural connoisseurship — had been the first to utter this writer's name to me: Marguerite Duras. Naturally, we started with The Lover. Nothing could have been more age appropriate or better encapsulated all of the international intrigue and romantic embroilment we hoped to experience in our lives, having yet to learn just how depleting real romantic angst could be.
The autobiographical nature of Duras's fiction made it natural for me to fall under the spell of this literary lioness herself. I was young and foolish enough to find her reported alcoholism as compelling as the black and white photos of her looking quite intellectual and French with her thick-framed glasses and lit cigarette cocked at the ready. I had recently become a chain smoker and was using heavy drinking as a way to subdue the insecurities and self-doubts I'd brought to college with me. I was busy constructing a cover story for myself about how substances were good for art, and Duras supported my self-justification.
The mystique of Duras was heightened by the fact that she also wrote and directed screenplays, which Claire and I were both eager to do. Plus, she had endured periods of spinsterhood, which I secretly feared might lurk in my future. I found it comforting that Duras had turned her solitude into an incredibly prolific career and had ended up with a beau 30 years her junior.
Having devoured The Lover, we obsessively read all of the other works we could find, choosing to look the other way if they were too experimental or oblique for our young minds. And then, as happens, we grew restless and began reading other writers without ever submitting our proposal for the independent seminar we'd coveted and planned. Even at 16, I was a little embarrassed of positing my obsession with love as a worthy academic pursuit, suspecting the topic might seem naïve or — even worse — cute.
At the end of that semester, a classmate with an SKS assault rifle went on a rampage, killing a professor and an 18-year-old friend. When we returned to school for our final term — all focus on love as a study topic now overshadowed by tragedy — I needed books with a grittiness grounded in my present, more violent reality. It was Donna Tartt who next shaped my thoughts on passion with her sly debut, The Secret History.
I never really went back to Duras. By the time I sat down to write my own coming-of-age memoir, Good Girl, I'd learned enough hard lessons to no longer romanticize my former idol's vices or their cost. And yet, there remains a hopefulness about Duras, even with all she suffered, a luminous intelligence in her prose and a relentless resilience in her life — no matter what, she kept on living, writing, and loving until 81. Now, seeing this as her true wisdom, I'll always be grateful she was the writer who initiated me into the ways of love.
*Name has been changed for privacy.