When I was in my twenties, my friends and I read Colette as others read the Bible. She was our Book of Wisdom. We read her for solace and for moral instruction. We read her to learn better who we were, and how, given the constraint of our condition, we were to live. The condition, of course, was that we were women, and at the same time that we imagined for ourselves lives of worldly independence we understood that Love (as we had all long known) was the territory upon which our battle with Life was to be pitched. Not another living writer, it seemed to us, understood the situation as well as Colette. No one, in fact, came close. She alone had stared long and hard into the heart of the matter. Her work sounded depths of understanding that were like nothing we had ever encountered. In her hands, being swamped by sexual attraction had the power of metaphor. The intelligence riveted your eyes to the page, gathered up your scattered, racing inattention; made of a Woman in Love as serious a concern for the novelist as God or War. She was the first—but hardly the last—to write brilliantly of the mesmerizing and wearisome condition she shared with her characters: the apprehension of age in a life that, in truth, was dominated by Love with a capital L.

Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras are three of the strongest writers of the twentieth century. Each of them broke literary ground—Colette with early sexual boldness, de Beauvoir with an historic social indictment, Duras with minimalism nouvelle—and each knew years of international success. Yet, all suffered intensely the loss of youthful beauty and, along with it, the conviction of their own diminished attractiveness. What is remarkable is that each one absorbed the distress, and made of it a major influence on her work. For Colette, the aging woman becomes a richness of character in some of her greatest novels. For de Beauvoir, turning forty was a panic that transmuted into researching and writing The Second Sex, her revolutionary argument that women historically had been seen as “other,” not central to the drama of their lives. For Duras, years of inspired abstraction over the question of desirability grew ever stronger as she watched the world respond to herself and others growing less beautiful.

Every one of these writers engaged courageously with what undid her, and the courage paid off handsomely. It is startling to think how much memorable thought and literature was generated in all three by the taking on of what each one feared, hated, and leveled a deadly stare at. The operative word is deadly. Beneath the elegant—or forceful or poetic—prose, they could kill, all of them. If, collectively, they could with impunity have spray-gunned men, sex, and the matter of a woman’s desirability out of the world picture, not one of them, I think, would have hesitated. Yet love and its fallout remained the irreducible territory none of them could ever walk away from.

Academic feminists are always wanting to claim these three, either their work or their lives, for feminist interpretation: a doomed enterprise, in my view. In one of the most recent of such studies—Colette, Beauvoir, and Duras: Age and Women Writers by Bethany Ladimer, published in 1999—the writer argues that all three lived to defeat what had always defeated them; that for all of them aging meant “redefining what it was acceptable to say, appropriating a genre, and curing themselves of certain lifelong obsessions.” I, for one, do not find this thesis persuasive. It seems to me that all three were preeminently women of their time. In them, the rage was abiding. Embedded in the encyclopedic brilliance with which they obsessed over the fundamental condition of their lives, it glittered to the end. They all grew old as coldly involved with “love” as they had ever been. The Lover, a small, rich work of modernist narration written by Marguerite Duras at seventy, is saturated with Duras’s lifelong preoccupation with desire.

But Ladimer’s book set me thinking about the work of all three. The question I found myself asking was, What about that preoccupation with Love and Desirability? Why should they have given it up? Or lived to overcome it? It had, after all, stood them in good stead. Why not write a book in praise of the obsession, celebrating the neurosis at the heart of all literature? Would such a book not have inscribed in it the value implicit in the need to make art out of the stunning, lifelong disappointment at having been born “other”? And would that value alone not contain some enduring wisdom, the kind one can take along into age? With these questions in my mind I stood facing a wall of books in my apartment, and for the first time in thirty years took Colette off the shelf. After a while I reached for de Beauvoir, and then for Duras.

Two early novels of Colette’s—both nakedly autobiographical—had become imprinted on me: The Vagabond and The Shackle. Here I’d found a glamorous loneliness, the kind my friends and I fantasized as emblematic of the modern woman’s situation. Renee Nere, the forthright narrator of both books, is a woman in her thirties whose fractured identity is central to her existence. She has written books, divorced her husband, gone on the stage. Yet her hold on her newfound independence is transparently shaky. Struggle as she may, she is torn between the longing for independence and the need for love. It is this, really—the Question of Love—that we soon see commands Renee’s real attention.

The argument with herself about whether or not to resist love, should it come again, is the sustained subject of the two novels that Renee Nere narrates. In the one she will renounce it, in the other she will knuckle under to it. No matter. What carried the day for me and my friends was the significance, in Colette’s hands, of erotic obsession. Love with a capital L—in both books the glory and the despair, equally, of a woman’s existence—was the divine stigmata, the extraordinary mark of a knowing life upon which unique powers of observation were here being trained.

Rereading these novels was an unsettling experience. The wholly unexpected happened: I came away with mixed feelings. This time around I found myself thinking, Ah yes! how brilliantly it is all evoked—the endless fantasizing, the pathological insecurity, the emptiness inside the protagonist that opens wide to take in Love with a capital L. Really, the writing is incomparable. But how adolescent it all feels! What appalling strangers these people are to one another. Not a speck of reality between them. Also, how primitive is her (Renee’s) preoccupation with aging. Why hadn’t I noticed that before? And the aimlessness of them all, women and men alike. No one has anything to do but lie around brooding about love.

Most striking, for me—the single greatest change, in fact, in my feelings about these novels—was the sense I had that everything was taking place in a vacuum. When I had read Colette before, the world seemed to collect around her narrator’s wisdom. Now, the absence of connection among the characters was disorienting: it thinned out the writing, made the atmosphere feel rarefied; and reflections that might once have sounded wise seemed only knowing:

Our honest bodies have clung together with a mutual thrill of delight they will remember the next time they touch, while our souls will withdraw again behind the barrier of the same dishonest but expedient silence . . . [e]mbracing gives us the illusion of being united and silence makes us believe we are at peace . . . I have insulted this lover . . . by giving him my body and supposing that this was enough. He has returned the insult . . . for nothing is exchanged in the sexual act . . . [O]ur love which had begun in silence and the sexual act was ending in the sexual act and silence.

This is the anxiety of infatuation speaking, the anxiety of knowing that one is not known, that one is—marvelously! terribly!—only a catalyst for another’s desire: a condition destined to run a short and shallow course. For the first time I could see clearly the link in Colette between the anxiety and the narrator’s ever-present fear of aging.

In the earliest pages of The Vagabond Renee Nere stares pitilessly into the mirror. She is thirty-three years old, and the dreaded decline is eating at her. If it weren’t for that, she might stay with her lover—this stranger—after all. But when he, at last, proposes marriage she breaks off the affair with a letter of explanation that pulls it together:

I am no longer a young woman . . . Imagine me [in a few years’ time], still beautiful but desperate, frantic in my armor of corset and frock, under my make-up and powder . . . beautiful as a full-blown rose which one must not touch. A glance of yours, resting on a young woman, will be enough to lengthen the sad crease that smiling has engraved on my cheek, but a happy night in your arms will cost my fading beauty dearer still . . . Ah! How young you are. Your hell is limited to not possessing what you desire, a thing that some people have to put up with all their lives. But to possess what one loves and every minute to feel one’s sole treasure disintegrating, melting, and slipping away like gold dust between one’s fingers! And not to have the dreadful courage to open one’s hand and let the whole treasure go, but to clench one’s fingers ever tighter, and to cry and beg to keep . . . what? a precious little trace of gold in the hollow of one’s palm.

Who but Colette could have etched this portrait (acid on zinc) of a woman staring into a hell that seems reserved for women alone? (One’s sole treasure disintegrating). And who but Colette could have failed so entirely to unpack it?

Simone de Beauvoir, for one.

When she was sixty years old de Beauvoir published The Woman Destroyed, a novella she thought of as a cautionary tale. Written in the form of a diary being narrated by an intelligent woman of forty-five, it tells the story of Monique, who discovers that her husband, Maurice, is having an affair with Noellie, a bright, sexy woman in their social set. I love you, Maurice tells his wife, I don’t want to leave you, but I can’t give her up, either. Can you live with it? Dumbfounded, Monique (whose entire adult life has been marriage and motherhood) agrees to try, and what follows is a day-by-day account of her struggle to accept the unacceptable.

De Beauvoir compulsively produced works of fiction that seem to grow repeatedly out of a fixed memory of that moment when a woman first sees herself as other.

Bit by bit, one accommodation after another is required of her: first it’s a few evenings away from home, then a few nights, then weekends and a vacation. At first, she simply notes her response to the situation. Gradually the notes become more concentrated, then compelled, then feverish. Humiliation grows daily as she comes to realize that she is absolutely terrified of being left—and that her husband is on his way out of the marriage, no matter what she agrees to. Her life as a wife and mother has stopped her in time; he is bored with her, boredom has killed his love. She flies to New York to ask her grown daughter to explain her life to her—what had she done, what could she have done, what should she have done?—but the daughter can give no satisfaction. Returning home to the now empty apartment, she stands before the closed bedroom door as though at the edge of an open pit. End of story.

The piece is remarkable for the unshadowed, uninflected, un-nuanced quality of its surgical gaze: an overhead light trained on an open wound. I had remembered this about it (I first read the novella in my thirties). How powerful that very starkness had seemed—the thing, in fact, that had most satisfied. No nonsense here about balance or evenhandedness. This was instrumental anger scraping out the crud: a curettage of the soul.

Today, what is most striking about The Woman Destroyed is that it was written twenty years after The Second Sex. It reads as though its author stands in the middle of her situation, looking around for the first time with newly opened eyes at the naked consequence of “a woman’s life,” and—as with much early feminist testament—what she sees is making her crazy. The writing in this novella is carved in rage and obsession; motivating elements that, in literature as in life, wear badly with time. To read The Woman Destroyed is to enter a writer’s mind, packed with concentrated emotion, that allows for no space around her subject; the result is an atmosphere so narrow and so airless as to induce claustrophobia in the most receptive of readers.

Throughout her life de Beauvoir compulsively produced works of fiction like this one: stories and novellas that seem to grow repeatedly out of a fixed memory of that moment when a woman first sees herself as other. She called them “cure stories”; but of course they are not cure, they are catharsis (for the writer, not the reader), having only to do with temporary relief, not with transformation. When the relief evaporates, de Beauvoir inevitably is back to square one (and so is the reader).

Ultimately, such anger (unless decently resolved) begins to choke on itself, transmuting at last into murder, irony, or depression. Colette gave us irony, de Beauvoir murder. Enter Marguerite Duras.

In Duras, the story is told as though from inside a narcotic haze; but however abstract the writing, however dreamlike and modernist-mysterious, it hangs inevitably on the existence of desire; the desire that overwhelms and then ravishes; pulls one down into bliss, then even deeper into the abyss; blossoms through a woman’s body, is realized through a man’s penetration, and burns them both into oblivion.

For years this was Duras’s mesmerized subject, inscribed repeatedly in those small, tight abstractions she called novels, written in a brilliant, associative prose that knifed steadily down through outer layers of being to the part of oneself forever intent on animal retreat into the primal, the undifferentiated self. Here, the desire to be overtaken by desire is all-enveloping: the ecstasy etherizing, and the burnout as well; together, they become an echo of modernist anomie.

In The Lover, a memoir centered on a year and a half of Duras’s early life, the focus is on the first experience of sexual love. Behind the writing lies a lifetime of devotion to minimalist prose and the subject of desire. Here, Duras clarified on both more wonderfully than she had in years, and the book has become a kind of primer: read this, and you have the Durassian woman in clear sight.

The time is 1932, the place Indochina. A fifteen-and-a-half-year-old French girl stands alone on the deck of a ferry crossing the Mekong River from the suburbs into downtown Saigon. At home the life of the family is silent, marginal, inexpressive—a mother drowning in depression, a slow-witted younger brother, an older one who’s a murderous bully—but here on the ferry the river is wild and beautiful, the light a muddy glare, and the girl wears a silk dress held together with a boy’s leather belt, gold lamé high-heeled shoes, and a man’s fedora, brownish-pink with a broad black band around it. On the deck behind her stands a limousine with a Chinese man, thin and elegant, sitting in the back, watching the girl. He gets out of the car, comes over to her, begins a conversation, trembles as he lights a cigarette, and offers to drive her wherever she is going. She agrees at once and climbs into the car. The man will fall into an amazing passion for the girl, for her thin, white, child-woman’s body. The girl’s absorption in her own responsiveness will become as rapt as his passion—more so. An affair begins that affects her irrevocably. It ends when she is sent to France at seventeen, in possession of the face she will bear for the rest of her life.

What the girl has learned is not only that she is a catalyst for desire but that she herself is aroused by her own powers of arousal. It’s a talent: one around which to organize a life. She listens hard when her Chinese lover tells her she will never be faithful to any man. She knows that he is right; knows already that it’s only the power of arousal that will hold her, not any single human being. Beneath the heat that she both generates and shares in, a cold and marvelous detachment is crystallizing. Desire, she can see, is the place where she will come to understand deeply the instrumental nature of human relations. That understanding, she also sees, will become her strength, her armor, her ticket out. The year and a half with the Chinese lover is the crucible in which this knowledge is fired.

Beneath the morbid concentration on desire the reader senses something willed in the prose, as of a writer making mythic virtue out of some awful necessity.

Duras worked this material for thirty years in one fictional abstraction after another. A life in service to desire only confirmed what she had learned in the shuttered room in the Chinese quarter in Saigon in 1932: that she was alone, alone was what she was, and never more so than in pursuit of the pleasure unto death. The irony—disconnect drives one to pleasure; pleasure acts on one like a drug; to be drugged is to feel the disconnect more acutely—struck her as existentially profound. Something worthy of iconic treatment.

Again, the rereading of the book was an unsettling experience. Duras’s skill at entering into the memory of sensuality—drawing the reader inside with her, into the addictiveness of erotic love—is immense: it is what makes The Lover a minor masterpiece. The narrating voice replicates the lull of desire itself: a thing even Colette could not manage. Yet, this time around, somewhere inside the deeply murmuring voice of the Duras who was speaking desire itself, I heard the sound of one who was not; one who, I began to suspect, was using desire to avoid rather than illuminate.

Repeatedly in these pages, the reader is beckoned toward that primitive brutishness Duras called her family—the violently depressed mother she is half in love with, the gangsterish older brother she loathes viscerally, the softly helpless younger one by whom she is erotically moved—and repeatedly the reader’s sight is deflected from it. For a moment, here and there, we feel the narrator’s acute loneliness in its midst:

Never a hello, a good evening, a happy New Year. Never a thank you. Never any talk. Never any need to talk. Everything always silent, distant. It’s a family of stone, petrified so deeply it’s impenetrable. Every day we try to kill one another, to kill. Not only do we not talk to one another, we don’t even look at one another . . . Looking is always demeaning . . . Every sort of community . . . is hateful to us, degrading. We’re united in a fundamental shame at having to live. It’s here we are at the heart of our common fate, the fact that all three of us are our mother’s children.

We know that herein lies the true source of the narrator’s disconnect. Again and again, we think Duras is going to enter into the loneliness, speak to it, make something of it. But no sooner does she approach than she veers away—it is the one thing she cannot bear to look directly at—and now we see that each time she veers, she redoubles the infatuation with desire: inhaling to the full that insisted-upon oblivion. The insistence now feels invested with a deliberate sense of mystery, one that begins to seem not false but, rather, a sad and brilliant scrim made to obscure what Duras cannot, or will not, get to in the writing. Beneath the morbid concentration on desire the reader senses something willed in the prose, as of a writer making mythic virtue out of some awful necessity. There’s a space between what she could know, and what she has chosen to know.

This work now seems without sufficient freedom of origin to nourish the largeness of vision that makes a piece of literature outlast its own time.

So here we have these three Frenchwomen, with all their literary genius, staring spellbound, out of their knowing faces, into: Love and Desire. Colette the wild child, de Beauvoir the stern political intellectual, Duras the amoral druggie—one and all, exalted and mortified by Love with a capital L, humiliated to the bottom of their souls yet held in lifelong thrall. Each in her own way set out to adapt the Question of Love to her own bold and anarchic use, and each in her own way accomplished miracles but in the end, it seems to me, the terms under which they worked were hopelessly compromised. Ironic, tough-minded, unsentimental, all three remained possessed by a piece of experience they—none of them—could actually penetrate. The writing they all did gives the illusion that they used the material of their lives when, in fact, the more sustaining impression today is that the material used them. As bold, vivid, and accomplished as it was and still is, this work now seems without sufficient freedom of origin to nourish the largeness of vision that makes a piece of literature outlast its own time.

The problem is this: however great the writing, however charged or elegant, it is operating from so deep inside a woman’s preoccupation with love and desirability that the work is, essentially, mired in a history of fantasy and complaint that precludes clear sight. It performs an act of self-absorption in a closed-off room, before a mirror it mistakes for a window open to the world. It is turned in on itself, gazing at images trapped in the kind of received experience that echoes a view of the self distinctly not of one’s own making. It is writing derived solely from the point of view of what might be called the collaborating colonized: all of us who are intellectually and emotionally outraged at the condition into which we have unfairly been born yet secretly, psychologically, share the dominating belief that, somehow, by nature, we are “other” while they are not. When such feelings, even if unconscious, overrun the working territory, the borders of the country being explored are set claustrophobically close in, and the reader is deprived of a context that creates a world beyond that of the narrating self. The writing, then, does not, cannot, supply the air, the light, the engagement with open landscape necessary to a reader passing from youth to age. The air it breathes grows thin, the wisdom it generates even thinner—both conditions one can sustain in youth, but not much beyond.

By contrast, let me give an example of work done by a writer who, in the early part of his career was, most distinctly, one of the non-collaborating colonized. No one in the late Forties and early Fifties could have been more murderously pained than James Baldwin over what it meant to be black in this world. But in his early essays Baldwin struggled with his own “otherness” to such a remarkable degree that he entered into the otherness, if you will, of the second half of the equation, and imagined successfully what it is to be white in race relations as well as black. This act of imagination resulted in an acutely sympathetic reading of history, both socially and psychologically. It had grasped the essential: that otherness is a dynamic. The understanding produced a richness of insight that arrived at philosophic wisdom. Today, reading these essays, one feels not only the pain of Baldwin’s despair, but the exhilaration of his far-reaching clear sight. Together, they create a wholeness of world and self that, fifty years later, remains as enlarging and enlivening as on the day they were written. They do what literature that lasts must do: push back the barriers of the external world so that the world within may expand.

It’s the dynamic that we crave as we grow older. When we are young we want the dramatic—the thrill of crude and powerful presentation—but if we live long enough, what we want most is the promise that we may yet see things whole.

In the work of these brilliant writers obsessed with Love that promise is sadly grounded.