Marguerite Duras, The Lover (1984), trans. Barbara Bray
What it’s about: The novelist Marguerite Duras, now an old woman living in Paris, recalls her upbringing in French Indo-China, and her affair at age 15 with a wealthy 27 year-old Chinese man. Duras describes her unhappy, poverty-stricken family: her schoolteacher mother, who has mismanaged her finances since the death of her husband and suffers from depression; her aggressive, opium-addicted elder brother, whose violence continually terrorises the others, but remains her mother’s favourite; and her fragile younger brother who dies in his early twenties. Duras, who refers to herself variously as “I’ or “the girl”, describes meeting the Chinese man (who is never named) on a ferry across the Mekong Delta as she returns to boarding school in Saigon. The man offers her a ride in his chauffeured limousine and later takes her to his apartment where they have sex. They meet regularly, initially keeping the affair a secret from their respective families, in the knowledge that an inter-racial relationship is socially unacceptable. Apart from the girl’s classmate Hélène, the man is her only friend and confidante, though she encourages him not to fall in love with her. Eventually, she introduces the man to her family, who accept his money but refuse to speak to him. The man confesses that he loves her and doesn’t want to end the affair, but he is being pressured by his family to marry a Chinese heiress. The girl asks the man for money so that her mother can take the family back to France, and they say goodbye. On the boat returning to France, the girl considers the possibility that she had loved the man. The book concludes with Duras, now an established writer with an adult son, receiving a phone call from the man who is visiting Paris with his wife. He tells her “that it was as before, that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he’d love her until death”.
Why it’s a classic: Marguerite Duras was already a literary celebrity by the time The Lover was published, attracting critical praise for her novella Moderato Cantabile and an international audience (and an Oscar nomination) for her film screenplay Hiroshima Mon Amour. She’d written previously about her life in Indo-China in The Sea Wall, Eden Cinema and The North China Lover, but the death of her elder brother, her last surviving family member, freed her to write more a more frank account of her experiences. The Lover, published when Duras was 70, was a huge international success, translated into 43 languages and winning the 1984 Prix Goncourt, France’s most eminent literary prize. A beautiful if rather porny film version followed in 1992, directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, becoming a box-office success and further renewing interest in Duras’ life and work.
Since Duras’ death in 1996, The Lover is now recognised as a major work of contemporary literature. In terms of style, it occupies an interesting place in Duras’ oeuvre, adopting the same elegantly spare prose and elliptical patterning of her earlier works, but with a direct and unsentimental first-person address, and a precise and pitiless interrogation of her subject-matter. While not explicitly a feminist or post-colonial piece, Duras’ cool forensic analysis of sexuality and inter-racial relationships, set against the troubled backdrop of the French occupation of Vietnam, gives it a broader cultural and political resonance than its fairly simple story would suggest.
Bouquet or Brickbat: Un grand bouquet. I first tried to read The Lover when I was a student in the 1990s, shortly after I’d seen the film. I was impressed by her controlled, chiselled prose, but left feeling rather chilly after her bloodless depiction of sex and her obsession with death and loss. Twenty-five years and many, many short-lived affairs later, I fell on this book thirstily, reading it in a single sitting and filling my paperback copy with underlinings. For a slim volume, it’s an incredibly satisfying read, both for the pleasure of her writing and her stunning analysis of the furtive emotional sphere her characters inhabit.
I’m particularly struck by her pitiless take-down of her family, which she describes like the survivor of a war zone: “It’s a family of stone, petrified so deeply it’s impenetrable. Everyday we try to kill one another, to kill”. Her elder brother, who assumes the role of patriarch after the early death of their father, is both a a tyrant and a form of plague: “I see the war as like him, spreading everywhere, breaking in everywhere, stealing, imprisoning, always there, merged and mingled with everything, present in the body, in the mind, awake and asleep, all the time… occupying… the body of those less strong, of conquered peoples,” but also a pitiful creature, financially and emotionally dependent on his mother and without a moral centre, who descends into a life of petty crime and an obscure death. “When he lost us he lost his real empire,” the girl says, making an oblique parallel between the tyranny of the home and the failed French colonial project in Vietnam.
Duras is candid about how the affair provides her with an opportunity for escape: “As soon as she got into the black car she knew: she’s excluded from the family for the first time and for ever. From now on they will no longer know what becomes of her.” She is sympathetic to while not expressly critical of the racism her lover experiences; he too is constricted by a conservative family who insists that he marries within his culture. Despite their very different backgrounds, they both find themselves as outcasts: “this little white tart, this child hidden till then in outposts up-country and suddenly emerging into the daylight and shacking up in front of everyone with this millionaire Chinese scum, with a diamond on her finger just as if she were a banker’s wife“. Together, they form a closed society, hiding from a society where their relationship has no place: “Every sort of community, whether of the family or otherwise, is hateful to us, degrading. We’re united in a fundamental shame at having to live.” For all its secrecy and the inevitability of it ending, the affair gives the girl a new self-definition, away from the toxicity of her family: “Our first confidants, though the word seems excessive, are our lovers, the people we meet away from our various homes”.
Duras’ analysis of sexuality and gender politics is particularly fascinating, focused intensively on the young girl’s experience while not conforming to any particular brand of feminist thought. At first glimpse the affair plays as an exercise in male power over a younger and vulnerable woman, on whom he projects a number of tired sexual fantasies: “[H]e knew right away, when we were crossing the river, ” he says, “that I’d be like this after my first lover, that I’d love love, he says he knows now I’ll deceive him and deceive all the men I’m ever with” and later calls her “a whore, a slut” and even refers to her as his child. The girl’s sexual awakening partially involves her realisation of the female as an object of male desire: “Suddenly I see myself as another, as another would be seen, outside myself, available to all, available to all eyes, in circulation for cities, journeys, desire. Duras flips this clichéd dynamic on its head, showing us the affair through her eyes, in which the man is also described as the erotic object. In contrast to the violent energy of the elder brother, the Chinese man is sensitive, compassionate and attentive to the girl’s pleasure. As the relationship progresses, she becomes the dominant partner, refusing to say the word “love”, whereas he declares his love almost immediately, and enjoying the relationship without expectation of further commitment, while he unravels with longing (“it wasn’t possible for him to give up this love yet, it was too new, too strong still, too much in its first violence, it was too terrible for him to part yet from her body“) and holds a flame for her decades later.
This being French modernist fiction, of course, there’s no happy ending and no clean cinematic art of repression and liberation. Death and the ravages of time haunt the text from its opening lines, as Duras considers her old woman’s face, “ravaged” and “laid waste“, which she observes “with the same sort of interest I might have taken in the reading of a book“. The Lover is her account of the experiences endured and secrets kept that led to that ravaging and waste. Duras’ prose circles around the image of her 15 year-old self on the Mekong ferry, approaching it from different angles like a photographer, viewing herself objectively as “the girl” and again from the inside as the first-person “I’. She’s particularly attuned to depression – her mother’s (“I had the luck to have a mother desperate with a despair so unalloyed that sometimes even life’s happiness, at its most poignant, couldn’t quite make her forget it“) and her own (“I feel a sadness I expected and which comes only from myself. I say I’ve always been sad…. I could almost call it by my own name, it’s so like me“). This existential gloom is never lifted, even with all that sweaty mid-afternoon sex, which is as close as the book comes to a coherent world view. “People ought to be told… that immortality is mortal, that it can die, it’s happened before and it happens still,” Duras writes. “It’s while it’s being lived that life is immortal, while it’s still alive.”
For Duras, there is no true escape from one’s life, as is evidenced by her returning to the story of her affair over 50 years after it occurred. With typical lack of sentiment, she acknowledges that even her horrible family is inescapable, and the source of her creative power: “I’m still part of the family, it’s there I live, to the exclusion of everywhere else. It’s in its aridity, its terrible harshness, its malignance, that I’m most deeply sure of myself, at the heart of my essential certainty, the certainty that later on I’ll be a writer.” Thank God that she did fulfil her teenage ambition, and give us this remarkable book, that bores a hole through our pre-conceived notions of sex and power, and reminds us of the power of memory.
Quotable Quote: “The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any centre to it. No path, no line. There are great spaces where you pretend there used to be someone, but it’s not true, there was no one.”