When Marguerite Duras’s novel The Lover (L’Amant) came out in 1984, it was instantly popular. It won the Prix Goncourt, it sold millions of copies, and it was translated into dozens of other languages. Of course readers praised Duras for her style and her language (more on which later), but the question everyone was asking was: Is it real? Meaning, is it true? Is it autobiographical? The photograph on the cover, of a young girl in braids — is that a photograph of Marguerite Duras? Because, of course, The Lover, while it is a novel, mirrors the story of Duras’s life rather closely in some respects, and we all would like to know… As it turns out, these questions are far more complicated than they look, as all good books are.
The novel begins with a paragraph in the present day:
One day, I was already old, a man came up to me in the entrance of a public place. He introduced himself and said, “I’ve known you forever. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than you were then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”
The time then moves to French Indochina in 1929, in the heat and strength of French colonial power. A white 15-year-old girl (never named in the book) is traveling by ferry across the Mekong Delta from her family home in the town of Sadec to her boarding school in Saigon. She’s not an ordinary 15-year-old: she’s experienced for her age (or she thinks she is), bold and willful, strikingly dressed in a man’s fedora and gold lamé shoes. She comes from a peculiar family background. Her father, a colonial administrator, died when she was small, leaving her mother with three small children and no income. Ever since, their family has been struggling financially, trying to keep up with the strict and judgmental demands of colonial society. The girl’s mother is unpredictable and full of rage; her older brother is a petty tyrant; her younger brother is a weakling. The girl’s only hope is her education. With that, she can get out one day. In the meantime, she thinks, and she waits.
On the Mekong ferry, the girl attracts the attention of a wealthy Chinese businessman in his late twenties. They strike up a conversation, and he chauffeurs her to school in his limousine. Soon afterward, they become lovers, their passionate relationship consuming everything else in the girl’s life. She cannot hide the relationship, and mostly she doesn’t try to; a few desultory lies to her mother don’t cover her outrageous flouting of every barrier society sets for 15-year-old girls. Race. Age. Sex. Propriety. Perhaps most of all, the knowledge of good and evil: as Duras loops back and back to that conversation on the ferry, the limousine ride, the first sexual experience in the garçonnière, she shows how the girl becomes older than her years. Her face ages. She is no longer innocent. She is on a trajectory to the ravaged face of the first paragraph of the book. It’s shocking, and French readers were shocked.
But the book isn’t about the shocking nature of the relationship. It’s not meant to titillate, and I’ve read books far more explicit. It’s about the knowledge that comes when we cross barriers — some that can only be crossed once, and some that are crossed over and over, like the ferry crossing the Mekong Delta. It’s about learning that those we love are not immortal: “Immortality is mortal,” says Duras, and she means both that it can die and that it can kill. The girl in the novel struggles with her claustrophobic family relationship as much as she does with the painfully intense jouissance that her lover brings her. And in the end, she finds her own way through all of it.
Marguerite Duras was born in Indochina to a family in financial difficulties. She had a relationship with an older, wealthy Chinese man when she was 15, and she came to France when she was 17, to attend the Sorbonne. The facts are there. This is, partly, autobiography. The girl on the cover, the one in the braids, is Duras. But the details, the looping style that puts you in the young girl’s mind and heart, the delicate exploration of sex and death and adolescence and the smothering presence of colonial power — that’s the grasp of a novel that won’t let you go.