The Lover (re-read)

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.

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18 Responses to The Lover (re-read)

  1. Nymeth says:

    I watched the movie version of this many years ago and have always wondered about the book. I imagined it would be better, and it sounds like it absolutely is.

  2. Jenny says:

    Oh my God! I’ve seen this film! I was thinking as I read your review that this sounded incredibly familiar, and then I realized I’ve seen this film! My friend and I had on the Independent Film Channel while we were making cupcakes, and every time there was a lull in the cupcake-making action, we’d glance at the IFC and find something TOTALLY ALARMING happening on it. In the case of this film, her brother sniffed her underwear and said “Smells like Chinese”. (ew) We didn’t really have a good grasp of what was going on the film, but in any case I expect the book’s way better.

    • Jenny says:

      Jenny, you make me laugh right out loud! That sounds so awful! I haven’t seen the film, but that particular thing doesn’t happen in the book, I promise. The book has its shocking and alarming moments, but it’s also very delicate.

  3. I read this early last year (pre-blogging) and it is definitely one I will reread at some point; I think it will offer more second time around.

    • Jenny says:

      Claire, I agree. I’ve been reading (and teaching!) this book for some time, and I find I get more out of it each time I read it. I didn’t even get into the water imagery, the use of photography and memory and how the two are conflated, or the mother-daughter relationship. Fabulous!

  4. Iris says:

    I have never heard of the book (or the movie). The premise of crossing borders sounds interesting, yet I always find it hard to read about affairs, but because you mentioned that it’s not about that I think I might actually really like it. Thank you for bringing it to my attention :)

    • Jenny says:

      Iris, I do think anyone would like it, but the relationship does take place in the book! It’s not invisible just because that’s not what the book is primarily about. Just a warning!

  5. Frances says:

    Great post. Just love this book. Particularly enjoyed this observation here too:

    “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.”

    In which you capture that this is a coming of age story. An artfully and elegantly presented one at times too.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks, Frances — you’re right that it is a coming of age story, though (thankfully) not your typical sort. Unusual and eye-opening.

  6. I’d missed this one somehow – shocking, really, since it sounds like something I would adore! Will definitely be added to the TBR list.

  7. litlove says:

    I’m so impressed – hardly anyone ever reads Duras! I wrote half a PhD on her (the other half going to Colette). So you may imagine I am a big fan of The Lover. You review it beautifully.

    • Jenny says:

      I knew you studied Duras, so I was a bit nervous about reviewing this! I adore her work (and Colette is one of my very favorite authors as well; our tastes obviously align very nicely.)

  8. Sasha says:

    Two different people gave me a copy of this book, thinking that, well, I’d love it to bits and pieces. I had to slog through it, then abandoned it halfway. I kept complaining, “But nothing’s happening.” I’m normally not bothered by that; but I was bothered by the self-conscious language.

    But this was years ago. I have two copies waiting for me right now, heh. Somehow, knowing that it’s partly autobiographical somehow makes me want to return to it.

    • Jenny says:

      I wonder about the translation. I read it in French, and the bits of the translation I’ve seen were only so-so. But definitely give it another try — I wouldn’t describe this novel as “nothing happening,” though it’s not an action-packed thriller either. :)

  9. Emily says:

    So interesting to read your review of this – I read L’amant de la Chine du nord recently, which is her re-working of this novel, and ever since I’ve been wondering about the differences between the two. That novel is written in a very cinematic manner (I think it was actually a preparation for the film), which seems like one change, but I still wonder what other changes might be.

    In any case, I very much enjoyed the version I read, and it sounds like this version is good too. I’ll have to seek it out one of these days.

    • Jenny says:

      You’re quite right that L’amant de la Chine du nord is written with the film version in mind. But the two also have other subtle differences; I don’t think Duras just rehashes and rehashes the same material. The same themes, maybe, but that’s a different matter.

      Thank you for coming by!

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