The Lover has a complex structure that is disguised by the work’s simple sentences and unadorned vocabulary. The novel’s time period shifts between the past and the present, so that the narrator is sometimes an old woman and sometimes an adolescent girl. Similarly, Marguerite Duras writes both in the first person and in the third, which allows the narrator to experience her story as both a participant and a bystander. Repetition is also a favorite strategy. Phrases and even entire scenes are repeated. Major events are also chopped into fragments and intercut with one another. For example, the story of the narrator’s first sexual experience is told twice, each time interrupted by other memories. It is interesting to note that Duras is also known as a filmmaker, and the fragmentation of The Lover gives the novel the feel of a film montage.
At times, Duras departs totally from the novel’s main story and introduces completely unrelated characters, such as the social hosts the narrator knew in Paris during World War II. These digressions challenge the reader to account for their presence. The book’s strongly autobiographical nature is one plausible reason for them; memoirs not uncommonly appear meandering and unfocused. Another reason has been suggested by the writer Barbara Probst Solomon, who has noted that the digressions tend to occur around emotionally charged moments in the love story. She has theorized that Duras breaks up the main action of the novel with seemingly unrelated material in order to hide facts and emotions that she does not want to reveal.
Whatever real-life events Duras may have left out of The Lover, the novel gives the impression of frankness and courage. The narrator defies the conventions of romantic love as well as traditional gender roles. Not only is she merely fifteen years of age at the beginning of her relationship with the lover, but also she is the seducer rather than the seduced. Duras does not condemn the narrator’s prostitution or the fact that her sexual pleasure is inextricably linked to the money her lover gives her.
Duras also reverses standard roles in her handling of racial issues. When the couple first meet, it is the European narrator who is poor and rides the bus and her Chinese lover who is a millionaire’s son riding in a chauffeured limousine. In a more conventional story, it would be the girl’s family members who refuse to allow her to marry across racial lines. Instead, the lover’s father opposes the match, so much so that he pays for the narrator’s passage back to France. Through these and other inversions, Duras suggests that class takes precedence over race; skin color is less important than wealth.
This unconventional portrayal of race and class has been controversial. Some critics have accused Duras of implying that it was the French colonizers, not the resident peoples, who were exploited when portions of Indochina were a French colony. For example, the family’s poverty resulted primarily from a bad real estate deal in which the mother was swindled because she did not know that farmable land was sold only to those who bribed the local officials. Duras also has come under fire for the political views she expresses in The Lover . In one passage, she equates communists with the collaborators who aided the Germans during the occupation of France in World War II. Again, she has been accused of rewriting history, especially given her own background as a former communist who worked against collaborators during the war. She also has been criticized for the novel’s sympathetic portrayal of the Fernandezes, who...
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are described as collaborators. As infuriating as these passages are to some readers, they can be classified as part of the novel’s general strategy of inverting conventions and confounding expectations.
The debate over The Lover is typical of Duras’s career. Critical opinion of her work has been intensely divided. There are those, sometimes called “Durasophiles,” who have strongly praised her writings for their redefinition of the feminine, especially in matters of sexuality and worldview. Some of them have gone as far as to adopt her writing style in their analyses of her work. Those in the opposing camp, dubbed “Durasophobes,” tend to fall into two groups: those who think that Duras pushes the definition of the feminine so far that it becomes masculine and those who think that she does not push it far enough.
Despite the lack of agreement among critics, The Lover won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1984. Announcement of the prize immediately boosted sales of the book, which was translated into more than forty languages. Sales of The Lover also benefited from its inherently sensational subject matter—subject matter that allowed the book to be marketed as the sexual confessions of a famous writer and filmmaker. The novel’s success also resulted in its being adapted as a motion picture. Although Duras worked on the screenplay, she was disappointed in the film, which was directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. As a result, she wrote L’Amant de la Chine du Nord (1991; The North China Lover, 1992), another autobiographical novel centered on the same love affair.