The Lover

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Marguerite Duras spent her early years in prewar French Indochina. After a series of relatively conventional novels, she came to express dissatisfaction with writing as a medium that continued to serve the contemporary world. No one, she said, read anymore, including herself, although she said that writing was a personal necessity, a compulsion that threw her into a highly charged relationship with words. Yet perhaps the result was obsolete. Instead, Duras proposed the “multiple work of art,” material that might find expression equally in the form of an opera, a film, a play, a dance, a novel. India Song (1976) served as an example, appearing simultaneously in film and play form and soon after published by Gallimard as a novel.

In company with such other modernist writers as Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jacques Sternberg, Marguerite Duras had earlier turned to cinema as a new medium to explore. Significantly, each collaborated with the French director Alain Resnais; the Resnais-Duras venture was the memorable Hiroshima mon amour (1959).

In their film, one may identify elements common to subsequent motion pictures and novels by Duras. Characters are unidentified by name. A woman transgresses social boundaries to experience erotic love with an Asian man. Memory, one’s avenue to the past, figures centrally in both dialogue and images.

Repressed or intruding involuntarily, memory patterns Duras’ shifting narrative fabric. Who is remembering? Who agrees so that the reader-viewer may measure contradictory information? A moment of the past—a photograph, a town once frequented—tantalizes by promising to unlock a secret of personal history and frustrates by its distance, its refusal to yield.

In films she has directed (Destroy She Said, 1969; Woman of the Ganges, 1972; and India Song are examples), Duras structures her work by playing picture against sound. A segment of dialogue runs counter to what the audience sees; two people will be shown talking while the audience hears voices of another couple. It is often unclear whether what is seen and what is heard are taking place in a common time frame. Voices may be past, the picture present. Or the image may frequently reoccur, sometimes identical, sometimes subtly changed so that the audience repositions its place in time. Such static, minimalist images find Duras’ prose equivalent in carefully described moments from the past.

Calling up such recollected moments (it was the French philosopher Henri Bergson who had likened memory to successive still frames of motion-picture film), Duras carefully details the backgrounds of her composition while leaving other areas vague. Then she will qualify, shift, and reposition her view or her understanding of what there is to be witnessed. The audience’s stability is undermined with doubt, by new information, by a different thought. Such strategies are evocative more of modern painting,...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Saigon. City in Cochin China (now Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam), near which the author, Marguerite Duras, was born and raised. During the prewar era of French colonization, Saigon was dubbed Paris of the Far East; it was a city of lights and pleasures in which all things exotic and decadent lurked within opium dens, rented housing complexes, market squares at night, alleyways, hidden flats, or under scorching afternoons of tropical heat. The city is a center of colonial wealth built on the labor of disenfranchised Vietnamese and enjoyed by the country’s French occupiers and immigrant Chinese businessmen.

The unnamed narrator looks back on the time when she was a teenage daughter of a poor French family in Saigon, recalling her adolescence and the forbidden affair she enjoyed with her wealthy Chinese lover, when she succumbed to the seductive, shimmering limelight of the city, with its tropical heat. She and her lover are both strangers and yet natives to Saigon: strangers because she is French and he is Chinese, natives because they live, tread, and breathe each and every place of Saigon: its mercantile commotions and rickshaws, its Chinese and French eateries, its stagnant water, its bodies in the market squares and city sidewalks.

In Saigon the girl attends an all-girl boarding school, and her lover takes her to his bachelor flat in the Chinese part of the city. There he introduces her to material luxury and his wealth. His black limousine usually waits for her outside her boarding school to take her to his flat or wherever she desires to go. Eventually, however, their interracial affair becomes a scandal.

Bachelor flat

Bachelor flat. Home of the narrator’s lover, located in a housing complex in Cholon, the Chinese part of Saigon where the narrator loses her virginity. The flat is the physical representation of sordid and covetous lust and love between the doomed lovers.

Family home

Family home. Located in Sadec and inhabited by the schoolgirl, her mother, and two brothers. This house is the epitome of familial inequity, sibling rivalry, enmity, bitterness, domestic violence, sadness, occasional laughter, and always poverty. What the girl lacks in this house she seeks and gets from her Chinese lover.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Lover is apparently titled after the wealthy young Chinese man who is the teenage narrator’s lover. The title, however, also suggests the narrator, her mother, and her younger brother. The narrator loves sensually and physically, seeking caresses and consummation from her Chinese lover. The mother loves her older son destructively, sheltering him and enabling him to remain immature, dependent on her. The younger brother, during the voyage to France when the narrator is seventeen, becomes the lover of a married woman on shipboard. The French title, in its masculine form (L’Amant), refers to the wealthy young Chinese man with the limousine. The lover himself raises what is a central issue in the writing of women: defining the self as subject (actor) or object (acted upon).

The short novel is framed by the present for the narrator, beginning with a comment by a friend about the narrator’s old and “ravaged” face and ending with the Chinese lover’s admission (as an old man on a visit to France) that he still loves her. Within this framework, Marguerite Duras—in associative rather than chronological order—provides glimpses of different time periods, never specifying a sequence. Although many of the narrator’s reminiscences match Duras’ biography (the death of her father when she was very young, the mother’s work, the destruction by flood of family property in Vietnam, two older brothers, having a son, and, of course, being a writer, to list a few of the...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

When it was published in France, The Lover won the Prix Goncourt, an honor that assured its rapid publication in English as well as significant attention from reviewers in the American press. The immediate translation of The Lover from French into English underscores the importance of the book to the current of discussion on women’s writing and women’s representations of truths of self. The novel does reflect one direction taken by French feminists. Feminism in France may be characterized as being divided between belief in activism intended to create social structures in which women have equal access to power and belief in the philosophical recognition of the feminine at a deeper level of difference, a psychic difference that is clearly represented in women’s language. The Lover explores women’s language, with its associative structure and silences, never suggesting a social agenda, but instead emphasizing individual perception and acceptance of desire. The description of female passion and experience in the novel places it in the tradition of Virginia Woolf, the early twentieth century English writer who argued that women should write honestly about their own experiences, not allowing themselves to be censored by fear of male judgment. Paradoxically, Duras’ novel also reflects the advice of Emily Dickinson in the nineteenth century: “Tell all the Truth/ But tell it Slant/ Success in circuit lies.” The narrator of The...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Annan, Gabriele. “Saigon Mon Amour.” New York Review of Books, June 27, 1985, 11-12. Concisely restates many of the major critical arguments both for and against the novel.

Booklist. LXXXI, June 1, 1985, p. 1370.

Boston Review. X, July, 1985, p. 26.

Callahan, Anne. “Vagabondage: Duras.” In Remains to Be Seen: Essays on Marguerite Duras, compiled by Sanford Scribner Ames. New York: Peter Lang, 1988. Readable scholarly essay that celebrates The Lover as a groundbreaking work of feminist erotica. Part of a section that includes three other essays on...

(The entire section is 691 words.)