The Lover

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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...

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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, sculpture, and serial music than of traditional narrative. Called upon constantly to share the task, the reader undertakes a joint venture in the creation of an ever-tentative reality. Language misleads as it clarifies.

Working with so demanding and so elusive an aesthetic, it is a wonder Marguerite Duras has continued to operate with sufficient commercial appeal. The Lover (published in France in 1984 as L’Amant) met unexpected public response in the summer of 1984: Nearly seven hundred thousand copies were sold in France by the year’s end, and Duras won the prestigious Goncourt Prize. In addition, The Lover received the Ritz Paris Hemingway Award, the world’s largest prize for a novel. The explanation may be found in another shift in her aesthetic tactics. With The Lover, Duras mutes modernist strategies without betraying their spirit. What had sometimes in her fiction been frustrating puzzles appear here as poetic evocation. For a general reader attuned to her style, The Lover is rewardingly accessible.

The novel’s major characters are unnamed. The narrator is a French woman, now in her sixties, recounting her life in Indochina before the outbreak of World War II. At fifteen and a half, she has an affair with an older Chinese man, the son of a wealthy builder and landlord. The man falls in love; the girl experiences deep, erotic passion while preserving a kind of startling self-awareness and objectivity. Their liaison lasts a year and a half, known to her family but unacknowledged. The girl’s mother is a schoolteacher, prone to periods of morose despair and possessively attached to an older son, who is a thief, a gambler, and a bully. A younger brother and the girl have a close, if unexpressed, alliance against the others. The girl attends a boarding school, sneaking away regularly to meet her lover.

All this information is disclosed in bits and pieces. There is no direct dialogue; everything is filtered through the narrator’s memories, tied to old photographs and remembered images, such as the girl’s ragbag costume as she rides a ferry across the Mekong River to her school, or a photograph of her mother, or washing the family house by running water across the floors through back door to front while neighbors visit to watch the spectacle. Some settings are permeated with smells, such as the lovers’ quarters where street odors drift through the flimsy wall into the room.

The girl’s emotions are not so much confused as they are complicated, extreme, and intense. She loves and hates the mother who alternately understands her altogether and slips away into melancholic reverie or obsessive attachment to her firstborn. The older brother is a tragic, despised burden. The younger one dies in 1942 during the Japanese occupation. By then the girl has been sent to Paris, and there are moments of that city in wartime. Sometimes the narrator recollects more current events: the older brother’s sordid career, the mother’s last return to Indochina, a call from the lover years later.

Sensually described, the intensity of the love affair is complicated by money (the girl’s family is desperately poor) and by race. The wealthy father cannot condone such a relationship; the girl’s family accepts her lover’s generosities without admitting his existence. While experiencing the deepest pleasures, the girl is remarkably clear-sighted, in contrast to the man’s sometimes-desperate emotionality, and yet her sexual relation to him is one of traditional pornography—that is, the passive love object brought to heights of ecstasy by the ever-potent male.

All of this is set in the last days of French colonial Indochina. The native population figures as a constant presence without intruding into memory’s foreground. Along with the smells of jasmine, herbs, and incense there are beggars’ cries, housekeepers, houseboys, and Indian moneylenders who wait, smiling, in the family parlor for their payments. The triumph of Duras’ prose, wonderfully translated by Barbara Bray, who won the PEN Translation Prize in the category of prose for her translation of the novel, rests finally in the form she has engendered to evoke so broad a range of attitudes and feelings, many so sexually charged. The prose is beautifully clear, precise, candid, and economical, for The Lover is more novella than novel. Indeed, ties between reader and writer seem finally almost to turn invisible, like those between history and invention. The novel ends with a signature: “Neauphle-le-Château—Paris; February-May 1984,” as if Marguerite Duras herself were the girl in her story. In a way, she is, but so is the reader.

Places Discussed

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*Saigon

*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

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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 parallels), telling a story is not the central function of the novel; re-creating experience is. Her method of associating bits of memory and describing them sensually affects a reader viscerally as well as hypnotically. The novel is palpable.

The defining moment in the narrator’s reminiscences is her image of herself, at fifteen and a half, crossing the Mekong River on a ferry. The precision of the image carries through to the precision of the teenager’s assertion of age, a realistic detail of adolescent perception. This moment on the ferry, when she is first seen by her lover, contains the seeds of the narrator’s self-discovery as well as of her destruction. Her image of herself at this time becomes her obsession. The young woman’s adolescent thinness and mannish hat are complemented by the shoes she wears: high heels of gold lamé. She realizes that she looks like a prostitute, which is arguably her role with the Chinese lover.

The narrative voice appears to shift from the first to the third person, but in fact this apparent shift serves to exemplify the narrator’s separateness. Not a technical flaw, the shift exemplifies the narrator as subject and object within this text. Duras objectifies the narrator, for example, in a passage describing the narrator as she watches her lover, believing that he acted “in accordance with my body’s destiny.” The beginnings of the narrator’s sense of separation from herself are evident in her recollection of a destiny for her body, not her. The narrator, however, becomes a third-person object as this scene progresses:I had become his child. It was with his own child he made love every evening. And sometimes he takes fright, suddenly he’s worried about her health, as if he suddenly realized she was mortal and it suddenly struck him he might lose her. Her being so thin strikes him, and sometimes this makes him suddenly afraid.

The remainder of the passage describing the two lovers is told in the third person; no longer is the narrator “I.” The shift to the third person implies distance, a separate presence observing. Such separateness underlies the expression of female experience in the novel.

Context

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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 Lover shifts away from her intense descriptions of sexual response to provide character sketches of acquaintances and friends as well as recollections of events in the lives of her family. The circuitous route to truth of desire, then, touches women as well as men, others as well as family. Duras’ book describes lesbian desire for Helene Lagonelle and hints of incestuous love between brother and sister, mother and son.

The despair inherent in the desires of the narrator parallels the tone of Duras’ plays and film scripts. Released in 1992, the film The Lover, for example, achieves on the screen much of the mood and message of the novel. The film’s unifying device is the image of the young narrator on the ferry, crossing the Mekong. The room to which the lover takes the narrator, with its sepia tones and dust motes in muted sunbeams, fulfills the dark intention of those scenes in the novel. Duras’ work, then, identifies her as a writer of scene and dialogue who relinquishes much of plot and narrative.

Duras influences other writers with her impressionistic treatment of destructive, obsessive love, an influence evident in, for example, the writing of Annie Ernaux, a French writer whose novel Simple Passion (1993) recounts a narrator’s affair with a married man. Ernaux’s works are also autobiographical and are more unified by image and tone than by narration. As writers look honestly at love and passion, the style and content of the work of Marguerite Duras will continue to influence their work.

Bibliography

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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 Lover.

Cusset, Catherine, et al. “Marguerite Duras.” Yale French Studies, Fall, 1988, 61-64. Beginning with a useful and brief biography of Duras, Cusset notes the reception of L’Amant as a determining factor in increasing Duras’ reading audience. Cusset identifies the autobiographical basis of surging waters as a central image in Duras’ works (the dam that was destroyed by the Pacific Ocean allowed the family’s land in Vietnam to be flooded and useless). Cusset briefly discusses silence and loss of identity in the works.

Duras, Marguerite, and Xaviere Gauthier. Woman to Woman. Translated by Katharine A. Jensen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987. These interviews were begun as an assignment in Le Monde (a French magazine) in 1974. In five different interviews, Gauthier and Duras discuss writing and feminism, among many other related topics. Duras’ discussion of syntax will be especially interesting to readers of her novels. Especially useful is the afterword that discusses the cultural context within which Duras writes.

Fineberg, Roberta. “Learning of Love.” Saturday Review, May-June, 1985, 12. This brief review of The Lover notes the autobiographical plot parallels, the hypnotic language, and the adult desire that takes over the narrator’s life as a teenager. Fineberg documents the near veneration of Duras by French coeds at a cocktail reception in Paris, noting a brief conversation she had with the author. A fine picture of Duras appears with the article.

Glassman, Deborah N. Marguerite Duras: Fascinating Vision and Narrative Cure. London: Associated University Presses, 1991. Contains an interesting discussion of The Lover that relates the novel’s visual imagery to Duras’ film-making style. Quotes Duras extensively in French, with English translations.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLXX, June, 1985, p. 28.

Hill, Leslie. “Marguerite Duras: Sexual Difference and Tales of Apocalypse.” Modern Language Review 84 (July, 1989): 601-614. Hill explores Duras’ use of repetition as a structuring device both as a writer and as a filmmaker. Noting the similarity between music and Duras’ fiction, Hill asserts that Duras repeats with variations, much as Beethoven does. Hill’s treatment of Duras’ Moderato Cantabile (1958), with its dominant scene and repetitive reworking of that scene, suggests a valid approach to structure in The Lover. Hill’s discussion of apocalypse and sexuality also apply to The Lover.

Library Journal. CX, June 1, 1985, p. 142.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 14, 1985, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, June 23, 1985, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LXI, July 22, 1985, p. 90.

Newsweek. CVI, July 8, 1985, p. 67.

Schuster, Marilyn R. Marguerite Duras Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1993. Outstanding overview of Duras scholarship and Duras’ work. Explains why Duras is an important figure in French culture, and how her written works are related to one another.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, May 3, 1985, p. 64.

Solomon, Barbara Probst. “Marguerite Duras: The Politics of Passion.” Partisan Review 54 (Summer, 1987): 415-422. In an essay originally presented at a spring colloquium held in 1986 by the New York University Department of French in conjunction with the French government and the Alliance Française, Solomon recounts her initial meeting with Duras in 1964 in New York, where she accompanied the author to art galleries, neighborhoods, and shops. Solomon’s analysis of The Lover focuses on its political symbolism and its theme of incest. Solomon interprets the Chinese lover’s return to the narrator at the end of the book in Paris as Indochina’s return to the French colonial fold. Solomon argues that the lover is in fact the younger brother.

Solomon, Barbara Probst. “Indochina Mon Amour.” The New Republic, September 9, 1985, 26-32. Strong, opinionated political analysis of The Lover. Memorably describes Duras’ political views, their impact on her work, and her involvement in the French Resistance during World War II.

The Wall Street Journal. CCVI, July 10, 1985, p. 26.

World Press Review. XXXII, September, 1985, p. 56.

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