Last Updated November 3, 2023.
Although the fictionalized trappings of Marguerite Duras’ 1984 novel The Lover disguise some of its subtler auto-biographical elements, the book is unmistakably a self-inspired memoir. The circumstances of the narrator’s life and salacious, underaged affair too closely align with the author’s own experiences, which she writes of in two other novels: Duras' 1950 The Sea Wall and 1991 The North China Lover.
Duras’ prose is lurid and stream of consciousness, littered with stark imagery and elegant metaphor. In a clear, unblemished gaze, she takes up the story of an unnamed young French woman who, at the age of fifteen, began an illicit affair with a Chinese man twelve years her senior. Narrated by this young girl, the story swirls between Saigon in 1929 and Paris many decades later; indeed, Duras’ narration rejects linearity. Events are interrelated, muddied by the reveries of flawed recollection. At times, the story unfolds from the young girl's perspective; at others, it flows from the perspective of herself from many years on. The question of narratorial authority is uncertain, as the voice changes often and unexpectedly.
Usually, the story occurs in the first-person perspective of the young girl or her much-older self. However, Duras often allows her narration to slip into the third person; in so doing, the narrator’s retelling becomes detached and disengaged, as if she is a voyeur in her own life. These moments of detachment often occur in charged and, likely, traumatic moments in the narrator’s life: the first encounter with her older lover, their first sexual experience, and those experiences still yet to come. All of these instances are told from a third-person point of view. In so doing, Duras aligns the narrator with the reader, both staring with wide eyes as these events happen to her. In so doing, the narrator loses agency and self-determinism, merely a viewable object rather than an independent person.
Duras’ writing is experimental and fragmented, aiming to detail the emotional truth of her unnamed narrator’s reflections through fractured thoughts, fractal memories, and the loose threads of self that bind an individual across time. Her non-linear format rejects cause and effect to weave the narrator’s stream-of-consciousness thoughts and memories into a cohesive tale. Departing from the present to journey into the past and abandoning the first person to write in the third, the narrator employs a modernist method that strives for authenticity and emotional precision rather than perfect truth-telling.
The narrator—and many of the supporting characters—remain unnamed. In so doing, Duras allows herself to spill onto the pages. Not only does her nameless anonymity permit the author to project her life onto the narrative, but it also invites readers to project as well. As a bildungsroman-style novel focused on colonialism, class-based strife, gender, and sexuality, The Lover’s thematic foundation is profoundly universal. Although the narrator’s specific circumstances are unique to her—and likely to Duras—her struggle to cope with the meaningful constrictions of her internal self and external world is readily applicable to readers of every kind.
The narrator’s lack of concrete identity only exacerbates her “everywoman” qualities, molding her into an emotional outlet for those struggling to parse the strange flows of youth, love, and memory. Moreover, her timelessness—at once a young girl and an older woman—only furthers this sense of broad applicability. Although The Lover is semi-autobiographical, the novel’s non-linear form, anonymous characterization, clear-eyed, elegant prose, and universally relevant themes appeal to a broad audience willing to connect with this unnamed narrator who, eerily, seems to—strangely—resemble themselves.