Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Time and deconstructed chronology are central aspects of Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. The novel spans decades and continents to memorialize a lost lifetime and, in so doing, wrenches apart the conventional mores of cause and effect. Events swirl together, told through the flawed lenses of emotional truth and half-forgotten memory. It is a tale of hindsight and mistakes, as the narrator—often a young girl and occasionally an older woman—reflects on herself.
Very early in my life it was too late. It was already too late when I was eighteen. Between eighteen and twenty-five my face took off in a new direction. I grew old at eighteen.
Torn from the first page of the book, this quote indicates the narrator’s tone and perspective, highlighting the now-older woman’s image of her younger self. She takes up the question of self-image and its change over time, noting that the process of maturation was, for her, “very sudden” and recalls seeing it “spread over [her] features one by one. The change is physical, she continues, but her transition into her adult form was not born of physical necessity but instead experience. Her face “grew old” as it grew sad, she explains; right away, readers understand that the narrator is a serious and melancholy artist with a keen and unobstructed sense of self.
Moreover, despite her desire to understand and see herself, she remains caught up in the question of how others see her. Indeed, the story is riddled with instances of her deep-rooted need for external validation. At the age of eighteen, she was consumed with the fear of aging, certain that her mature appearance was not a blessing but a curse. She writes of life as both fleeting and expansive, swirling existential questions into her own (sometimes vain) personal reveries. The tone is complex and philosophical, as she says:
It's while it's being lived that life is immortal, while it's still alive. Immortality is not a matter of more or less time, it's not really a question of immortality but of something else that remains unknown. It's as untrue to say it's without beginning or end as to say it begins and ends with the life of the spirit, since it partakes both of the spirit and of the pursuit of the void.
This passage comes from later on in the book, as the narrator interjects as an older woman. Through the lens of her older self, she realizes that time and life begin to move and feel differently as one ages; as such, she acknowledges that she must evaluate her youthful experiences through a different lens.
He takes her as he would his own child. He’d take his own child the same way. He plays with his child’s body, turns it over, covers his face with it, his lips, his eyes. And she, she goes on abandoning herself in exactly the same way as he set when he started. Then suddenly it’s she who’s imploring, she doesn’t say what for, and he, he shouts to her to be quiet, that he doesn’t want to have anything more to do with her, doesn’t want to have his pleasure of her any more. And now once more they are caught together, locked together in terror, and now the terror abates again, and now they succumb to it again, amid tears, despair, and happiness.
When discussing her older lover, the narrator’s tone is at once romantic and detached. While the moments of her sexual awakening and subsequent encounters with her lover are invariably eroticized, they also continue a self-conscious awareness of the immoral and...
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unconventional nature of their affair. The dynamic is perversely paternal; it is as if he is a father figure guiding her through these novel experiences. She is equally thrilled and scared by these new feelings, just as he feels compelled and anxious; the dynamic is inappropriate, the narrator explains, and the passage describing the intimate moments of their affair reveals the rifts and cracks in this strange affair. Racial, cultural, and class differences spark conflict, but no feature is more controversial than their age difference and the narrator’s youth. Although the relationship ultimately falters, the lover’s presence does not fade from memory; indeed, it remains present, reprised decades on, as he spans time and space to speak of love lost and preserved.
Years after the war, after marriages, children, divorces, books, he came to Paris with his wife. He phoned her. It's me. She recognized him at once from the voice. He said, I just wanted to hear your voice. She said, it's me, hello. He was nervous, afraid, as before. His voice suddenly trembled. And with the trembling, suddenly, she heard again the voice of China. He knew she'd begun writing books, he'd heard about it through her mother whom he'd met again in Saigon. And about her younger brother, and he'd been grieved for her. Then he didn't know what to say. And then he told her. Told her that it was as before, that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he'd love her until death.
The narrator, who returns to France after her brief affair with her Chinese lover, later becomes a wife, mother, and writer. She receives a phone call from her one-time lover in which he professes the depth of his feelings for her. It is a jolting, poignant moment: the girl had considered her relationship with the lover one of sexual exploration, but he confirms that it was much more for him. And this fact makes the girl—now a woman—wonder if it was more to her, too, but she simply could not recognize it at the time. The scene provides a profound insight into the human condition, the nature and intersection of sex and love, and how the past resurfaces, familiar, but slightly altered.