Written when Marguerite Duras was 70 years old and superbly translated by Barbara Bray, The Lover is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die for good reason.
With its shifts between the first and third person, the use of flashbacks and its impressionistic disrupted style, Duras’ writing is very cinematic, influenced as she was by the French nouveau roman of the 1950s. (p.724)
*chuckle* Call me cynical if you like, but perhaps the book was fêted as much for its provocative theme as for the brilliance of its style! It is the story of a transgressive love affair between a fifteen-year-old girl and a Chinese man ten years older.
Wikipedia tells me that it was first published in 1984 by Les Éditions de Minuit, and has since been translated into 43 languages. My edition was translated by Barbara Bray for the first English edition in 1985 so it didn’t take long for the novella to reach its international audience. The book was awarded the 1984 Prix Goncourt, (the most prestigious of French prizes and the one which is for “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”). The book was adapted for film in 1992 as The Lover.
The story is set in Sa Dec on the Mekong Delta in French Indochina in the 1930s, where Duras lived as a girl. But that is not the only autobiographical element. Like the mother of the girl in the story, Duras’s mother ran a school, and like the nameless girl* in the story, Duras had an inter-racial affair with the son of a wealthy Chinese family. (These days, the entrepreneurial Vietnamese have opened the house of that lover, Huynh Thuy Le, to the public for literary pilgrimage!)
The novella, it seems to me, is primarily about power. On her way back to school after a holiday, the girl tests her own power of sexual allure by dressing provocatively in a silk dress, gold lamé high heels and a man’s fedora hat. The 21st century reader attuned to the prevalence of child abuse fears for the naïveté of this girl when she gets into a car with a man she does not know. He is not only older than her, he is also a member of the wealthy Chinese community and she is the daughter of a woman who’s lost control of her life. This mother has no power: after the death of her husband and some bad investment decisions she is poor by white Indochinese standards, and her elder son’s sadism and criminality has made her a pariah in her own community. She is also subject to fits of depression and drifts about from one place to another, managing only to have the luxury of declining to eat if they didn’t like the cheap meals cooked by their houseboy. Her clothes are cobbled together by the faithful Dó but they are shabby and by inference not sexually alluring.
But the girl, as it turns out, has sexual power. From the outset, it is she who is in control. Her Chinese lover hesitates when she is naked before him but she takes charge. She doesn’t love him and he knows it. She tells him that she desires him because of his money, but he isn’t repulsed. Indeed, he maintains his love for her long into old age…
The girl also has power within her own dysfunctional family. She has no intention of fulfilling her mother’s ambitions for her to do well in mathematics so that she can become a teacher: she knows that she is her mother’s only hope left – but she wants to be a writer.
The inversions of racial power are a repudiation of colonial racism. While the impoverished mother thinks that she is superior to the Chinese lover because she is white, his wealthy, respectable family is never going to let him marry the little whore. When he dines with her family at an expensive restaurant in a grotesque parody of ‘meeting the family’, they gorge on his hospitality – he pays for everything – but they ignore him completely. But it’s a meaningless insult: they are powerless to prevent the relationship.
Despite the celebration of a young girl’s sexual power, the novella is melancholy in tone.
Very early in my life it was too late. It was already too late when I was eighteen. (p. 4)
But the glimpses of life in Sa Dec are illuminating: I was fascinated by
those Chinese restaurants on several floors, they occupy whole buildings, they’re as big as department stores, or barracks, they look out over the city from balconies and terraces. The noise that comes from these buildings is inconceivable in Europe, the noise of orders yelled out by the waiters, then taken up and yelled out by the kitchens. No one ever merely speaks. On the terraces there are Chinese orchestras. We go up to the quietest floor, the Europeans’ floor, the menus are the same but there’s less yelling. There are fans, and heavy draperies to deaden the noise. (p.47)
The story of the Chinese lover’s wealth is interesting too. He has built 300 ‘compartments’ i.e. cheap semi-detached dwellings let out for rent. Owns several streets. And he justifies conditions in the ‘compartments’ by saying that
They cost much less than either apartment blocks or detached houses, and meet the needs of working-class people much better than separate dwellings. The people here like living close together, especially the poor, who come from the country and like living out of doors too, on the street. And you must not try to destroy the habits of the poor. (p.48)
In the dry season there is a celebratory cleaning of the girl’s house:
The house is built on a raised strip of land, clear of the garden, the snakes, the scorpions, the red ants, the floodwaters of the Mekong, those that follow the great tornados of the monsoon. Because the house is raised like this it can be cleaned by having buckets of water thrown over it, sluiced right through like a garden. All the chairs are piled up on the tables, the whole house is streaming, water is lapping around the piano in the small sitting room. The water pours down the steps, spreads through the yard towards the kitchen quarters. The little houseboys are delighted, we join in with them, splash one another, then wash the floor with yellow soap. Everyone’s barefoot, including our mother. (p.61)
There’s a lot to like about this book, but its impressionistic style won’t suit everybody. It’s definitely a book that needs re-reading in order to discover all its riches.
*1001 Books and some other reviewers name the girl as Hélène Lagonelle but while I concede that it’s possible that the narrator is disassociating herself by inventing another persona, I don’t interpret it that way. Rather, I see the presence of the 17-year-old school-friend Hélène in the novella as a desire for another transgressive relationship:
I am worn out with desire for Hélène Lagonelle.
I am worn out with desire.
I want to take Hélène Lagonelle with me to where every evening, with my eyes shut, I have imparted to me the pleasure that makes you cry out. I’d like to give Hélène Lagonelle to the man who does that to me, so he may do it in turn to her. I want it to happen in my presence, I want her to do it as I wish, I want her to give herself where I give myself. It’s via Hélène Lagonelle’s body, through it, that the ultimate pleasure would pass from him to me.
A pleasure unto death. (p.74)
PS I can’t see that the introduction by Maxine Hong Kingston contributed much to this edition…
Author: Marguerite Duras
Title: The Lover (L’amant)
Translated from the French by Barbara Bray
Publisher: Pantheon, an imprint of Random House, 1997
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings $25.95
Available from Fishpond: The Lover $14.82, delivery free