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Sunday 14 September 2014

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (translator Barbara Bray)

The Lover is a fictionalised biographical work by Duras, recounting her first love affair with an older Chinese man during her childhood in Indochina. Duras was fifteen when the affair began, an affair deemed illicit due to her age and their difference in race. The novel captures the period during which the affair ran its course, though in truth its range is broader than that, capturing the period as a kind of distillation of the course of Duras’s life. It is apparent the affair had a significant impact on her, and the novel gives a very frank assessment of that period and its consequences.

Duras writes with sparse economy and a keen, insightful wisdom. There is a great deal unsaid in the book, and yet a complete picture is given of the relationship, its flaws, Duras as a naïve yet calculating young lover. It is quite a disturbing read, not because of the nature of the relationship, their age difference and racial differences, but the ways in which the young Duras takes advantage of her lover, treats him badly and, to a degree, herself, the level of hatred and dismissal from both herself and her family against the backdrop of his reverence and gentleness. The lover is from a rich family, he cannot marry Duras both because she will not allow it and because his father will not either. Duras, in contrast, lives in poverty. Her father has died and her mother has lost what money they had on a bad land deal, her elder brother is a drain (she refers to him, often, as the ‘murderer’ due to her perception of his guilt in the younger of the two brothers’ death which occurs after the time frame in which the story is set) and the younger brother seems unfit for study though it is apparent Duras loves him greatly. That at fifteen Duras sets out, it appears, to find herself a rich lover in order to supplement their income, perhaps, is not surprising and though the family openly disapprove, on another level her behaviour is sanctioned. As she explains:

“The only thing left is this girl, she’s growing up, perhaps one day she find a way to bring in some money. That’s why the mother lets the girl go out dressed like a child prostitute. And that’s why the child already knows how to divert the interest people take in her to the interest she takes in money. That makes her mother smile.”

There’s a strange directness and indirectness to this novel. On the one hand much is left out, a great deal is unsaid. On the other hand, there is a brutal kind of honesty, Duras does not shirk from laying responsibility for her behaviour at her own door. She admits how terribly she treated her lover, how she used him, how mercenary she was, how he knew it, how her family knew it, how the affair had no future and no end, how she did not love him (or thought she didn’t) how it marked and damaged them both, in Duras’s case for life it seems. Is it something she is sorry for? Yes, the novel professes her sorrow, not for the relationship but perhaps for the way it was conducted and the way that it ended. As she says:

“And I’ll always have regrets for everything I do, everything I’ve gained, everything I’ve lost, good and bad, the bus, the bus-driver I used to laugh with, the old woman chewing betel in the back seats, the children on the luggage racks, the family in Sadec, the awfulness of the family in Sadec, its inspired silence.”

All through the novel, Duras’s perceptiveness, her wisdom, shines through. It is a piece of fiction / non-fiction in which each paragraph provides its own weight, could be read, interpreted, analysed in great depth. It is a slight book, yet one which benefits from more than one reading due to its density, a density which is not apparent due to the sparse simplicity of Duras’s prose. In fact it is very easy to read the book lightly, to dismiss it as a simple love story. It is so much more than that. It is, I think, an explanation of Duras’s life in which she addresses her flaws, her difficulties, why and how she drank, why and how she turned to writing, how she manipulated herself and others, her independence, her single-mindedness, the terrible way in which she shaped her life story. Except there is no life story, as she says here:

“The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any centre to it. No path, no line. There are great spaces where you pretend there used to be someone, but it’s not true, there was no one.

It is a melancholy book, filled with regret. At the same time it is defiant. Duras does not express any desire to have lived any other way, she seeks only to explore the fundamental truth of her existence; a truth she has buried in a childhood half forgotten, brought to life again in this short, but impactful novel. Her life encapsulated in a single image, the image of herself at fifteen crossing the Mekong river, her lover-to-be on the other side.

The Lover receives a confused but impressed 8 out of 10 Bii’s.  

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