Marguerite Duras considered her autobiographical novel The Lover to be a “roman de gare”—a trashy airport novel with little artistic value. However, it was published in 1984 to critical acclaim, winning France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. The story recounts Duras’s childhood and adolescence in 1930s French Indochina (now Vietnam), detailing her affair, aged fifteen, with a Chinese millionaire twelve years her senior. Their relationship is the central focus of the novel and its genesis—an encounter on a ferry crossing the Mekong River, in which Duras is famously wearing gold lamé shoes and a man’s fedora hat—is the image around which other memories of the old French colony begin to emerge.
Marguerite Duras, 1955. Photo by Boris Lipnitzki.
“There was something intoxicating about Duras’s prose: her raw, unvarnished approach to female sexuality, her depiction of nascent desire overpowering social strictures.”
When I first read The Lover aged eighteen, I was spellbound. There was something intoxicating about Duras’s prose: her raw, unvarnished approach to female sexuality, her depiction of nascent desire overpowering social strictures. The way she revised her life was potent, too. The Lover is autobiographical, but not an autobiography. It qualifies as neither fiction nor memoir, carving a space somewhere in between. Factually, much of the work’s content is incorrect and Duras’s treatment of her memories—her deliberate elision and emendation—means that she retains a certain autonomy over the text. This places the reader in limbo, never allowing them to fully comprehend the tale being told: “The story of my life does not exist. Does not exist,” teases Duras, revealing only “enough to give a glimpse of it.” This characteristic style makes the work feel opaque: to read The Lover is to come away with impressions and images but an inability to summarise events or understand the narrative in its entirety.
Of these impressions and images, it is the broad strokes of Vietnam that linger. Highly symbolic, and always with a taste of oppressive white colonial rule, Duras depicts rural and urban landscapes as threatening and squalid. The suffocating heat of the “seasonless” country becomes a leitmotif, intruding with every memory Duras recollects. The opaqueness of Duras’s style is mirrored in the way she describes the natural landscape of Vietnam; density recurs in the fog, the haze, the heat, the pestilent forests, marshes and mountains. “The light falls from the sky in cataracts of pure transparency,” writes Duras, “in torrents of silence and immobility”; elsewhere she details the pervasive “deafness or fog” that comes from the light over the river. The great Mekong Delta reappears throughout the narrative, dwarfing the young girl and symbolising the inevitability of her eventual return to France: “My mother sometimes tells me that never in my whole life shall I ever see rivers as beautiful and big and wild as these, the Mekong and its tributaries going down to the sea, the great regions of water soon to disappear into the caves of ocean.”
“My mother sometimes tells me that never in my whole life shall I ever see rivers as beautiful and big and wild as these, the Mekong and its tributaries going down to the sea, the great regions of water soon to disappear into the caves of ocean.”
If Vietnam’s rural landscapes are associated with Duras’s childhood, Saigon is where she loses her innocence. The fog intensifies in the city, in the Cholon quarter where Duras and her lover spend their nights in his modern, cookie-cutter apartment. The city sounds crash from outside, streetlights bathe the apartment in red light when night falls and the lovers are “swept along in the din”, emblematic of the apparent sinfulness of the relationship and the impossibility of keeping it secret. Duras captures the gossip that fuels white society in the colony, where bored European housewives are “stranded amid chequered stretches of rice, fear, madness, fever and oblivion.” Whether it is in the encroaching heat and darkness of the rural landscape, or the nebulous and crowded city, threat seeps through every place and scene that Duras depicts.
In The Lover, Duras acknowledges that her affair is considered transgressive—not purely because of sex, but also because of race. The young girl and her family occupy a liminal space in the colony; privileged because they are white, deprived because they are poor. Duras’s affair challenges the archetype of the colonial white man pursuing an extramarital affair with a local woman. Not only is she seen to betray her gender by losing her sexual purity, but she also betrays her race by compromising her racial purity. Her Chinese lover seems both aware and humiliated by his passion for her. Duras speaks of him with tenderness and makes clear the sexual awakening he spurred in her, despite both of their families’ disapproval.
There is no doubt that the girl’s behaviour makes her a social pariah. The threat that comes of being an outsider—of being isolated further than her class already makes her—coalesces in the recurring figure of the “madwoman.” There’s the beggar who crosses the Siam mountains and spends life bathing in the Ganges; there’s the mad lady of Vinh Long who chases a young Duras down a dark road at night; and most of all, there’s Duras’s mother whose moods change with the Vietnamese winds. The contagious hysteria, oppressive heat and social suffocation mount throughout the work, and as the novel concludes with the young girl boarding a liner for France, abandoning her lover who watches her departure from his limousine, there is finally a sense of fresh air. But there is also a sense of profound loss, of a severing from a homeland that was never a rightful home—one that sends the reader back to the first page, trying to search for everything that Duras has never said and will never tell.
The Lover by Marguerite Duras, 1984, 117 pp.