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.
In Issue No. 1 we meet Australian fashion icon Jenny Kee, translator from Italian Ann Goldstein and French-Cuban music duo Ibeyi. We learn about Ramadan, the Aboriginal ball game Marngrook, the Kiribati dance, the art of pickling, and the importance of home. And we see what it’s like to dress up in Myanmar, live in Cuernavaca, make ceramics from different soil, and walk the streets of Florence.
In Issue No. 2 we meet New York-based Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson, and Croatian painter Stipe Nobilo. We discover how the French protect their language and the way women—all around the world—have used textiles as their political voice. We listen to lovers rock, prepare a boisterous Korean barbecue, venture to go to Feria de Jerez and eat our way around Hong Kong.
In Issue No. 4 we meet Nigerian-born artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, Indigenous Australian Elders Uncle Bob Smith and Aunty Caroline Bradshaw, and Palestinian-American chef and artist Amanny Ahmad. We peer inside the Parisian ateliers Lesage and Lemarié, muse over the iconic lines of European chair design and celebrate the colourful woodblock prints of Japanese artist Awazu Kiyoshi. And we venture along Morocco’s Honey Highway, get lost in the markets of Oaxaca and discover the favours of Ghana.
In Issue No. 5 we travel to the mountains with Etel Adnan, along coastlines wherever waves roll in, and then all over the world through the photographic archive of Lindsay James Stanger. We celebrate hair braiding in South Africa, Salasacan weaving techniques in Ecuador, Vedic jewellery traditions and the new sound of Ukraine. We meet artist Cassi Namoda, choreographer Yang Liping and lace-maker Mark Klauber. And we visit a bakery in Tel Aviv, discover the joys of making arak, and spend a summer stretching mozzarella in Italy.