Between the Bindings: Marguerite Duras’s The Lover

by Jim McKeown

Maguerite Duras’s best-selling, highly fictionalized, autobiographical novel L’Amant (1984), translated into English as The Lover, describes her youthful affair with a Chinese-Vietnamese man. The story of her adolescence also appears in The Sea WallEden Cinema, and The North China Lover. Duras wrote plays, films, interviews, essays, short fiction, and novels, and her major works include Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein (1964) and L’Homme assis dans le couloir (1980).

According to The Lover‘s dust jacket, “Marguerite Duras’s extraordinary novel caught France by surprise. Published in August 1984, it swept the country like a summer brush fire. By the end of the year, it had sold close to 700,000 copies, headed the French best-seller list for months, and won the Goncourt Prize.” Duras has written a mystical story of a young girl’s life in prewar Indochina in 1929. This unforgettable story will blow you away.

It begins:

One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said, “I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”

Even at this tender age, she recognized imminent danger.

Very early in my life it was too late. It was already too late when I was eighteen and twenty-five my face took off in a new direction. I grew old at eighteen. I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, I’ve never asked. But I believe I’ve heard of the way time can suddenly accelerate on people when they’re going through even the most youthful and highly esteemed stages of life. My aging was very sudden. I saw it spread over my features one by one, changing the relationship between them, making the eyes larger, the expression sadder, the mouth more final, leaving great creases in the forehead. But instead of being dismayed I watched this process with the same sort of interest I might have taken in the reading of a book.

To continue:

So, I’m fifteen and a half. It’s on a ferry crossing the Mekong River. The image lasts all the way across. I’m fifteen and a half, there are no seasons in that part of the world, we have just the one season, hot, monotonous, we’re in the long hot girdle of the earth, with no spring, no renewal. I’m in a boarding school in Saigon. I eat and sleep there, but I go to classes in the French high school. My mother is a teacher and wants her girl to have a secondary education.

But her mother has different plans.

The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any center 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. The story of one small part of my youth I’ve already written, more or less—I mean, enough to give a glimpse of it. Of this part, I mean, the part about the crossing of the river. What I am doing now is both different and the same. Before, I spoke of clear periods, those on which the light fell. Now I am talking about the hidden stretched of the same youth, of certain facts, feelings, events that I buried. I started to write in surroundings that drove me to reticence. Writing for those people, was still something moral. Nowadays it often seems writing is nothing at all.

I’m fifteen and a half. Crossing the river. Going back to Saigon I feel I’m going on a journey, especially when I take the bus, and this morning I’ve taken the bus from Sadec, where my mother is the headmistress of the girls’ school. It’s the end of some school vacation, I forget which.

Duras goes on to write:

On the ferry, besides the bus, there’s a big black limousine with a chauffeur in white cotton livery. Yes, it’s the big funeral car that’s in my books. The black [limousine] at the French embassy in Calcutta hasn’t yet made its entrance on the literary scene. … Inside the limousine there’s a very elegant man looking at me. He’s not a white man. He’s wearing European clothes—the light tussore suit of the Saigon bankers. He’s looking at me. I’m use to people looking at me. People do look at white women in the colonies; at twelve-year-old white girls too. For the past three years white men, too, have been looking as me in the streets, and my mother’s men friends have been kindly asking me to have tea with them while their wives were out playing tennis at the sporting club.

And her desire to write conflicts with her mother’s plans:

Fifteen and a half. The body is thin, undersized almost, childish breasts still, red and pale-pink make-up. And then the clothes, that might make people laugh, but don’t. I can see it’s all there, but nothing yet down. I can see it in the eyes, all there already in the eyes. I want to write. I’ve already told my mother: That’s what I want to do—write. No answer the first time. Then she asks, Write what? I say, Books novels. She says grimly, when you’ve got your math degree you can write if you like, it won’t be anything to do with me then. She’s against it, it’s not worthy, it’s not real work, it’s nonsense. Later she said, A childish idea.

Marguerite Duras has captured — in minute detail — a young girl’s life. The Lover is a gripping story of love and its many pitfalls.

Jim McKeown, a lifelong voracious reader and long-time English professor who recently retired from McLennan Community College, hosts the weekly book review program Likely Stories on KWBU, Waco’s NPR station.


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