“The Lover” was first published in English in 1985 (according to the bibliographic details, however it says 1986 on various websites!!!), so for a French novel written by a female in 1984 this was quite an achievement to appear in English after such a short period of time. As the winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, awarded for “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”, in 1984 and the winner of the PEN Translation Prize in 1986, this is one of the more celebrated translated works that you could come across. I picked this one up as it appeared on the highly male oriented list of “50 works offiction in translation that every English speaker should read” coming in at number 35 on the list.
This is a very short work, my edition weighing in at 123 pages, however that does not mean it is a work without depth. Marguerite Duras aged 70 is telling us her tale as a young fifteen year old girl in French Colonial Vietnam in 1929. Our first images of an ageing, worn, skin weary, writer explaining her harrowing tale, how those wrinkles came about:
Very early in my life it was too late. It was already too late when I was eighteen. Between 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 ageing 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. And I knew I was right, that one day it would slow down and take its normal course. The people who knew me at seventeen, when I went to France, were surprised when they saw me again two years later, at nineteen. And I’ve kept it ever since, the new face I had then. It has been my face. It’s got older still, of course, but less, comparatively, than it would otherwise have done. It’s scored with deep, dry wrinkles, the skin is cracked. But my face hasn’t collapsed, as some with fine features have done. It’s kept the same contours, but its substance has been laid to waste. I have a face laid to waste.
This introduction led me to believe this would be a “skin deep” work, something superficial, of course I was in for a lesson.
A minimalist tale, where our skeleton of a story is told through snippets and personal revelations, this is not a work for those who like straightforward narrative structure. The short, sharp, poetic prose, gives the novel a dreamlike, hazy quality, the feeling of the remembrances of an ageing lady. Apparently autobiographical in nature the story is quite simple, a young adolescent girl from France, whose mother (single of course) is struggling to make ends meet as her sons are gambling, smoking opium and generally not contributing, meets an older Chinese man and becomes his lover. Our protagonist’s (Marguerite Duras) mother, despite being bankrupt, also suffers depression:
It happened every day. Of that I’m sure. It must have come on quite suddenly. At a given moment every day the despair would make its appearance. And then would follow an inability to go on, or sleep, or sometimes nothing, or sometimes, instead, the buying of houses, the removals, or sometimes the moodiness, just the moodiness, the dejection. Or sometimes she’d be like a queen, give anything she was asked for, take anything she was offered, that house by the Small Lake, for absolutely no reason, my father already dying, or the flat-brimmed hat, because the girl had set her heart on it, or the same thing with the gold lame shoes. Or else nothing, or just sleep, die.
Our writer has suddenly switched to the third person, she is buying a fedora hat (a male hat!) and gold lame shoes. It is from here that we start to see a separation, the first person and third person become blurred. It is from here that she meets her Chinese lover, who is waiting for her in a black limousine (one that “hasn’t yet made its entrance on the literary scene”). Underneath this whole story we have the undertow of family, bonds between mother and daughter, a deep love between our writer and her younger brother, as well as the bitterness for her older, manipulative brother.
In the books I’ve written about my childhood I can’t remember, suddenly, what I left out, what I said. I think I wrote about our love for our mother, but I don’t know if I wrote about how we hated her too, or about our love for one another, and our terrible hatred too, in that common family history of ruin and death which was ours whatever happened, in love or in hate, and which I still can’t understand however hard I try, which is still beyond my reach, hidden in the very depths of my flesh, blind as a new-born child.
Our story is not only one of sexual awakening, the theme that seems to pervade throughout the history of this novel, although the aged lady reflecting upon her youth, her learning that her body could manipulate the mind and wealth of her older lover, her desire for other young girl’s bodies.
It goes on in the disreputable quarter of Cholon, every evening. Every morning the little slut goes to have her body caressed by a filthy Chinese millionaire. And she goes to the French high school, too, with the little white girls, the athletic little white girls who learn the crawl in the pool at the Sporting Club. One day they’ll be told not to speak to the daughter of the teacher in Sadec any more.
No it is also a story of memory, of reflection, of family, of manipulation and of mystery. As writer Deborah Levy (Man Booker Prize Shortlisted for “Swimming Home”) says in her review from “The Independent” in 2011: – “I’m not convinced a book as incandescent as “The Lover”, more existential than feminist, wold be published today. Questions would arise. Are the characters likeable (not exactly), is it experimental or mainstream (neither), is it a novel or a novella?”
The story of a girl who becomes a woman who becomes a writer.