Haunting Characters In Search of a Story
Duras, Marguerite (1985). The Lover. New York: Random.
In Saigon, before the Vietnam war, an impoverished, naive, adolescent French girl acquires an older Chinese lover. Her family is struggling with subsistence, and he appears wealthy so she feels it is her best path. The girl’s single mother is unable to support the three siblings, including the older brother, who is a drug addict and gambler who relentlessly steals from the family. Yet perversely, the mother idolizes and indulges her firstborn, oblivious to the family’s inexorable spiral.
The girl is only 15, and her lover, son of a millionaire, is 27. He becomes sexually obsessed with her, even knowing that the mixed-race relationship is impossibly forbidden (not to mention that she is underage). She confesses she doesn’t love him and is only curious about him, his money, and her own sexuality, but he is blinded by passion and adores her. He provides food and money to the family, but they hold him in racial contempt and the girl in moral contempt, while accepting his largesse without thanks.
After several years, the girl returns to France and the relationship ends. After it does, she has second thoughts: was that love, after all? How would she know? Duras has said the story has an autobiographical basis.
The dramatic story line is weak and even the inner story is not compelling because the narration is objectively descriptive, even when deep inside the girl’s head. The book was made into an unsuccessful soft-porn movie, and I can see why the filmmakers could not find an emotional center for the tale. The contrast between the man’s boiling passion and the girl’s detached numbness is perhaps what they sought.
Narration is mostly first-person, the girl’s POV, but often she lapses into third person, indicating her self-alienation. Tense also shifts fluidly, between present and past. The writing is exceptionally good, and is the main reason for reading this book. It easily reaches the level of prose poetry.
“Now I see that when I was very young, eighteen, fifteen, I already had a face that foretold the one I acquired through drink in middle age. Drink accomplished what God did not. It also served to kill me; to kill. I acquired that drinker’s face before I drank. Drink only confirmed it.”
“He’s trembling. At first he looks at her as though he expects her to speak, but she doesn’t. So he doesn’t do anything either, doesn’t undress her, says he loves her madly, says it very softly. Then is silent. She doesn’t answer. She could say she doesn’t love him. She says nothing.”