MARGUERITE DURAS – THE LOVER
Marguerite Duras was seventy when she published her autobiographical novel The Lover. Moody, melancholic, deeply reflective – Duras tells the story of a clandestine relationship between a French teenage girl and a twenty-seven year old Chinese man, in 1930’s Saigon. A story about a relationship that she actually had whilst growing up in Vietnam. “It’s very simple,” she says in the documentary Worn Out With Desire To Write (1995). “It’s a true love story, the story of our affair.”
Marguerite Duras (1914-1996)
“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.” — The Lover
Devoid of sentimentality, the tale of love is entwined with an exploration of “otherness.” The otherness of a wealthy Chinese man in French colonial Indo-China, who becomes the sexual awakener of a white, French, fifteen and a half year old emerging woman. Duras probes the desire that sparks and takes form in the young woman.
Then there is the family of the girl, marked by deep despondency. The poverty and day to day struggle of living; the emotionally remote mother; the brutish elder brother; the younger brother whom the girl loves tenderly – these threads wind and loop around the unraveling relationship with the Chinese man.
“Never a hello, a good evening, a happy New Year. Never a thank you. Never any talk. Never any need to talk. Everything always silent, distant. It’s a family of stone, petrified so deeply it’s impenetrable. Every day we try to kill one another, to kill.” — The Lover
Darting backwards and forwards in time, in spare prose the writer wrestles with the circumstances of her life. Throughout the reader remains tentative about the true nature of this relationship between the girl and her lover, unsure of it’s real depth. Then suddenly, at the end of the slim volume, in the midst of a dark ocean, we feel with potency the shifting understanding that filters into the woman’s heart and mind, in the notes of a Chopin waltz.
“On the main deck there was a sudden burst of music, a Chopin waltz… the burst of Chopin under a sky lit up with brilliancies. There wasn’t a breath of wind and the music spread all over the dark boat, like a heavenly injunction whose import was unknown, like an order from God whose meaning was inscrutable. And the girl stared up as if to go and kill herself in her turn, throw herself in her turn into the sea, and afterwards she wept because she thought of the man from Cholon and suddenly she wasn’t sure she hadn’t loved him with a love she hadn’t seen because it had lost itself in the affair like water in sand and she rediscovered it only now, through this moment of music flung across the sea.” — The Lover
Years later, “after marriages, children, divorces, books, he came to Paris with his wife.” Even then, even after having received the “heavenly injunction,” having been swept up in the realisation of love, still the woman feels his otherness. He tells her that he still loves her, “that he’d love her until death.” We don’t hear her response, don’t know if she remains silent. But the Chopin waltz continues to play softly in the distance, filling the mind of the reader.