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Department of Sex Ed

The Fetish

February 16, 2012 | by

The slim novel came my way quite by accident. I had stumbled across a review of the film The Lover and ordered a VHS copy through my movie-of-the-month club. The first Saturday I could secure a house free of hovering parents, my fellow honors English friends and I, as sex obsessed as we were lit geeks, watched, enraptured, Marguerite Duras’s autobiographical depiction of an adolescent girl in French Indochina who embarks on an affair with a wealthy Chinese man. The girl’s family is crass and impoverished, but she is a good student and wants to be a writer. Soon after, I got my hands on a paperback with a cinema-still cover and was not disappointed.

“I’m fifteen and a half,” the unnamed narrator repeats early in the book. “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.” Nothing suggested sex as much as sensual lyricism, warm, distant places, and anything French.

I was also fifteen and a half, a virgin consumed with the mysteries of sex, of forbidden encounters. I was also going to be a writer. I read the book and watched the film again and again. Just what was The Lover’s appeal? By then I had discovered Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Lolita, but Duras’s novel resonated more acutely, an exotic Lolita tale but told from the woman’s (if she could be called that) point of view.

My favorite section was where the narrator describes herself on the ferry, wearing gold lamé high heels and a man’s fedora: “Going to school in evening shoes decorated with little diamanté flowers. I insist on wearing them. I don’t like myself in any others, and to this day I still like myself in them.” It is the day she is about to meet the “Chinaman” for the first time. She is fixated on this particular, outlandish ensemble, as stubborn as a child playing dress up. But the faint hint of pedophilia, of prostitution, fell so far into the background that it became practically invisible to me then, obscured by the striking imagery and strange, lush atmosphere of colonial Saigon.

I was determined that my own induction into the world of sex would contain the exotic and the forbidden, whenever that time came. I had my chance the summer before senior year, when my high school offered a trip to France and England. I worked and saved up for months, my best friend and I having convinced our parents of the worthiness of visiting Versailles and Windsor Castle. Behind closed bedroom doors, we prepared for the sexual adventures we felt sure would arise from being sixteen, largely unsupervised, and in Europe, where the liberties of drinking and sex abounded. I might not be wearing gold heels and a fedora on a ferry crossing the Mekong, but we would arrive in Paris in June; I could wear a tight skirt and high, strappy sandals and, with luck, meet an alluring Frenchman.

In the terminal at JFK, we bought cigarettes, lighters, and condoms.

When we arrived in Paris, however, the skies were gloomy, the temperature chilly. Our suitcases bulged with what we had envisioned ourselves strutting around Paris in—halter tops, flimsy sundresses. Undaunted, my best friend and I each changed from our travel clothes into provocative summer outfits. We met our faculty leader and fellow students in the lobby—all wearing jeans and sneakers, hands shoved in windbreaker pockets. Our fashion choices elicited more than a few raised eyebrows among the group, but not as much attention as when we hit the streets near the Eiffel Tower. As the cold drizzle landed on my legs, barely covered by skimpy shorts, I shivered and tried to ignore the catcalls and whistles of the men gawking on the sidewalk. “They think we’re prostitutes,” my friend said, crestfallen.

We were entirely unprepared for this. We thought of ourselves as advanced in our knowledge of the world and how it worked, never mind our lack of firsthand experience. We had, after all, read The Lover. Beyond wardrobes and lipstick, a certain attitude was required, one of mystery and nonchalance:

I already know a thing or two. I know it’s not clothes that make a woman beautiful or otherwise, nor beauty care, nor expensive creams, nor the distinction or costliness of their finery. I know the problem lies elsewhere. I don’t know where. I only know it isn’t where women think … You didn’t have to attract desire. Either it was in the woman who aroused it or it didn’t exist. Either it was there at first glance or else it had never been. It was instant knowledge of sexual relationships or it was nothing. That too I knew before I experienced it.

Only I didn’t know.

Still, I was determined to be as unafraid as the narrator, who climbs into a stranger’s limousine when he offers to give her a ride to school from the ferry. Given the opportunity, I was sure I could be that bold, act out the courage of my desires.

Our tour was being led by an easygoing, twenty-four-year-old Brit named Richard, attractive and all too eager to light our cigarettes whenever the group disbanded for free time and my friend and I lingered behind. On the night we stayed in Tours, he escorted a few of us to a nightclub, sans chaperones. Emboldened by tequila and Marlboros, techno beats pulsing so loudly we could barely hear, Richard and I pressed together in the shadows. I let his hand inch down my tight red skirt, squeeze my backside. “I can’t believe you’re sixteen,” he said.

I grinned in the haze of smoke and laser lights. How lucky was I to have ensnared the lover of my fantasies—darkly handsome, foreign, willing, and eight years my senior, forbidden, at least by American law.

On the way through the winding, cobblestone streets to the hotel, I tried to dispel my thudding heart. I went back with Richard to his room. Lying on his bed I can still remember the ceiling fan slowly spinning, the din of the streets below as drunken patrons stumbled home, laughing and shouting—the scene entirely as I had imagined it. In The Lover, when the girl accompanies the Chinaman to lose her virginity in his bachelor’s room,

The noise of the city is very loud, in recollection it’s like the sound track of a film turned up too high, deafening. I remember clearly, the room is dark, we don’t speak, it’s surrounded by the continuous din of the city, caught up in the city, swept along with it. There are no panes in the windows, just shutters and blinds. On the blinds you can see the shadows of people going by in the sunlight on the sidewalks. Great crowds of them always. The shadows are divided into strips by the slats of the shutters. The clatter of wooden clogs is earsplitting, the voices strident, Chinese is a language that’s shouted the way I always imagine desert languages are, it’s a language that’s incredibly foreign.

And a few paragraphs later:

I ask him to do it again and again. Do it to me. And he did, did it in the unctuousness of blood. And it really was unto death. It has been unto death.

But I couldn’t go through with losing my virginity in such a way, in the starkness of such a room with a stranger. To Richard’s credit, as he groped beneath my skirt, he mumbled that he couldn’t either.

Recently, I reread The Lover for the first time since those years of misfired desire. As an adult reader, it is more difficult to believe the narrator’s recollections of her younger self, the self-possessed fifteen-year-old that the twenty-something Chinaman eerily takes to calling his “child.” I can’t help wondering how much of her forays were a fetish, to prove something, as I had aimed to do at that age—if only for the sake of making real what I’d read and exposing such exploits later. I only know I’m grateful that the evening in Tours ended when it did. Even so, I can still hear the revelers spilling out of the bars, the blur of French. I can see the spinning fan.

Vanessa Blakeslee’s fiction recently appeared in The Southern Review. She has been awarded residencies at Yaddo and the Ragdale Foundation.

13 COMMENTS

11 Comments

  1. Anonymous | February 16, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    Read Un Barrage Contre le Pacifique. It’s the same story but written by Duras at 30ish rather than 70, her age when she wrote L’Amant. The supreme kick in the gut is the difference in the tellings of this story, separated by forty years. Why would Duras make a man a scurvy villain in her breakout novel and then forty years later, after her mother and brother have died from severe alcoholism, go to such ecstatic lengths to make him her first love? The fifteen-year-old is self-possessed because she’s grown up on an un-tillable farm in rural Indochina, not making American upper-middle-class teenager romps to the Eiffel tower. Pleas don’t try to self-mythologize a classic book by a superior author. If it were Hemingway, you wouldn’t get crap pieces about young upper-middle-class American men nervously contemplating foreign wars. Also, the tags on this piece are hilarious. I’d expect this writing from Glamour, but not the PR.

  2. L Stein | February 16, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    Completely agree. So frustrating to be excited over a Duras feature only to read a listless piece that does nothing but add to this novel’s incorrect reputation as an object upon which to throw your French fetish. Duras wrote this story over and over in the course of her life and we’ve been suckered by this particular form for decades. It’s especially strange upon the republishing of Writing…

    It’s the kind of thing that undermines women writing about her work. If Duras is to be taken on outside academic circles, we’d be better off examining the violence, culpability and three-dimensionality of it…please don’t underestimate your readership.

  3. Anonymous | February 16, 2012 at 7:20 pm

    Thank you. And this just to be clear, I’m not makin’ a high-brow/low-brow complaint. Today’s piece on Justin Bieber/Hanson is far more insightful, entertaining writing. This is just condescending to someone who hasn’t read the book and insulting to someone who has.

  4. AB | February 17, 2012 at 11:07 am

    I liked it. She was saying how she understood the book in high school. I only wish ahe’d said what happened the next day.

  5. GZ | February 17, 2012 at 11:13 am

    Self mythologizing, yes. When Geoff Dyer (also a recent contributor to this journal) discusses Stalker, he continually refers to his own experiences, lending the reader his idiosyncratic perspective as he regards that film. He never leads us to believe the he is Tarkovsky or the protagonist of that film. This is what Blakeslee does – she attempts to make herself an incarnation of Duras.

  6. Chris Giuliana | February 20, 2012 at 9:53 am

    What struck me in both the movie and book was the overpowering feeling of place presented.  Having seen Saigon when I was young,  the muddy churning of the Mekong, the mossy mildewed walls of French colonial buildings along its shady rues, and the decaying upcountry plantations set back in their rows of rubber trees, I found both the book and the movie vibrant reminders of it all.   A couple of years ago I found Duras’ “Wartime Writings: 1943 -1949″, her notebooks from the 1940s, that autobiographically rehearse what will end up in “The Lover”.  Blakeslee should read the notebooks to better place herself in Duras’ world and mind.  As for the sensuality that fascinated Blakeslee, well, Vietnam even in the 1960s still had its sweaty, erotic dangerousness aplenty.

  7. Al | May 25, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    This book is not about sex at all. It’s about love

  8. Michael Wynne | July 6, 2012 at 7:56 am

    Isn’t it also a book about memory and how we recreate the past through writing, and whether that’s even possible. Even Duras’s slipping in and out of the first and third person, and the second person, too, is evidence of her struggle to find a way to re-create the experience, and to tell it.

    I liked the piece a lot until you didn’t go through with the sex. I wondered at the “pleasure” you (assuming this is completely autobiographical; as if such a thing exists) seem to get from not having gone through with it, the almost smugness that everything was all nice and clean at the end, rather than the messiness that is adolescent sexuality, and just sex in general.

    As a writer, don’t we want those experiences, to paraphrase Albert Camus, in the face of which our heart first opens. And the heart is a messy place. No wonder Duras spent a lifetime refining and rewriting the story of her first love/lover.

  9. Nkechi | April 6, 2014 at 2:56 pm

    I totally understand where she was coming from, but how I wish that this is what every aspiring or published authors have tried to accomplished in their books. I know the scene, it has happened to quite a few people I know. They have expressed dismay at lack of their control in submission to a total stranger which will later come back to haunt them, but overall it is what it is. I love her descriptions as it really speaks Intone with the narrator when dealing with The Young and Restless.

  10. Fitzgerald | April 8, 2014 at 12:24 am

    The point of this article is what? Write your own book. So pointless. It rides on the coattails of the book and in such a dumb and thoughtless way.

  11. anon anon | September 11, 2014 at 8:53 am

    yawn. i wish literary markets would stop encouraging/condoning these vapid brands of self-intrigue. the self, and it’s herald sex, is really not all that interesting, folks.

2 Pingbacks

  1. […] Fiction Writer Vanessa Blakeslee On Her Fetish Of The Lover […]

  2. […] On Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. [via The Paris Review] […]

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