On a Pedestal



Duras’s The Lover, thirty years later.


A young Duras on the cover of The Lover.

Early in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, we encounter an indelible image: a strange rag doll of a girl rides the ferry across the Mekong River en route to Saigon. She’s an adolescent, fifteen and a half, and she looks both too young and too old for her age, in a sleeveless, low-cut, red silk dress, a leather belt that belongs to one of her older brothers, gold lamé shoes, and—the most striking piece of her ensemble—a large, flat-brimmed men’s hat:

Having got it, this hat that all by itself makes me whole, I wear it all the time. With the shoes it must have been much the same, but after the hat. They contradict the hat, as the hat contradicts the puny body, so they’re right for me.

That elliptical, dreamlike tone is characteristic of the novel. The book’s narrator is a young woman in flux. She’s outgrown childhood and has poured her body into oversize markers of adulthood; the conclusion of the ferry ride signals the start of her sexual awakening, as she first glimpses the chauffeured black limousine that belongs to the twenty-seven-year-old Chinese businessman, the novel’s eponymous lover.

The Lover, Duras’s forty-eighth work, was published in France in 1984; the English translation arrived in the United States a year later. If the book, at just over a hundred pages, reads like the hazy, disconnected musings of a seventy-year-old writer looking at faded snapshots of her past, that’s because it is. When Duras claimed that the novel was entirely autobiographical, it became something of an international sensation. But, as the New York Times noted, “truth, in the Durasian universe, is a slippery entity”; Duras also went on to say “that the story of her life did not exist.” She and the novel found even more notoriety a decade later, when Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film adaptation was released. Duras eventually washed her hands of the film, which focused mainly on the erotic elements of the story—and indeed the novel’s depictions of sex receive an outsize portion of attention. But it’s also a study in the narrator’s fraught connection with her family and the cultural fissures in French-colonial Indochine.

Now, three decades after its initial publication, the book has inspired countless writers while generating plenty of criticism. On April 14, Thalia Book Club at New York’s Symphony Space held a retrospective commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the book’s English-language publication. The event featured four writers—Catherine Lacey, Akhil Sharma, Kate Zambreno, and The New Yorker’s art editor Françoise Mouly—who touched on the novel’s continued influence.

The Lover shifts between a passive, almost mechanical voice and a first-person narration that’s more akin to the whispers of a close confidante. “It feels like actually being in a room with someone after three glasses of wine,” Mouly remarked of the style, “and she’s talking to you in a way that is so vivid that is seldom achieved.” The comment garnered knowing laughs—Duras, who died in 1996, famously struggled with alcoholism—but for Mouly the book is a confident, confessional work from an author at the height of her craft.

What she reads as a sophisticated balance between tones, though, Sharma interpreted as disjointed ramblings. “For me, writers rarely remain on a pedestal,” he said. “It’s very hard to retain respect, and so the issue, for a writer, is not stepping off the pedestal, but desperately trying to remain on the pedestal. It’s so hard to remain competent. For me that’s a lot of it. I think a lot of these things that are dismissed are hard to do. They are worth doing as a writer.”

For Sharma—whose own novel, Family Life, also melds fiction with autobiography—much of the frustration in reading The Lover stems from the fact that so much of the book seems contingent on a reader’s knowledge of Duras’s own personal history. Sharma said the book should be able to effectively succeed or fail independent of an awareness of the author’s biography. His introduction to The Lover came by way of the 1992 film, which, in a phone interview, he called “cheesy.” When, years later, he finally encountered the actual novel, he couldn’t get past the fact that it just wasn’t “a good book.”

“The language seems ornamental, and not especially a good ornament. It’s not actually very pretty, and it’s just making general claims that don’t appear to be true,” he said.

That dreamy vagueness, and the odd jumps in time and setting that so frustrated Sharma, is what makes the book particularly appealing to Lacey. “There’s a huge distance between the narrative voice and the bulk of the experiences that she’s talking about,” Lacey said in a phone interview. “But the voice is beautiful. It bounces among these things and it’s interesting that she doesn’t even get into the love affair until a third of the way into a hundred-page book. It’s billed as a love story, but it’s really more about a woman coming to terms with the idea of love in a vacuum, of a woman coming to terms with her own potency and power and contradictions.”

Does she feel that a reader needs an understanding of Duras’s life to appreciate the book’s plot?

“You don’t really need that history to understand what is happening with race and class and culture in this book,” Lacey suggested. “I actually don’t research that much when reading a book like this. It’s important to appreciate the book on its own.” She focused on the power dynamics at the core of the novel. “The book is much more about power than love. Love is an exchange of power. Look, The Power Exchanger wouldn’t be as great a title, but the book is a chess game. It’s about what happens during these moments of exchanges of power, between the lovers, between cultures, between family,” she said.

Still, Sharma believes that The Lover is a book whose praise seems to radiate more from reader interest in the author’s own larger-than-life mythology. “I don’t know who reads it, honestly,” he said.

Duras herself was surprised by the breathless praise The Lover received; she dismissed the book, even going so far as to rewrite it, in the form of notes to a film, as The North China Lover. And Laure Adler, in her unauthorized biography Marguerite Duras: A Life, writes that the author had harsh words for it, international acclaim or no.

The Lover is a load of shit,” she told Annaud when the two were collaborating on the film adaptation. “It’s an airport novel. I wrote it when I was drunk.”

Brian Mastroianni is a journalist based in New York. His work has been featured by The Atlantic, Fox News, Yahoo News, CBS News, and Brown Medicine Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @brimastroianni.