Duras’s The Lover, thirty years later.
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. Read More