The Lover by Marguerite Duras
What a perfect novel to read following Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream. There are several things I admire about Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. First, the prose itself is lyrical and unique. Her analogies and themes are consistent and poignant throughout. In fact, the entire novel reads like one long prose poem. For example, from pages 81-82, “The light fell from the sky in cataracts of pure transparency, in torrents of silence and immobility. The air was blue, you could hold it in your hand. Blue. The sky was the continual throbbing of the brilliance of the light. The night lit up everything, all the country on either bank of the river as far as the eye could reach (pp 81-82).”
If I had to criticize the novel, I would say its lyricism is not only its greatest strength but also a potential weakness. A reader will find very little here in the way of a traditional novel. There is no dialogue (in the traditional sense), very little “scene”, and few transitions between segments. The text is dreamy and at times confusing. The narrator jumps from first person point of view to third throughout, as the protagonist deals with varying degrees of trauma. But all of these aspects are also what make the novel so compelling. This style, however, begs the question: would The Lover have been successful if it had been a longer book? At 117 pages, it could almost be classified as a novella. In my experience, I have found that many books of an experimental style tend to be shorter, as if to make it easier for a reader to digest.
The structure of the story is that of an older woman looking back on her past and offering insight into her actions as an adolescent after decades of experience and reflection. Her memories are scattered and often seem unrelated to each other. It took me a while to get used to the author’s structure and to orient myself in the story. And yet her setting and characters are deeply developed and three-dimensional. Similar to the narrator in Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star, the protagonist of The Lover acts as philosopher-narrator, often asking rhetorical questions and ruminating on the character of each of her family members. The protagonist is particularly interested in her mother, to whom she at first tries to ingratiate herself and then simply to understand her and to empathize.
“So my mother has only the photographs left to show, so she shows them, naturally, reasonably, shows her cousins her children. She owes it to herself to do so, so she does, her cousins are all that’s left of the family, so she shows them the family photos. Can we glimpse something of this woman through this way of going on? The way she sees everything through to the bitter end without ever dreaming she might give up, abandon—the cousins, the effort, the burden. I think we can. It’s in this valor, human, absurd, that I see true grace (pp 95-96).”
On the surface level, this book is about a young French girl growing up in Vietnam who has an affair with an older Chinese man. But more than that, it is about a young girl discovering herself and finding her place amongst family and country. As a youth, banished from her lover, she experiences an epiphany, “And the girl started 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 (p 114).”
This experience is filtered through the older and much wiser voice of the protagonist as an old woman, who recognizes that people come and go and that a person will truly know very few people over the course of their lifetime. She gives the example of two women she knows socially in France as an adult, who remain mysteries to her. Without this reflection, the character of the young girl would have been much less bearable for the reader. Because some of the text and characterization of the young girl is steeped in melodrama, it is sometimes difficult to take the girl seriously, and there is a need for relief from the dramatic arc of the story. It is for this reason that the story’s dreamy and scattered structure works. Duras uses time as a device to ease dramatic moments and provide some release to the constant tension in the story of her youth.