3 hours ago
Posted by Walter Mason on Friday, 19 June 2009
My reading group at Uni next week is discussing Marguerite Duras' novel The Lover.
It is one of those books that has actually shaped my life, so I will be very interested to hear it discussed in an academic context. I read it when the English translation first came out (I was just an impressionable teenager), and I was instantly absorbed in its lushly romantic world. I never imagined that one day I might be living a similar story. Who knows, maybe what we read really does affect our destiny?
It is a unique text, very short, very dense, quite poetic in its effects. It seems to be the story that Duras had to tell all her life (Hiroshima Mon Amour covers the same territory, as does The North China Lover). Duras is also quite unique in the annals of literature, being the only author I'm aware of to repeatedly and even obsessively detail the story of interracial love between a Caucasian woman and an Asian man.
Whenever I am in Saigon, and particularly in Cholon, I am constantly reminded of sections of The Lover - since I read the book before I ever visited the city, I suppose the experience of the text shaped my experience of the place.
I think it is the perfect book. Quite cold and realistic about sex, and deliciously spiked with both autobiographical detail and orientalist exoticism, in many ways it is a deepy unfashionable work. I assume it is Duras' gender that shields her from the kind of reflexive post-colonial criticism that would have destroyed a male author writing a similar story.
For anyone who loves Vietnam I think it is essential reading. The book is extremely short and can easily be read in an afternoon. It is so intriguing, however, that once read it will certainly be read again. I will probably be reading it for the rest of my life, each time getting something new from it, being intrigued by a different detail.
Naturally, I suspect that my own deep engagement with the text arises from my own autobiograpical projection. From the very first I identified with the love-starved, plain-but-sexually-precocious teenaged heroine wasting away in dire poverty in a hot, dull and provincial place.
As well as being about sex and loneliness and desperation, it is a meditation on anger, both repressed and destructively vented. There is cruelty at the heart of this book, and not one of the characters escapes unscathed. As well as being lushly sensuous, the novel is dark and even mystical.
And the lover himself - the cold, sickly Chinese boy - is so cruelly and artfully sketched. So many of the details about their brooding liaisons are perfect, and perfectly honest.
Duras wrote this book when she was old and quite remarkably ugly (a fact she discusses in detail at the beginning of the book). It still stands as one of the bitterest memoirs of youth, and of the messy complexities of youthful desire.