Marguerite Duras’s The Lover

I finished The Lover over the weekend. It’s a very short novel, more like a novella, really, at 115 pages, and a fascinating read. If you’re interested in the novel, you should check out Litlove’s post on Duras. There she discusses The Lover plus Duras’ life and reputation.

It’s a story about a girl of fifteen who lives in Indochina with a difficult, poor family — her mother and two brothers — and who has an affair with older Chinese man. But the novel doesn’t stay focused solely on the affair; it skips around in time, telling stories of the narrator’s later life in France and of what happens to her family members. We watch her as she realizes she wants to be a writer, and as she struggles with her love/hate relationship with her mother, and we see all this from different perspectives in time. At the beginning of the novel Duras describes the beginning of the affair, and at the novel’s end she describes the lovers’ fate, but in between, Duras takes us to many different years, often abruptly with rapid switches.

The narrator’s voice is simple and spare; the sentences seem empty of feeling, although emotion lurks under the surface, unexpressed but present. Here is a sample (from early in the book — I’m not giving anything away):

My younger brother died in three days, of bronchial pneumonia. His heart gave out. It was then that I left my mother. It was during the Japanese occupation. Everything came to an end that day. I never asked her any more questions about our childhood, about herself. She died, for me, of my younger brother’s death. So did my elder brother. I never got over the horror they inspired in me then. They don’t mean anything to me any more. I don’t know any more about them since that day.

The voice is halting and obviously pained but also detached, as though she’s trying to make sense of her experience but only can repeat sentences about the meaninglessness of it all.

The narrator is isolated; she feels loyalty to her family and yet the family fails her in many ways, she attends school but has few friends, and she quickly gets a bad reputation because of her sexual experience. She travels to and from school in an odd outfit that marks her as the outsider she feels herself to be.

The love affair is described in a similarly matter-of-fact manner; it is all-consuming — the narrator spends all her time with her lover and sneaks home late at night — but it seems emotionless. We learn very little about the lover, except that his father refuses to let him marry the narrator.

This is largely the story: the novel tells how the lovers meet, gives us some stories about the difficult family dynamics, describes the narrator’s desire to be a writer, and moves forward in time now and then to give glimpses of the narrator’s future life. What The Lover excels at is creating a mood; through its shifts in time and its short, simple sentences, it creates a feeling of a writer haunted by her past, exploring it but grazing across the surface of it rather than digging in deep.

Set in Indochina in the 1930s, the novel also gives a sense of what it was like to be a French family far away from their home country. It describes race and class tensions, as well as familial ones.

Although the story is a dark one, I enjoyed the experience of reading it; there’s something compelling in the voice of the narrator, haunted by the past as she is. I don’t usually like prose styles one might call “lyrical,” as one can call the prose in this book, but the blunt honesty and courage of the narrator saves it for me.

The novel is largely aubiographical; I’m curious to find out more about Duras and her life. She seems like a fascinating figure.

This book is part of my “From the Stacks” challenge — one down, four to go. Next up will be Alice Munro’s Runaway.

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Filed under Books, Fiction

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