The Lover, by Marguerite Duras

We project the reality of actual people much as we do the seeming reality of fictional characters.

Madame Bovary is, factually, a noun to which certain verbs are attributed. Functionally, however, she is a person whom you care for or despise, laugh at or despair of, picture in the round, treat as possessing interiority, and, perhaps, even conduct imaginary dialogues with. Likewise your own mother, in the most basic sense, is a series of impressions, conceptualized as a continuous entity, accruing, like a snowplow leaving drifts on either side, attributions of causality. You speculate that she is an outside-with-an-inside-that-seems-to-be-free-and-autonomous. Just like you. You recognize her in certain primordial ways too. I’m not denying that. But most of what you think about her is constructed by your ongoing work of fantasy. Actually, Madame Bovary can seem more real to you than your mother. When you’re tired or your mother transgresses the bounds of your fantasy by doing something unexpected, then at least Madame Bovary is coherent, neatly tucked into her narrative. This mother, though—! She practically dissipates into incomprehensibility unless you maintain her invisible dimensions.

Given the sheer effort you expend to maintain your perception of another person’s independent reality, you seize any shortcut or prefab element you can find. That’s one reason children universally adore stories: stories are prefab fantasies, enormously useful. But besides stories, we repurpose the traits, types, and projected motivations of our fantasies about one person in our fantasies about another. We form an idea of mother, and use bits of it in our idea of father, and so on. (It’s not linear like this, obviously, but circular and recursive.)

Your family, at the level of its fantasy-existence as a collection of real people constantly presumed to be carrying on their own lives outside your head, are all built from one another. This Frankenstein, this family, is nonetheless, for you, the very definition of the real, the distinct, the effortlessly independent and permanently stable surround. Your brothers and sisters and mother and father are the archetypes from which you draw the materials for all subsequent fantasies about the new, supposedly real, people who touch your consciousness.

Well, perhaps one other person adds something incontestably new: your first lover.

The first person who breaches that wall of physical distance, the wall you built up gradually from your naked and bawling babyhood, in clumsy childhood, in embarassed adolescence, in dignified adulthood. Your lover reorganizes the whole settled engine of your fantasies. This traumatizes however it happens.

Marguerite Duras’ The Lover is a very short novel composed of tiny sections that leap back and forth in time and from one plot line to another. It forms a mosaic whose central figures are a fictionalized version of Duras herself—as a 15 year old girl—and her first lover. This lover is the son of a rich man and he is Chinese. Marguerite, of course, was French. She ostensibly goes with him because she wants money. Her mother, a bankrupt widow, stuck in the colonial Saigon, has awoken her to the need for money. And then later Duras thinks: perhaps I did love him.

From what I’ve been able to find out, the autobiographical events from which this tale stems, however, are different in one important way: the real Duras recollected that she only slept with the lover once, due to her racist revulsion from his body.

Imaginary-Duras, though, sleeps with him for two years. She’s a school-girl in colonial Vietnam. Perhaps you know about strained imperial communities that attempt to recreate the homeland’s social world. In such a recreations, polite fictions are continually undermined by the presence of the slave, the exploited, the subjugated, the ostensibly savage. Societies like that don’t handle scandal well (consult Kipling and the early Orwell). Young story-Duras is a scandal even before she takes up with a non-European who has no intention of marrying her. She wears a man’s hat and gold lamé shoes. She has a face, she tells us, that prophecies debauchery, a grown up dissipated face on a pubescent girl’s body. A delightful fictionalization, I thought, and then I found a picture:

This is, I believe, a young Marguerite Duras

Now I see that when I was very young, eighteen, fifteen, I already had a face that foretold the one I acquired through drink in middle age. Drink accomplished what God did not. It aslo served to kill me; to kill. I acquired that drinker’s face before I drank. Drink only confirmed it. The space for it existed in me. I knew it the same as other people, but, strangely, in advance. Just as the space existed for desire. At the age of fifteen I had the face of pleasure, and yet I had no knowledge of pleasure. There was no mistaking that face […] That was how everything started for me—with that flagrant, exhausted face, those rings around the eyes, in advance of time and experience.

For The Lover, Duras won the Prix Goncourt. To win such a major prize with barely a hundred pages: astonishing.

The story shows how one cannibalizes family members in an attempt to construct a fantasy about the lover’s independent reality. She imagines him as mother, father, brother. (“He takes her as he would his own child. He’d take his own child the same way.” Yes, admittedly creepy.) But ultimately, the lover breaches any merely borrowed fantasy. What most people take to be a recognition in later life that she actually loved the lover, and didn’t just go with him for his money, I take to be a surrender to the necessity to form fresh elements of fantasy to cope with his memory.

[I]t was when the boat uttered its first farewell, when the gangway was hauled up and the tugs had started to tow and draw the boat away from land, that she had wept. She’d wept without letting anyone see her tears, because he was Chinese and one oughtn’t to weep for that kind of lover.

What makes The Lover extraordinary, I think, is that it combines these two things: the way a first lover reorganizes the material of your fantasies about other people, and imperialism. Marguerite’s lover resists her existing stock of family fantasies not just by being a lover, but also by being Chinese. The foreignness (and perceived inferiority) of his being Chinese, however, cannot be maintained as a shadowy otherness when he is her first lover. It’s an intractable problem and their “love” does not work out—quite apart from its external obstacle which is, ironically, not her mother (who nonetheless beats her and screams at her for degrading herself with another race, even while accepting the monetary bounty that flows from her daughter’s promiscuity), but his father, who considers the girl beneath them.

At one point in the novel, Duras tosses out a little line that struck me between the eyes like a poleaxe: she says there is a “superstition if you like, that consists in believing in a political solution to the personal problem.” I thought about it and she’s right: there isn’t a political solution to a personal problem. (A thing we are about to learn with searing clarity.) But what is left unsaid—and Duras usually speaks as much through what she doesn’t say as through what she does—is that personal problems might have political origins.

Take her personal problem with that first lover. It wouldn’t be a problem—or not as intractable a problem—without the fact of Imperialism.

And that of course raises the question: though there can’t be political solutions to personal problems, can there be personal solutions to political problems? Well, suppose the novel is an attempt to answer that question. I’ll leave it to you.

  • Loved this review, Robert, of an old favourite of mine, both writer and novel. Always a thrill to see an old chestnut through a different lens. Thank you.

    • Thank you. It was my first time; but it’s a book that I think one immediately earmarks to reread—that perhaps works best as an old chestnut—because many pieces of it would be very different encountered with a knowledge of the whole. It’s a hermeneutic circle embodied in more ways than one.

  • A very insightful essay, Robert. Your point about the ways in which a first lover reorganizes one’s fantasies is particularly intriguing. It reminded me a bit of Jean-Luc Nancy’s discussion of the role of fantasy in his book Coming. Thank you, I enjoyed reading this very much.

    • I haven’t ever read any Nancy. (*He says, with embarrasment, sliding the fact that he’s a philosophy PhD student under the couch beside him surreptitiously with one foot.*) Perhaps I should.

      • Your reply really gave me a chuckle! You can’t be expected to read all the philosophy, even as a PhD student. Even though my degrees are in classics I haven’t translated or read all ancient authors. Nor would I want to some, of the are awful.

  • I’ve just read this book, but Duras wrote a number of versions of the story, which is interesting on its own, that she had to keep coming back to it, to do what, though, I don’t know. She frequently reorganized these fantasies.

    • I didn’t know there were other versions. A quick bit of googling turned up an interesting little essay on the subject. The money quote:

      With her books, the adult looks back on the skinny teenager who was little more than an economic bargaining chip. She creates instead a powerful alter ego and heroine – one who, at 15, could take control over a much older and more sexually experienced lover, determining when the relationship would begin, and how it would proceed, touch by touch, kiss by kiss. Duras turns a sordid affair, with the smell of money in the background, into a tale of timeless eroticism.

      Thanks for the tip.

      • Although, I should add, I’m not terribly persuaded by that paragraph’s argument that Duras was trying to erase the memory of prostitution. It’s a pretty obvious implication of The Lover. In fact, the weird, conversationless dinners the protagonist’s family has with the lover seem to be part explicitly in payment, as well as the protagonist’s ship journey at the end (since earlier in the novel she and her mother talked about how much money they would need to get hold of to travel back to France).

      • L’Amant de la chine du nord was written a few years later – some like it, some feel it lacks the minimalistic beauty of L’Amant. Jerome Lindon, her then editor, suggested (apparently many) cuts which led Duras to leave Minuit and return to Gallimard.

        She repeated this tendancy to re-write the same ‘story’ in several other instances. L’amante anglaise (a great work) was written as a récit and for the theatre, and there is an earlier version of this as well (Les viaducs de la seine et oise) in the title I think. Also, La Maladie de la mort was effectively re-written (not as good) Les yeux bleus, cheveux noirs.

        • Thanks for the precise clarifications and examples.

          I suppose her policy was never to let a good experience go to waste (though most of us would probably consider one novelization, say, thrifty enough!).

  • Fascinating Robert. I have this, though I haven’t read it and I’m not sure when I’ll get to (I have a vague, highly inchoate if that’s possible, reading plan for the first bit of the year).

    Interesting that she allowed her character an intimacy she couldn’t manage herself due to her racism, as you describe it.

    Looking at that photo, to be honest I see a fairly pretty teenager. I don’t see future ruin, a face showing signs of the effects of drink to come. I rather suspect she read that in based on her later knowledge.

    • I agree it’s hard to see the sybarite-foretold in that face. (Compare it to the obviously lip-darkened and eye-gloomified face on the cover I shared! — I feel like they touched it up to imply the lurid and sell copies.) Mostly I shared it for the hat, and to juxtapose to her self-description.

      Reading plans… I sincerely wish I had the fortitude to make and keep one, but they invariably crush my spirit. Best wishes with yours.