Fiction – Kindle edition; Harper Perennial; 130 pages; 2006. Translated from the French by Barbara Bray.
One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said: “I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”
So begins Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, an evocative and sensual novel about a young girl’s affair with a man 12 years her senior, which was first published in 1984. I read it back to back with another (supposedly) sensual novel, the (rather horrid) Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, and they couldn’t be further apart — in mood, style or sheer literary power — even though they covered similar (sexual) territory.
The Lover is narrated by Hélène Lagonelle, a French woman looking back on her life in Indochina (now Vietnam) and, in particular, the romance she had with a wealthy Chinese man in 1929 when she was just 15. It’s largely based on the author’s own life — she was born in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to French parents who had emigrated there to work in the French colony. But things did not go well: her father quickly returned to France, where he died soon after, and her mother, a school teacher, made a bad property investment in the colony, which mired them in poverty. Duras also claimed to have been beaten by her mother and her older brother.
In the novel, the narrator, who effortlessly flicks between first and third person, has a strained relationship with her mother, who wants her daughter to do well at school, to get an education and to study mathematics. The daughter does not think she is good at mathematics, but she excels at French and wants to be a writer.
But that’s not the only strain in their relationship. The mother often goes through periods of despair — I suspect an undiagnosed clinical depression — and locks herself away, despondent and unable to properly care for her family. This hardens Hélène, who blames this lack of care for the death of her younger brother, who succumbs to pneumonia, and it also makes her ashamed.
Search for identity
From the outset, it’s clear that Hélène is unsure of her own identity. She often dresses provocatively — a threadbare silk dress that is sleeveless and low-cut, with a leather belt, gold lame high heels and a man’s Fedora hat — because she feels confident in these kinds of clothes. Yet she realises this attire makes the “girl look so strangely, so weirdly dressed” and “might make people laugh”.
But it is exactly this outfit that catches the eye of the Chinese financier, who later becomes her lover. Hélène is returning to boarding school in Saigon from a holiday and is crossing the Mekong Delta by ferry. They talk on the boat and then he gives her a lift in his chauffeured limousine. Later that week he picks her up from school to show her where he lives, and from there a sexual relationship ensues. The rumour mill goes into overdrive:
Fifteen and a half. The news spreads fast in Sadec. The clothes she wears are enough to show. The mother has no idea, and none about how to bring up a daughter. Poor child. Don’t tell me that hat’s innocent, or the lipstick, it all means something, it’s not innocent, it means something, it’s to attract attention, money. The brothers are layabouts. They say it’s a Chinese, the son of the millionaire, the villa in Mekong with the blue tiles. And even he, instead of thinking himself honoured, doesn’t want her for his son. A family of white layabouts.
Surprisingly, the affair does not terribly worry the mother, who sees it as a means to an end: her daughter’s lover is wealthy, so he may be able to help the impoverished family with money. If that is a form of prostitution, she can live with it.
Hélène now becomes aware of her own power. She knows that her mother needs her to help support the family. And she knows that men look at her and desire her.
For the past three years white men, too, have been looking at me in the streets, and my mother’s men friends have been kindly asking me to have tea with them while their wives are out playing tennis at the Sporting Club.
There are a lot of complicated family dynamics in this novel, but it is the wise and knowing voice of the narrator, the self-confident schoolgirl who wants to forge her own path in life, to take risks and escape parental and societal expectations, that makes it such a powerful read.
The narrative, which often winds back on itself through Duras’s use of flashbacks, is compelling in the way it explores sexual taboos and the tensions between the French colonists and the South Vietnamese, while the writing has a beautiful melancholic tinge and pulsates with an aching loneliness — “I grew old at eighteen” — which is hugely reminiscent of Jean Rhys. It’s moody and evocative without being depressing, the kind of book that you can settle down with on a rainy afternoon and be swept away into another time and place.
I really loved and admired this short novel, but don’t take my word for it: The Lover was awarded the French Goncourt Prize in 1984 and it features in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It was also adapted for film in 1992.