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 schoolteacher, 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 the first and third person, has a strained relationship with her mother, who wants her daughter to do well at school, get an education and 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 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, 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. It was awarded the French Goncourt Prize in 1984 and adapted for film in 1992.
‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras, first published in 1984, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where it describes the novel as “very cinematic”, claiming that the author was influenced by “the French nouveau roman of the 1950s”.
25 thoughts on “‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras”
I loved this book when I read it ….the prose is beautiful in French . I love the way it deals with memory and loss
It’s such an evocative read… I think I ate it up in two sittings… I lost my notes so had to go back and re-read sections of the book to write this review, and I practically re-read the whole thing… such gorgeous writing and so heartfelt and sad in places, but I love that Helene is so defiant. While there’s a kind of adult bitterness to her reflections, she doesn’t shy away from hard truths. It’s completely unsentimental. Five stars for me!
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I haven’t got this one yet but I loved The Sailor from Gibraltar so I must get round to it. LOL before I die…
Thanks for tipping me off about The Sailor from Gibraltar. I’m anxious to get her other book, The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein, which is also in 1001 Books but it seems to be out of print… along with much of her entire back catalogue (in translation that is).
Your review has reminded what I’ve felt when reading this novel (as a teenager :S). I’m happy it seems well-translated because Duras’ writing is so special.
I’d really like to read more Duras but it seems like only a handful ever got translated and most of those are out of print.
I loved this book when I read it (at a similar age to the protagonist of the book). It is lyrical yet also ambiguous, sad and threatening – I like the Jean Rhys comparison
Ah, yes, I imagine reading this as a teenager would be kind of empowering/enlightening. Reading it as an adult I felt concerned for Helene; I worried she’d be used by the man but she essentially uses him. I also worried about the beatings she got from her mother and brother. I feared a lot for her safety, in fact b
Thanks for this review – I might never have thought to read it based on its cover and title. Hausfrau isn’t one I would have typically wanted to read either, but sometimes I have to see what all the hype is about. This sounds like it has a lot more to it.
The cover’s a bit rubbish, isn’t it? Earlier editions are slightly nicer; this one looks a bit “romantic”. But still, it was very cheap on Kindle, so I’m not complaining… And it’s 6 trillion times better than Hausfrau, so it’s win-win 🙂
Oooh… 6 trillion? I can overlook the cover. 🙂
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Great review, Kim. I have a different Marguerite Duras book (Moderato Cantabile) in my TBR, but I rather wish I had this one instead. The comparison with Jean Rhys certainly appeals to me.
Thanks Jacqui. I picked this up on kindle for £1.99. It would be cheap at three times the price. It’s a wonderfully moody piece, very much about a young woman discovering her manipulative powers. And the Rhys comparison is valid: same time setting, same vulnerable female narrator, same melancholia.
I think it would be very interesting to read her along side Jean Rhys. They have enough in common to justify the linking but are also different enough to make for a great conversation afterwards. I’m not sure if have read this one or not. I think I did, but it was a long time ago. I really enjoyed her memoirs of World War II. She was a part of the underground in France and had an “affair” with a German officer to get information. I think the book about this is called War. If you haunt used book stores and library book sales you can usually find quite a few titles by Duras. But, you’re right, she should be more “in print” and in English than she is. Prize or nor prize.
Thanks, James. I’m keen to read more by Duras but not much in print, so yes, I’m going to have to peruse second-hand bookstores or look online to see what I might be able to dig up for reasonable cost. I’m trying not to buy any new books for awhile though — I really ought to be reading the things I already own!
Hélène Lagonelle is not the narrator of The Lover— she’s a minor character who appears about half way through the book.
You are quite correct. The narrator, I think, is nameless (it’s been many years since I’ve read the book). I remember meaning to edit this ages ago, and then I saw this review becoming hugely popular with students (it gets hundreds of hits every month) and decided to leave it in, that way if someone rips off my review a teacher will quickly know the student hasn’t done their research properly and that they’ve likely copied this post 🤷🏻♀️