Marguerite Duras' strange tale of love, called The Lover, left me thinking but thinking of something that I could not name, a feeling vague, a thought strange, some misgivings, some unvoiced doubts, in short a feeling of having read an incomplete tale but perhaps more complete than any. Thus, I confused, and a little worn out at the end of this novella. This is the first Duras novel I have read though I am familiar with her work as a movie writer, her Hiroshima mon amour such brilliance.
The lover is a story narrated by a grown up woman, perhaps Duras herself, who tells us of her love affair with a older Chinese man, when she was 15, when he was more than 12 years older than her, she white, he Chinese, she poor, he so rich, both in Indochina, she from the conquering race, he from the subdued, she so innocent, he so much in love, she so unloving, he so much in passion. Thus what begins by chance is a torrid passionate affair, away from the frozen eyes of her family, his family, their surroundings, society. They meet secretly, they make love, she writhes in passion, he suffocates in love, they both are sick, of passion, with love. But secrets are always found it, how long can secrets be kept in a room, and thus our narrator begins her cunning deception of hers, shielding him, herself, her family.
After reading this novel and during it, I felt that the love affair in itself is not Duras' central worry for the main bulk is devoted towards a tortured relationship that exists between our narrator, her mother and her two brothers, one young and the other older. The older brother is a figure of hate, he has been the family's black sheep, he is a petty thief, a liar, a swindler, without feelings or emotions but loved to the exclusion of everyone by his mother. This is a sore point, a point of friction between our narrator and her mother, even now, at a distance, when everyone is dead and time has flown, people have left, gone down the rivers of time, wars have been won and lost, hearts broken, bodies ravaged, death done and seen.
The love affair is not casual but at the periphery of this family, whose two male members have succumbed to poverty and a useless life, whose mother figure, having tried and lost everything is a defeated figure and this young woman, our protagonist is in a sulky, torrid affair with this Chinese man, older, richer. Her love seems to be a displacement, an act of revenge against her family. However, whilst inside this affair, she discovers herself but is sure that she does not love him. This is not much emphasized and attention is given mostly towards her mother, for in spite of her outwardly manifest hatred, she loves her mother, would do anything for her.
This white family in Indochina, reduced to poverty, feel united in a fundamental shame at having to live. "We are on the side of society that have reduced her to despair". Because of that, "we hate life, we hate ourselves". In descriptions of colonial societies, one must not forget the families of those who colonize, for some of them live many estranged and double and desperate lives. Because here there is a position, an attitude, the young girl seduced by an older Chinese, for her because of love, for everyone else because of his money. It is this double pain of her life, she torn between who she is and who she should be, he between a spate of identities too.
I am not sure she actually loves him but then I have never been sure what love is. He is terribly lonely because of this love for her, not because he is not in love, she is lonely too, she doesn't say why. "He moans, he weeps, in dreadful love". But his love is weak too, he cannot stand up to his father. She does not want to stand up to her mother, she leaves for Paris, he stays behind, they part, love comes to an end, a river is crossed forever, everything ends. He has got married, she too is with child, "let him feel Love's first violence", she says. And years later, in Paris, he calls her, telling her that he never stopped loving her, that he w'd love her until death.
This novel flicks before us as a movie would, or rather as images for there are so many devices here, of present narration, past and future, flashbacks, dreams, scenes that constantly change and merge, fuse and dissolve and then we are again, with our narrator, in the present, in an unknown place, crossing the Mekong, decades back, with her lover, in a hotel room, as she writhes in ecstasy and as she now remembers him with pain. Duras has not written a simple tale of love but a complex one filled with questions about motherhood and relationships, fidelity, race, culture and love and the interplay these have on people in difficult situations, away from a familiar habitat, in roles they are uncomfortable with, especially if they are poor, destitute and different. The writing style I much admired for Duras is a prose poet, her style is sonorous, hypnotic and descriptive without lapsing into any boring platitudes. There are many quotable passages and this novel is eminently great. Below, one of the many I liked.
"The light fell from the sky in cataracts of pure transparency, in torrents of silence and immobility. The air was blue, you could hold it in your hand. The sky was the continual throbbing of the brilliance of the light. The night lit up everything, all the country on either bank of the river as far as the eye could reach. Every night was different, each one had a name as long as it lasted. Their sound was that of the dogs, the country dogs baying at mystery. They answered one another from village to village, until the time and space of the night were utterly consumed".