French author Marguerite Duras’ semi-autobiographical novel THE LOVER (L’AMANT) is a fascinating, sad, sometimes puzzling, short read about alienation, classism, colonialism, racism, sexism, and the human condition. Ms. Duras then shows how both lust and love serve as ephemeral ways around these socio-emotional and existential constraints.
I had to set my rigid thinking part of me aside while reading this book. Specifically, I am more comfortable with a clearly non-stop linear narrative, as many of us are. The author digresses at times, going off on tangents that do not always have an explicit link to the main story, which is about a French teenaged female (the periodic narrator) living in Indochina in the 1930s. She embarks on a passionate, doomed affair with a wealthy Chinese man, her senior by twelve years. I mention “periodic” narrator here because the point of view switches between first and third person. I soon realized that Ms. Duras was basically thinking aloud on the page and reflecting, whereby thoughts naturally jump around a bit before eventually returning to a certain main subject of focus. Clever and realistic. The human brain is more than linear, and certainly so when impacted by childhood trauma. The book’s impoverished young woman lives through the loss of her father and having a narcissistic, abusive older brother and a moody, depressed mother, all traumatic life disruptors to varying degrees. The main character resides largely in her mind and through her writing, exploring different perspectives partly out of habit, as survivors can often do, and partly out of a longing to integrate her challenging, rift-filled life, find meaning in it all.
The determination of the main character’s intent to rebel via experiencing repeated fulfillment of her sexual desire with a socially forbidden lover (older and non-white) is compelling and erotically charged. It has been a long time since I’ve read a novel so purely from a woman’s perspective that relays such believable immediacy of sexual longing. And while her lover is able to match this urgency with his own, it is her libido that is the central energy or– ahem– thrust of the story. The male lead is portrayed as sensitive, nervous, and love-struck, which I found refreshing and intriguing, whereby he is rendered just as vulnerable as she is if not more so. On an emotional, psychic level, the gender roles of male and female are somewhat mixed up between them, unclear, which is wonderfully human. On the surface, it seems that the man is the pursuer, per old convention, but she pursues him just as strongly, for experience and pleasure gratification, cutting off her emotions (many would say so “typically male”), per this being a protective pattern/defense for herself existing long before he came onto the scene.
The racism in THE LOVER saddened and angered me. The book was published in 1984 and the author still was blatantly, unreflectingly racist, per, for example, her occasional reference throughout the story to “coolies,” the natives to Indochina (Vietnam). Her guilt and despair over how her mother and brothers treat her Chinese lover, and the way she goes along with their awful behavior in their presence with him, is understandable. On one side, the young woman uses her lover and allows her family to do so as well. On the other, he also uses her sexually but with her full direct consent. She requests that he treat her “like you treat all your women.” This he does up to a point, but not completely, because he actually loves her. It is unclear that she reciprocates this love. Hence, like the land of Vietnam, colonized and exploited by the French, the Chinese man, also an exploiter of many Vietnamese, is in turn exploited, used. There is a chain of hierarchy in which the young woman is close to the top, with her older brother, a white male, placed above her. Then follows the rich, non-white lover, just below the narrator, and the colonized natives at the bottom. The book is written by a colonizer, even if the main character’s own economic situation was fairly grim. She operated from privilege, matching her lover’s access to money with her being white and not in love, or so she convinces herself of the latter during the affair.
Ms. Duras’ frequent references to death, including occasional thoughts of dying and committing violence on people she loves, were sometimes disturbing, at other times puzzling. Given the lack of emotional connection between she and her mother, her father’s death from some illness during her childhood, and her raging, destructive older brother, it is no wonder she was occupied with death. She suffered from depression brought on by both genetics, given her mother, who may have had an undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and painful circumstances. The narrator writes in dramatic, absolutist statements, referring to herself as “dead” after the death of her younger brother, who she did clearly love. The meaning behind such statements (among other ponderous passages in the book, such as musings about immortality) was not always clear to me. Perhaps this is what Ms. Duras intended, since life often involves discerning meaning where it is not always apparent.
I would be remiss if I did not at least briefly discuss the writer’s description of the story’s surroundings. The contrasts of city and countryside are stark and beautiful, such as how she describes light and shadow in each of these environments, or the uniqueness of the nights versus the sameness of the often brightly-lit days. She sets a mood through her descriptions very effectively, which includes an overall sense of claustrophobia and isolation that come with the oppressive tropical heat coupled with her inability to leave her mother and brothers and their toxic ways of relating. All that plus the repressive social norms she had to contend with as a young woman attending private, Western European-run schools during the first half of the twentieth century. It is no wonder the main character is so fraught and seeks constant distraction and release the way she does.
I am glad I checked THE LOVER out of the library and read it, a modern classic for sure. The one flaw I saw in it is a certain lack of awareness in the author’s writing of her own unresolved racism. Somehow, it is doubtful if it dissipated much more by 1996, the year Marguerite Duras died. For those readers with more of a literary education and background, I imagine other flaws about the writing come forth that I did not notice in this little gem of a book.
And, now, staying with little novels about precocious young women from another time and place, I have started on Kate Chopin’s THE AWAKENING.