The Lover by Marguerite Duras
Re-reading “The Voyage Out” left me with a huge book hangover, which was of course to be expected. I should perhaps have dipped into some short stories but instead went for a library book I’d just got out and which I’d read high praise of – “The Lover” by Marguerite Duras.
Duras was French – born near Saigon, when Vietnam was still French Indochina, she’s known as a writer and film director, and from what I’ve read much of her work seems to be informed by autobiography (though thinking about it, much fiction *is*!) “The Lover” is indeed based on incidents from her life; the narrator is a 15 and half-year old French girl living in Indochina in a dysfunctional family much like that of Duras. Her father is dead, her mother barely scraping a living and she has two brothers; the elder a bully, the younger (who she dotes on) is weak. The girl’s relationship with her mother is complex and strained and while travelling back to boarding school upon a ferry, she meets an older Chinese man, with whom she embarks upon an affair. This relationship tears the family apart and ends when the man’s father refuses to acknowledge it and he is forced to marry another woman.
All of this is told in fragmented prose, slipping backwards and forwards through different times in the relationship, even switching in tenses halfway through a paragraph. The affair is an intense one; the story is never graphic (despite the book often being described as an erotic one) but the emotions are heightened and passionate, and the girl feels with all the fervour of a needy teenager in love for the first time. The family seems to sway from crisis to crisis, and the time span is long, coming quite up to date and dealing with her relatives’ later lives and deaths.
And yet… Despite its brilliance, I didn’t really warm to the book. The problem I had, I think, was that although I could appreciate the writing, Duras’ skill in telling her story of dislocation in such a fractured way, this made it difficult for me to relate to the characters. So so although I can stand back and appreciate the art, I didn’t love it in the way I love so many books.
“The Lover” has received praise and awards, so it may be that I simply read it at the wrong time; I think I’ll return to Duras’ books one day, but I confess this one didn’t make me want to rush back!