When I picked up Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew she was considered one of France’s most important literary figures, but The Lover was the first work of hers that I had read.
The back cover claims that The Lover is “an exquisite jewel of a novel,” but it’s my understanding this work is autobiographical and not fiction, though today it probably would be put in the autofiction category. At fifteen, Duras, who was then living in Saigon with her mother and two brothers, started a relationship with a Chinese man twelve years older than she. The affaire continued for almost two years. And while the work centers on the sexual involvement and its repercussions in her life, the narrative also slips in and out of Duras’ dysfunctional family life: the mother beats Marguerite while her older brother cheers on their mother.
All of these dynamics are absorbing, especially when Duras describes her lover’s treatment of her as if Marguerite were his own child and he was making love to her. One of the tragedies is that the man’s wealthy father would not allow his son to marry a Caucasian. In fact, Duras and her lover mirror in some ways the dynamic in her family where there also is an incestuous element between Duras and her mother and brothers. If this were not acted out actually, it was psychologically.
As a writer, when I read, I not only am interested in content but also in how a work is written. So what interests me most about this narrative is the lack of linearity. The opening paragraphs describe Duras as an older woman but quickly dip into when she was a girl attending a boarding school in Saigon. For the remainder of the work, the writer takes the reader on a wild ride through different periods of her life, though she focuses mainly on the early years. Yet she doesn’t do so in a predictable way. One minute we’ll be hanging out with Duras, her mother, and her two brothers. The next we’re involved with the Chinese lover and the sexual permutations of that relationship.
Duras’ ability to slip in and out of various time periods and to ignore the usual signals of chronological time has inspired me. In fact, Duras is creating an accurate portrait of how memory works. It doesn’t follow a linear pattern but zips around, following its own logic through association, a fast-moving stream of consciousness. Writers are thieves, and Duras has inspired me to try something similar.