Marguerite Duras is very much a member of the old French avant-garde. She published her first novel in 1943, wrote her first film script—Hiroshima mon amour—in 1959, and directed her first film in 1969. In 1968 she was a senior member of the writers’ and students’ revolutionary committee. So it is quite surprising that her latest novel was a runaway success in France last year, French readers being notoriously anxious to be on with the new. L’Amant appeared in the dead holiday month of August and is barely long enough to last through an afternoon on the beach. All the same, it quickly sold 60,000 copies and headed the best-seller list for months. In style and mood—the first cinematographic, the second a kind of dreamy melancholy streaked with anger—it is not so different from her previous work. Why did it do so sensationally well?
It is clearly an autobiographical novel. Like Duras herself, the anonymous first-person narrator is a writer who grew up in French Indochina before the war. She looks back at her adolescent self, and what happened to her then and the way she felt about it still have the power to shock, even though Duras explicitly makes her deny this right at the start:
The story of one small part of my youth I’ve already written, more or less…. Now I’m talking about the hidden stretches of that same youth, of certain facts, feelings, events that I buried. I started to write in surroundings that drove me to reticence. Writing, for those people, was still something moral. Nowadays it often seems writing is nothing at all. Sometimes I realize that if writing isn’t, all things, all contraries confounded, a quest for vanity and void, it’s nothing. That if it’s not, each time, all things confounded into one through some inexpressible essence, then writing is nothing but advertisement. But usually I have no opinion, I can see that all options are open now, that there seem to be no more barriers, that writing seems at a loss for somewhere to hide, to be written, to be read. That its basic unseemliness is no longer accepted.
The last statement is true, up to a point; but hardly for 60,000 readers. Whatever they may think about the existential (the word was bound to crop up in connection with a writer of Duras’s generation) “unseemliness” of The Lover, some of them are bound to be shocked by the story and the way it is told.
The Lover is a sort of Lolita told by Lolita herself, and without the jokes. Humor, even just bearable lightness, has never been Duras’s strong point. The original nymphet was a humorless girl too: it was Humbert Humbert who saw the ironies. Here there is no one to see them. Unlike Lolita, Duras’s consciously seductive adolescent is born to like sex. She knows that, “You didn’t have to attract desire …