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. Either it was in the woman who aroused it or it didn’t exist.”
The girl is the youngest child in a family of poor whites. Her father is dead; her mother runs an elementary school up-country and is beset by Indian money-lenders; her two brothers are ineducable. None of them has a name, and the two boys are referred to as “the killer” and “the hunter.” This anthropological mythologizing adds nothing to the story or its significance. The killer is a bully and grows up to be a layabout sponging on and stealing from his mother. He torments the hunter, a backward boy with a passion for cars who gets on well with his sister. When she returns to Europe the hunter disappears from her life until she hears of his death ten years later. It comes as a cosmic trauma:
It was a mistake, and that momentary error filled the universe. The outrage was on the scale of God. My younger brother was immortal and they hadn’t noticed. Immortality had been concealed in my brother’s body while he was alive, and we hadn’t noticed that it dwelt there. Now my brother’s body was dead, and immortality with it….
Since my younger brother was dead, everything had to die after him. And through him. Death, a chain reaction of death, started with him, the child.
The corpse of the child was unaffected, itself, by the events of which it was the cause. Of the immortality it had harbored for the twenty-seven years of its life, it didn’t know the name.
No one saw clearly but I.
Well, no; and if they had, or could, the novel would lose some of its didactic point. Because, for all its dreaminess and steaminess, you feel that it is not just a recollection, still less a confession: the author is telling us something we ought to know. She is trying to pierce through our existential density, to reveal something.
Still, the narrative is very simple, though it dodges about in short takes between the present and various layers of the past. The key event—real, but also symbolic because it is a river crossing—occurs when the heroine is fifteen and a half. The brothers being what they are, her mother has pinned her ambition on her daughter: she is to get a degree in mathematics. To prepare for this, she has to attend the French lycée in Saigon and lodge in a state boarding school in the city. One day when she is returning there at the end of a holiday, she notices a chauffeur-driven limousine on the ferry across the Mekong River. “Inside the limousine there’s a very elegant man looking at me. He’s not a white man.”
The shock effect of the negative “He’s not a white man” is surely intentional. “Inside the limousine there’s an elegant young Chinese” would be a much gentler introduction to the millionaire’s feckless son who becomes infatuated with the girl. He is ten years older than she is, which is not very old since she’s only fifteen. But he is always referred to as “the man” not “the young man,” whereas she is “the little white girl,” a description that plays up the age difference and adds to the “unseemliness” of the relationship across the color bar. The Chinese drives the girl back to the boarding school, and afterward fetches her every morning and brings her back every afternoon from the lycée. On the way they sleep together in his apartment in the Chinese quarter. The heat is unbearable, and only a thin blind separates them from the Chinese crowd milling about outside the ground floor window. It is the girl who encourages him to take her virginity. The first day,
She says, I’d rather you didn’t love me. But if you do, I’d like you to do as you usually do with women. He looks at her in horror, asks, Is that what you want?… She tells him she doesn’t want him to talk, what she wants is for him to do as he usually does with the women he brings to his flat. She begs him to do that….
The skin is sumptuously soft. The body. The body is thin, lacking in strength, in muscle, he may have been ill, may be convalescent, he’s hairless, nothing masculine about him but his sex, he’s weak, probably a helpless prey to insult, vulnerable. She doesn’t look him in the face. Doesn’t look at him at all. She touches him. Touches the softness of his sex, his skin, caresses his goldenness, the strange novelty. He moans, weeps. In dreadful love.
The affair lasts eighteen months, until the girl’s mother takes her family back to France, and the lover is forced into an arranged marriage with a sixteen-year-old Chinese heiress. The relationship is nothing but sex. The lovers never talk except to bandy banalities like tennis balls. They know nothing about each other. There is never any question of marriage. The millionaire would disinherit his son if he married a white girl; she does not want to marry at all; and the white family despises the lover so much that when he takes them to eat in expensive restaurants they won’t even speak to him. The mother knows her daughter has lost all chances of marrying in the colony; she is considered a disgrace, a little whore.
The French may not be as obsessed as the British are by their colonial past, but they too feel a mixture of curiosity, shame, anger, and nostalgia about it. Duras plays up to these emotions. She writes marvelously, hauntingly, about the heat, the sweat, the vast deltas, the sunsets, the moonlit nights, the terrible tropical melancholy. As one would expect, she is particularly good on the wives:
Some of them are very beautiful, very white, they take enormous care of their beauty here, especially up-country. They don’t do anything, just save themselves up, save themselves up for Europe…. They look at themselves. In the shade of their villas, they look at themselves for later on, they dream of romance, they already have huge wardrobes full of more dresses than they know what to do with, added to one by one like time, like the long days of waiting.
Duras does not incarnate the colonial presence in any subsidiary characters, but she makes it constantly felt. It is both an added interest and the donnée of her story, the thing that makes the girl’s behavior so scandalous (the mother does not really mind). The scandal is in the eye of the beholder, the voyeur’s eye of colonial society observing the child.
And she herself is a voyeur too: “I used to watch what he did with me, how he used me, and I’d never thought anyone could act like that, he acted beyond my hope and in accordance with my body’s destiny.” Her sexuality extends to the only other white girl at the boarding school, a dumb cluck with a beautiful body and almost the only other person in the book to have a name:
I am worn out with desire for Hélène Lagonelle.
I am worn out with desire.
I want to take Hélène Lagonelle with me to where every evening, my eyes shut, I have imparted to me the pleasure that makes you cry out. I’d like to give Hélène Lagonelle to the man who does that to me, so he may do it in turn to her. I want it to happen in my presence, I want her to do it as I wish, I want her to give herself where I give myself. It’s via Hélène Lagonelle’s body, through it, that the ultimate pleasure would pass from him to me.
A pleasure unto death.
“A pleasure unto death,” or “love unto death,” is repeated over and over again, one of those incantations that Duras is fond of (who can forget the tolling of the word “Nevers” in Hiroshima?). The phrase ends the book when, years after the war, the lover travels to Paris with his wife, telephones his former mistress, and tells her “that it was as before, that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he’d love her until death.”
Well, that is a comprehensible and even conventional last line. But what does Duras mean when earlier on she writes: “Both are doomed to discredit because of the kind of body they have, caressed by lovers, kissed by their lips, consigned to the infamy of a pleasure unto death, as they both call it, unto the mysterious death of lovers without love. That’s what it’s all about: this hankering for death.”
Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything so very new or strange, but is merely there to create a sexy, doom-laden atmosphere, a tropical Tristan and Isolde Stimmung. The Oxford Companion to Film entry on Hiroshima says that the film “contains remarkable innovations, and reveals the possibilities of a new literary cinema…. Sound, instead of merely explaining and supporting the visual story, is conceived as a vital and independent component; word, image, and music stand in a contrapuntal relationship, giving a new expressive resonance.” Duras seems to be syphoning back into the novel what she learned on the set: how make a Gesamtkunstwerk by combining sound and image, the words not necessarily having a precise meaning, but simply enhancing image, mood, and feeling.
It is with images, mood, and feeling that she is at her best, which is very good indeed (with ideas she can be affected, portentous, and irritating). In this novel she uses her incantations and other magic arts to create a powerful sexual impact. She is hypnotizing the reader into feeling what it feels like to be a highly sexed girl of fifteen. Probably she will succeed in turning him on; or anyway her. Then is The Lover pornography? Or an experiment to see what can be done with words? Certainly not the former. Duras herself would be the one to be shocked at that idea. But the latter probably yes. Only one must keep in mind that it is not virtuosity for its own sake she cares about, but magic, transformation, making a vent in the curtain that hides—what?