Have you ever had a lover? Have you ever been a lover? Or, perhaps a better question, is there someone who is the love(r) of your life? Have you ever lived or dreamed a love so beautiful, so real, that it could not have possibly existed? Are you haunted by memories of what was or what could have been? Some nights, maybe only in your dreams, does that become your reality? Do you wonder what love really is? What it looks like? How it smells? How it feels? Reading L’Amant (The Lover) by Marguerite Duras brings up these questions and more. Written in 1984 and winner of the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize, The Lover skyrocketed the already well-known Duras to international acclaim. Its theme of forbidden but powerful love continues to resonate with readers today.
The Lover is the story of a poor, white, 15-year-old French girl living in French-colonized Indochina (present-day Vietnam) in the early 20th century. She falls in love—or, if you don’t believe it’s love, has a torrid physical affair with—a rich, 27-year-old Chinese man. China’s colonization over Vietnam has been shattered by the French, and those people remaining are permitted to stay, in part because of their wealth or contributions. These two broken and resilient people come from vastly different worlds. They could never connect. Yet, here she is, alone. He’s intrigued, she’s amazing. Nothing could possibly come of this. Or could it?
Could such a love be real? Could a poor little abused white girl in colonized Vietnam really fall in love with an older, rich and powerful rich Chinese man? Could he love her? Is this just a form of prostitution? After all, he gives her money to give her family, and he enjoys a sexual relationship with his would-be colonizer, reversing, challenging, and twisting traditional roles of race, power, and gender. (This is a generalization, but traditionally, the Chinese were, and perhaps still are, hated by the Vietnamese.)
It is the story of love, yes, but also of survival and death: the girl survives her father’s death, an abusive family, the death of her beloved brother, and more. And she loves. She loves her French roommate at boarding school. She loves her brother. And then there is her lover. Our protagonists have no names, which creates a kind of slippage, allowing the reader to enter the text in a way. The open language, lapses, white spaces, and wide margins (in traditionally type-set editions) allow those who have been marginalized, those with no voices, to enter and speak. In fact, Duras’s writing style, characterized as l’écriture feminine by noted French feminist Hélène Cixous, creates a cloud-like world where time loses meaning.
The language is deceptively simple. The narrative, however, does not follow a linear train of thought. Instead, the story weaves around an aged narrator whose face has been ravaged by time and alcoholism and who reminisces about her “true” self and the infinite incarnations of that self throughout her life. The text invites the reader into her world. We are there when her brother dies, when her best friend leaves to get married, when she is excited about school, when she remembers her mother singing. It is fuzzy at first, and the reader is disoriented. But let it go. Go with it. Let it wash over you like the waves along the Mekong. Imagine the bustle and smells of the Cholen, the section of Saigon known as Chinatown. Feel the warm sun and the cool shade of the lovers’ love nest. You will be taken on an incredible journey into a world that explores the very nature of memory, love, power, betrayal, and reconciliation.
Truth is somewhat elusive in this powerful text. In some interviews, Duras claimed the text was autobiographical, but the text is classified as a work of fiction. There are contradictions in the text that always bother my students, but to me, these differences explore the concept of memory, how it changes, and how it works against us as time passes. Our cherished memories lose part of their reality as we write them, rewrite them, and replay them in our attempts to relive them and hold on to them. The truth is lost. We can feel it slipping away sometimes, causing us to hold on tighter. We attempt another revision or ignore any disparities until there is no longer an outside perspective. We look in the mirror and no longer see the adult we have become; only we can still see the young girl or boy, perhaps naïve and ignorant in their world view but worldly all the same and ready to embark on an adventure.download film Walk with Me 2017 now
The narrator looks in the mirror and sees not the woman withered from age and trauma but her true self, herself at fifteen and a half. I can too see this girl boldly crossing the Mekong on a ferry wearing her threadbare hand-me-down silk dress, a man’s pink fedora, her brother’s belt, and gold lamé high-heeled shoes. The wind is blowing her braided hair. Her face is warmed by the hot Vietnamese sun as water splashes against the boat. Then she notices the black limousine, hiding the silhouette of a delicate Chinese man.
Their story is one that I recommend you read. Be prepared for confusion, twists, and challenges. Be prepared to have your memory stimulated. Your past loves and lovers may come to mind as you navigate this beautiful and tragic world. The text haunts me, in the best ways. The last few pages, especially the last paragraph, always give me shivers. My students do always not understand; most have not been or had lovers. They have not been all-consumed. They still like the text but they wonder. They have questions. As someone with some experience in life, I have some answers. My answer is yes.
Dr. Gay Rawson is a professor of French with over 20 years of teaching, translating and interpreting experience. Twentieth-century French literature is one of her many passions.