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The Lover by Marguerite Duras

The Lover (1984)

by Marguerite Duras

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
3,2711111,685 (3.7)1 / 114
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    The North China Lover by Marguerite Duras (JuliaMaria)
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    Les Belles Images by Simone de Beauvoir (Cecilturtle)
    Cecilturtle: une éducation semblable bien que les choix soient différents
  3. 00
    The Vice Consul by Marguerite Duras (Cecrow)

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The Lover
by Marguerite Duras
translated by Barbara Bray
HarperPerennial, 1992
ISBN 0-06-097521-0 (paperback), 117 p.

Review date: October 2015

I've been on a French novella mini-kick lately: first Carrère's Class Trip (1997) and then The Stranger (1942) by Camus. I went to the library recently to find some more novellas—not necessarily French ones, just some short works to read while working out on the treadmill—and by coincidence I happened across The Lover (1984) by Marguerite Duras. As was the case with Class Trip, I had heard of neither this book nor its author until happening upon it. Not too surprising, since modern French literature (even in translation) isn't something I'm all that familiar with, but I do tend to pay some attention to foreign films, and since it was adapted for the big screen in the early ’90s, I'd expect to have heard of it before now, at least in motion picture format. In any case, I've heard of it now, and can join the millions of others who have read it.

For those who are still unfamiliar with the tale, it's a semi-autobiographical novella of about 30,000 words, set in French colonial Vietnam of the late ’20s and early ’30s. The narrator is a 70-year-old woman, but the story she tells is of her younger self, when she was just 15. It's written in snippets, no chapters, just breaks between the brief sections of prose, in a stream-of-consciousness style, with the narrative often shifting back or forward months or years at a time, the setting moving back and forth between Vietnam and France, although the former accounts for the majority of the book's action. And strikingly, although it's mostly told in the first person, a dissociative third-person is sometimes used, so that the ‘I’ of the story becomes ‘the girl’.

Much has been made of the story's romantic relationship, that of the girl with her older lover, a Chinese businessman in his late twenties, and indeed the title of the book would seem to indicate that this relationship is the central focus of the plot. I suppose it provides something of a fulcrum, but to me there was much more going on around the girl and in her life that was so much more important and interesting. More than a love story, it's psychological fiction and family drama as well. In fact, it's the girl's thoughts and feelings about, and her interactions with, her outcast mother and her two brothers that really drove the narrative for me, as well as her own inner psychological workings. It actually seemed to me that the sections about her romantic relationship were there almost to draw attention away from the peripheral action, as if it had been the least of her troubles during her teenage years and that the loss of her virginity and the uncertainty of the relationship was the easiest series of events to confront in that period of her past. The story, to me, is really about what goes on at the periphery, the things left briefly mentioned and half-told.

I'm sure there's much more to be said about the plot, indeed about every facet of the book. And I'm sure much has been said by other people elsewhere, but instead of trying to sum up the richness of this brief work of art or analyze its depths, I'll just say that I recommend it to anyone who enjoys well written literature with understated drama, intense psychology, and, yes, even some erotic touches here and there (although perhaps not as much as some of the blurbs might lead one to believe).



3½ stars: It was very good. Technical, conventional, and other errors are rare or nonexistent, and the work stands out among others of its kind. A 3½-star work is nearing excellence. I am likely to add it to my permanent collection and recommend it to others. This rating may be more subjective than others, as it relies to a slightly greater extent on my tastes in genre and style. Creative writing is more likely to receive 3½ stars than conventional nonfiction. Equivalent to an 'A–', or very good, grade. ( )
  tokidokizenzen | Oct 27, 2015 |
The Lover treads lines been between enigmatic and thready, subtle and shallow, frustrating as hell and heaven in a book. Fortunately, it came out on the right side of the lines for my tastes. Readers of Gide and Colette will probably like, or even love, Duras's novella. ( )
  lucybrown | Sep 27, 2015 |
The Lover treads lines been between enigmatic and thready, subtle and shallow, frustrating as hell and heaven in a book. Fortunately, it came out on the right side of the lines for my tastes. Readers of Gide and Colette will probably like, or even love, Duras's novella. ( )
  lucybrown | Sep 27, 2015 |
The Lover treads lines been between enigmatic and thready, subtle and shallow, frustrating as hell and heaven in a book. Fortunately, it came out on the right side of the lines for my tastes. Readers of Gide and Colette will probably like, or even love, Duras's novella. ( )
  lucybrown | Sep 27, 2015 |
The Lover is a novel rooted in time and place. The time is the era between the two World Wars, and the place is French Indochina. The lovers are a fifteen year old French girl and a twenty-eight year old Chinese man. The affair is known to both families and to the girl's school.

No one made an effort to stop it. The Chinese lover did attempt to legalize things by marrying the girl, but was repeatedly refused permission by his millionaire father, as adamantly opposed to what was considered a mixed marriage as was the French ruling class.

It is the girl who narrates the story years later. Although young when it all happened, she seemed to have the knowledge of the ages when it came to men and women, to have been born with it. She tell us At the age of fifteen I had the face of pleasure and yet I had no knowledge of pleasure. There was no mistaking that face. My mother must have seen it. My brothers did. That was how everything started for me -- with that flagrant, exhausted face, those rings around the eyes, in advance of time and experience.
The girl was alone in Saigon, attending French high school and staying at a boarding school. She had met the young man on a ferry crossing the Mekong. Emerging from his limousine, he approached the waif/seductress . From the first moment she knows more or less, knows he's at her mercy. And therefore that others besides him may be at her mercy too if the occasion arises. She knows something else too, that the time has now probably come when she can no longer escape certain duties toward herself. And that her mother will know nothing of this nor her brothers. She knows this now too. As soon as she got into the black car she knew: she's excluded from the family for the first time and forever. From now on they will no longer know what becomes of her. Whether she's taken away from them, carried off, wounded, spoiled, they will no longer know. Neither her mother nor her brothers. That is their fate henceforth. It's already enough to make you weep, here in the black limousine.

Now the child will have to reckon only with this man, the first, the one who introduced himself on the ferry.

This sense of inevitability, of doom, of loss, pervades the novel. Even the river on which they are travelling signals this. The river has picked up all it's met since Tonle Sap and the Cambodian forest.... no time for anything to sink, all is swept along by the deep and headlong storm of the inner current, suspended on the surface of the river's strength.
The girl's mother will first lose her house across the river in Cambodia, and years later will lose her final home in France to pay the gambling debts of her older son who has lost the family's money. The girl's younger brother will lose his life to pneumonia during the Japanese occupation. Even colour is lost, annihilated by the strength of the sun.

The connections between the lover and the girl is fragile. It only exists in the room to which he takes her each day after school. It cannot survive outside the room. When the girl has him take her and her brothers on expensive outings, they barely communicate until they are safe once more in their room.

Although the man believes he is desperately in love with the girl, she has no such illusions about him. This gives the reader a somewhat queasy feeling, as the fifteen year old rationalizes her relationship with the wealthy young man, fully believing that in just such ways will she continue to survive in the future. There is no compassion for the young man; perhaps a certain sense of comfort, even comraderie, but none of the passion he feels as he constantly weeps over her. Later, she speaks of the relationship as incestuous, with herself as the child and the lover as the father. There are other hints at incest. Her older brother is always spoken of as the murderer of her mother and younger brother. While not directly the case, he does exert a sinister control over them, which the girl says she has escaped.

The girl is capable of love and passion though. One of the few named people in the novel is her seventeen year old schoolmate Hélène Lagonelle. The girl obsessed over Hélène "...the most beautiful of all things given by God... I am worn out with desire for Hélène Lagonelle" However, Hélène was a simple soul, incapable of learning past primary school, unaware of the desire she aroused. One day the girl returned to school to find that she had lost Hélène too, the one person she cared about.

Eventually the girl was taken out of school to be sent to France. The affair ended, a new life began; a life related in the impersonal third person.

There is a dream like feeling throughout this highly autobiographical novel, a feeling of alternately floating and being submerged, which I suspect is even more powerful in the original French. Marguerite Duras was born in Indochina and did have an affair with a Chinese man. She moved to France as a young woman. She revisited and rewrote this affair many times throughout her life, publishing this version from the perspective of an older woman when she was seventy. It won the Prix Goncourt.
6 vote SassyLassy | Feb 25, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Marguerite Durasprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bray, BarbaraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kingston, Maxine HongIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Prato Caruso, LeonellaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Pour Bruno Nuytten
First words
Un jour, j'étais âgée déjà, dans le hall d'un lieu public, un homme est venu vers moi.
One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me.
I often think of the image only I can see now, and of which I've never spoken. It's always there, in the same silence, amazing. It's the only image of myself I like, the only one in which I recognize myself, in which I delight.
Very early in my life it was too late. It was already too late when I was eighteen. Between eighteen and twenty-five my face took off in a new direction. I grew old at eighteen
I acquired that drinker's face before I drank. Drink only confirmed it. The space for it existed in me.
I had the luck to have a mother desperate with a despair so unalloyed that sometimes even life's happiness, at its most poignant, couldn't quite make her forget it.
You always went home with the feeling of having experienced a sort of empty nightmare, of having spent a few hours as the guest of strangers with other guests who were strangers too, of having lived through a space of time without any consequences and without any cause, human or other.
Last words
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
Disambiguation notice
This is the 1984 book L'Amant, not to be confused with the 1971 book L'Amour.
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Book description
Set in the prewar Indochina of Dura’s childhood, The lover is the haunting tale of a relationship between two outcasts - an adolescent French girl and her Chinese lover - during the waning days of the colonial period.
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375700528, Paperback)

An international best-seller with more than one million copies in print and a winner of France's Prix Goncourt, The Lover has been acclaimed by critics all over the world since its first publication in 1984.

Set in the prewar Indochina of Marguerite Duras's childhood, this is the haunting tale of a tumultuous affair between an adolescent French girl and her Chinese lover. In spare yet luminous prose, Duras evokes life on the margins of Saigon in the waning days of France's colonial empire, and its representation in the passionate relationship between two unforgettable outcasts.

Long unavailable in hardcover, this edition of The Lover includes a new introduction by Maxine Hong Kingston that looks back at Duras's world from an intriguing new perspective--that of a visitor to Vietnam today.

From the Hardcover edition.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:13 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

The story of an affair between a fifteen-year-old French girl and her Chinese lover, set in prewar Indochina.

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