The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras’s The Lover is the second book I’ve read in as many weeks that’s a memoir, thinly disguised as a novel (the other being by Lily Brett).

The story is set in Saigon in the 1930s, and describes the tumultuous affair between a relatively poor adolescent French girl and her wealthy, older Chinese lover. Interspersed between details of their clandestine meetings are descriptions of the unnamed narrator’s mother – headmistress of a girls’ high school and prone to bouts of depression, and her wayward brothers.

The parallels between Duras’s life and the novel are clear – she was born in Saigon and did have a wealthy, older, Chinese lover. Furthermore, Duras’s mother was a headmistress; her father was absent; and she spent time studying in Paris.

The novel is praised for spare prose, the portrayal of a forbidden relationship and the theme of finding identity. While those things may exist, for the most part I was unmoved by the story. The switching back-and-forth in time, and the narrator’s detached, fragmented voice did little to hook me.

The novel highlights the emotions associated with first love – when we’re experiencing it we feel that nothing will ever compare but at the same time, we know that there will be others in the future, that the first is not the ‘one and only’.

“She doesn’t feel anything in particular, no hate, no repugnance either, so probably it’s already desire. But she doesn’t know it.”

You can’t compare first love (is it real love?), yet it often becomes a benchmark for future relationships. Duras hints at this issue in relation to her ‘characters’ although doesn’t fully address it  – some readers will enjoy filling the gaps. I didn’t. What Duras does make clear is that while her affair cost her innocence, she gained confidence, which ultimately changed the course of her life (easy to simplify when you’re looking back decades later).

2/5 Meh… I wonder if my book group will reach a different conclusion?

“For the past three years white men, too, have been looking at me in the streets, and my mother’s men friends have been kindly asking me to have tea with them while their wives are out playing tennis at the Sporting club.”

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19 responses

  1. Hi Katrina, I liked this book a lot when I read it years ago. But I remember I also then read The North China Lover which I think she wrote later, it is a retelling of The Lover … and it filled in the gaps and made it all a bit sadder. Maybe you should read that as well. I found them very memorable together.

    • I think there’s a lot to be said for the translation. I’m reading two versions of War and Peace at the moment (not every word of each but comparing them along the way). They’re very different in tone – I’m quite surprised at how much they vary.

      • One version is the Pevear/Volokhonsky (the one that I’m enjoying more) and the other is via the Serial Reader app and I’m not sure which translation it is (I have asked, but no response as yet). Whatever it is, I think it’s inferior to the P/V which seems to have more considered and careful dialogue.

      • I did a fair bit of research into the different translations and the P/V was consistently mentioned as the best. I bought a hard copy but because it’s so big it sat in the TBR stack for years. I started the Serial version and quickly felt that the translation was not great, hence now reading two!

    • My book group isn’t great at actually discussing the book (I know, I know…). But anyway, tonight we did, so The Lover must have sparked something 😀

      The funny thing is that when I read your review Lisa, I agree with everything you said, so I guess it really came down to style.

      • I used to find with book groups I’ve belonged to, that the best discussions happened when a book was a bit difficult, or when there was great divergence in opinion about it. As long as people had read the book! I gave up on the last bookgroup because it turned out I was the *only* person who’d read it…and I was not really so interested in children and renovations that I could take a whole night of talking about them…

      • Agree, a division of opinion is a good thing. The Natural Way of Things had us talking for quite a while!

        My group has been together for nearly 20 years, so often the book is the excuse to catch up. I’m okay with that because I love them all dearly. I started blogging and reading book blogs so that I could extend my discussion about particular books – I think I’ve finally found the perfect balance.

  2. I probably won’t get to this one – unless the Belmont library buys it as an audio book – but I will make a start soon on the Lily Brett which it turns out I gave to a daughter four years ago.

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