The semi-autobiographical work, The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, was almost not published in America. How typical, then, that years later, it remains one of the best selling books and became a widely viewed film all these years later. American publishing has largely overlooked foreign authors until they reach the pinnacle of their fame and are then picked up years later. The Lover and most of Duras’s work falls into this category, as do other books like Betty Blue and authors like Jean Echenoz, and so many others.
The Lover, set in 1920s Indochina, the somewhat autobiographical tale tells the story of a young, precocious school girl (who would be Duras) who at age 15 ½ develops her first sexual relationship with a Chinese man who is significantly older. The Asian man is in his late twenties, is wealthy, old-fashioned in many ways and for the most part, true to his culture and social mores. That he falls in love with this girl is really an anomaly, a fact which he tells her repeatedly and in many ways, seems to resent. He knows that despite his feelings, he can never marry her.
At 15 ½, it’s the crossing of a ferry on the Mekong. This is where our story begins. At age 15 ½, the young girl is crossing the Mekong on the ferry. One assumes the young girl is Duras, who was known to write what she knew, and what she knew best, it seemed, was herself. Or perhaps it’s that she knew best how to present realistically, believably, was always some projection of herself (this theme appears in almost all of Duras’s books, but the same could be said of any author, perhaps – almost all work is somewhat autobiographical).
The girl has two plaits, wears a mans hat that she rarely takes off of which she says at one point - she is never without it, that hat, she says “makes me whole, I am never without it.” She also wears a white, gauze shift that is so thin that it is almost transparent, like a slip and well-worn ballroom dancing with paste rhinestones. She looks like a young prostitute, or a very precocious young girl, depending on your point of view. She is staying with her mother and her brothers in “the horror” she says of the house. This is a girl who can’t grow up fast enough; it’s hard to tell if she is wise beyond her years or simply curious and gets herself into a situation that is beyond her control. She’s not particularly beautiful, she’s ugly beautiful, the kind of girl you look at and can’t decide if she is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen or the ugliest. Duras’s work is always a series of contradictions – here we have youth and purity combined with a wizened woman’s weary manner.