on being seen
Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.
—Arthur Conan Doyle (‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, section 1)
Had Marguerite Duras written nothing other than The Lover, it could be considered a book of great nuance and depth, full of thought-provoking reflections on human relationships, morality, and adolescence and the murky half-lights of colonialism, sexualities, and phenomenology. Duras has, however, written other books, and they are so much of a muchness with The Lover that the book itself becomes nearly indistinguishable from the aura of the writer.1 In trying to make sense of my own reaction as a reader, this tangle between opus and oeuvre does not, in this case, increase my sympathy; as I have mentioned earlier, Duras is not a writer I particularly admire. Why did I read The Lover, then? It was loaned to me two years ago and I wanted to return the book; it was briefly analyzed in Meander, Spiral, Explode in such a way as to make me wonder if my impatience with the author was perhaps a sign of my laziness as a reader; it was short.
What I want to seem I do seem, beautiful too if that’s what people want me to be. . . . I can become anything anyone wants me to be. And believe it. Believe I’m charming too. And when I believe it, and it becomes true for anyone seeing me who wants me to be according to his taste, I know that too.
—Marguerite Duras (The Lover, p. 18)
There is much to dislike in the book: the relationship with between the fifteen-year-old narrator and the twenty-seven-year-old parasitic son of a wealthy man;2 the narrator’s unpleasant family; the narrator’s half-lustful, half-loathing descriptions of her classmate; the way none of the characters seem to connect, but ping against each other while remaining apparently whole, intact, entire. Of course so much of small talk is just a sticking plaster to cover over the wounds of human contact, but the entire novel has the feeling of a confessional gush, as of a traveller talking to a stranger on a train or a boat or plane because there is no one else to talk to and the need to confess, or to express, is so urgent. This is a wound that requires stitches, though.3
A very beautiful woman who looks at her reflection in the mirror can very well believe that she is that. An ugly woman knows that she is not that.
—Simone Weil (Gravity and Grace, p. 33)
In trying to describe The Lover, I would say, half-jokingly, that it is oversexed and underbred, because this is the sort of narrow-minded priggishness that might characterize a superficial reading of the novel. I felt somewhat guilty about this reaction, as it didn’t seem fair to judge to the novel in these terms. A look through the footnotes of The North China Lover – the more fully fleshed out version of the story, intended as a guide for a film version – indicates that this was, in fact, the effect intended: the narrator should have ‘an untamed curiosity, a lack of breeding, a lack, yes, of reticence’ (p. 61, note). Yet what is not said, what is left to the imagination, is so much of what makes the book tantalizing and (potentially) erotic that to have this confirmation that the book is to be judged so lightly, on its surfaces, on its superficialities, is disheartening.4 The Lover, then, is and only ever could be part of the cult of Duras, which focuses on the anxiety of desirability, of power wielded not through will or choice but through being. I am in the habit of finding this sort of sentimental nihilism unhelpful in my daily life and think it rather tedious when encountered in books – and The Lover, given the company in which it must be considered, is not an exception.5
- As with Tom Clancy or Danielle Steele – or indeed, Henry Miller or Anaïs Nin – the appeal of Duras is the brand of the author as much as the character of the books (if not more so). [↩]
- The presentation of the lover as weak, ‘a helpless pray to insult, vulnerable’, ‘nothing masculine about him but his sex’ (38) – and even that, by the end, as impotent as the rest of him (109) – does not significantly vary from the weak-willed rakes and rattles of his Parisian models – he is not presented as desirable in himself, but only after the narrator notices ‘the smell of gold’ (42). This made the introduction’s emphasis on the ‘sexiness’ of the lover somewhat odd. [↩]
- The notion, presented towards the end of the book, that there was genuine sentiment between the pair – the sort of long-term, star-crossed love that might have ended differently if he had been able to stand up to his father and she had not felt she needed to support, in some way, her mentally unbalanced mother and wastrel brother – rang false. It is possible, I suppose, that if either character had been more – or less – selfish, they could have made a conventional novel of it. Yet when he phoned her up years later and told her ‘that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he’d love her until death’ – this seemed like more weak-willed, self-indulgent pandering to the narcissism of the narrator, as though after so many years or so neither the narrator nor the lover has essentially changed. If one carries a torch for that long, it seems unlikely that anything of the original fervent devotion or lust remains, but rather that one has fallen into the habit of carrying torches. There is nothing wrong with this – everyone has their hobbies. [↩]
- Indeed, this realization is what I imagine it would feel like to bite into the fruit of the tree of knowledge expecting a crisp apple and finding it to be an overripe mango. [↩]
- I am willing to admit that if it had been the first of Duras’s books that I had read, I would have liked it more – and would perhaps be more interested in her as an author. Alas, I did not know and now, knowing, I cannot change the past. [↩]