Tu n’as rien vu à Hiroshima. Rien.
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. 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; 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.
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. 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.