translated from the French by Barbara Bray

Pantheon, 1985

Finished: April 2010

Source: Jenny at Shelf Love

Genre: arty, psychological historical novel

On the Scales: heavyweight

It was strange to read this book so soon after No Signposts In the Sea. The Lover is a very different novel with some shared themes–so different, I hesitate to call it better even though I think it is.  Denser, certainly.  Both are short books featuring voyages by sea from the East to the West and West to East with all that entails atmospherically and metaphorically.  Where No Signposts lacks structure, in The Lover–like a poem–the structure is inseparable from the message.

The Lover is a spiral.  It circles back again and again to a series of events that transformed the narrator–now in unhappy late middle-age–to her adult self.  Imagine a whirlpool or someone who keeps lifting the needle from a phonograph record and putting it back in an old groove, trying to hear something new in the music.  To understand.

On the surface it’s the story of a precocious sexual coming-of-age: a 15-year-old French girl takes up with a young Chinese businessman in pre-WWII Indochina.  Through a set of circumstances relating to her peculiar home life, the affair is an open secret in the small expatriate community.  They look the other way while sneering under their breath.

Race comes up, but it isn’t at the heart of the book.  The “lover” of the title refers not to the besotted Chinese but to the 15-year-old in her schoolgirl pigtails, bargain basement lamé pumps, and her instinctively fetishized fedora.  “How can it be that some are born to be lovers, and never to love?” the narrator seems to be asking the girl, though never in quite in so many words.

The answer comes in the form of the girl’s widowed mother.  Each time we circle back for a look at her, the woman is madder, more pathetic, and more deeply hated by her daughter.  After a while of this we begin to realize that the narrator’s reluctance–perhaps inability–to show us that Her Mom Was Just Plain Nuts until somewhere around the middle of the book is a sign of  how collusive she was in her daughter’s bungled launch and her sons’ fiery disasters on the launchpad.

This book was fantastic.  It might not be for everyone.  I liked Duras for not pulling punches (the novel is said to be a memoir to some extent), but others might find her harsh and self-obsessed.  If you can stand brutal, desperate teenagers without much innocence to lose, fatigued existentialists, cyclical narratives, and the subtle cruelties of family dynamics against a backdrop of crumbling colonialism–and you like gorgeous writing–you will enjoy it, too.