My recollection of the 1992 film based on Marguerite Duras short novel The Lover (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1984) is hazy, but I recall that it focused primarily on a young girl’s first love affair with a young Chinese man in Saigon during the 1930s. The novel, published in 1984, also focuses on the girl (never named), her family, and their lives in Saigon before and after the affair. The affair itself is part of the story, and certainly the title signals its centrality but I didn’t find the novel particularly erotic. Maybe it’s the fact of my age. More likely it’s the nature of Duras’ novel, which displays the narrator’s gradual emergence as an individual. Part of that emergence includes her discovery of physical pleasure, of desire. But the novel’s occasional descriptions of lovemaking are not detailed or graphic by any modern standard. They’re certainly not prurient. Yet the facts are disturbing—we’re not prone in our society to view a relationship between a fifteen-year-old girl and a twenty-eight-year-old man as exploitative, as bordering on sexual abuse. Yet do we accept the narrator’s assertion that she allowed, willed, the affair to begin on her own terms, or do we name it differently. The mere fact that a fifteen-year old girl says she voluntarily had sex with an older man does not mean that their relationship is not abusive.
An older woman (we imagine an old woman) narrates the story, looking back on her past. What mystifies her is not the love affair, or the lover himself, but her family: her mother’s brittle psychological state and gradual descent into madness, the emptiness of her brothers’ lives, her older brother’s sociopathic cruelty. He takes advantage of his mother and sister, wastes his life, never holds a job, fritters away the family fortune, and dies alone in a small apartment in Paris. Her younger brother dies of heart failure at 28. She tells us she was close with this younger brother, that she grieved over his death, but there was distance between them as well, and after the family separates he writes her once in ten years.
I don’t have the proper vocabulary to describe the style of narration. This is disturbing, since I teach literature. But it’s also because the narrative style is distinctive and iconoclastic. It reminds me of stream of consciousness, in some ways, though the narrator is clearly telling the story. It is impressionistic, affected, and appropriate to the nature of the book. She doesn’t narrate in linear fashion but instead follows a method of free association, moving from one topic to another, back and forth in time. This is how memory works. This method conveys a mood of brittle indifference, of emotional numbness, as if she has concluded that she cannot change the events of her life and of those she loved, and rather than allow them to weigh her down she simply regards them at a distance whose gap she does not seek to close. The one event that brings her story into focus is the love affair, which she returns to repeatedly, following its progress from beginning to end.