I was 29 when I first read Marguerite Duras's 1984 masterpiece, 'The Lover', translated from the French by Barbara Bray. A revelation and a confrontation in equal measure, it was as if I had burst out of an oak-panelled 19th-century gentleman's club - into something exhilarating, sexy, melancholy, truthful, modern and female.
If its cool, spare prose and flawless narrative design was somehow representative of the Nouveau Roman, largely associated with Alain Robbe-Grillet, it was clear to me that its major difference was that Duras did not distrust emotion. To write 'The Lover', she drew on her early years living in Saigon with her impoverished mother and belligerent brothers. Structured as a kind of memoir, it is about a teenage girl living a peculiar colonial existence in French Indochina in the 1930s with her genteel but "beggar family".
She decides to makes something happen and starts to wear a man's fedora hat and gold lamé shoes. In so doing, she suddenly sees herself "as another". It's a magic trick to separate from her deadening mother, and it works.
An elegant, wealthy Chinese man, 12 years her senior, is watching her on the ferry bus that crosses the Mekong River. When he risks offering her a cigarette, she notices that his hand is unsteady. "There's the difference of race, he's not white, he has to get the better of it, that's why he's trembling."
She wants to make him "less afraid" so that he can do to her "what he usually does with women" and, perhaps in return, he might sometimes buy her brothers and mother a meal? In one of the most devastating and brutally truthful seductions ever written, the Chinese financier who, she discovers, owns all the working-class housing in the colony, drives her in his "funereal" limousine to his apartment on the edge of the city.
She undresses him, notices she desires him, panics, tells him he must never love her. Then she cries - about her mother's poverty and because she often hates her. 'The Lover' does not just portray a forbidden sexual encounter of mind-blowing passion and intensity; it is also an essay on memory, death, desire and how colonialism messes up everyone.
I'm not convinced a book as incandescent as 'The Lover', more existential than feminist, would be published today. Questions would arise. Are the characters likeable (not exactly), is it experimental or mainstream (neither), is it a novel or a novella? Fortunately for Duras, it didn't matter to her readers. It sold a million copies in 43 languages, won the Prix Goncourt and was made into a commercial film.
Marguerite Duras was a reckless thinker, an egomaniac, a bit preposterous really. I believe she had to be. When she walks her bold but "puny" female subject in her gold lamé shoes into the arms of her Chinese millionaire, Duras never covertly apologises for the moral or psychological way that she exists.
Deborah Levy's 'Swimming Home' is published by And Other Stories
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