While I was reading Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, which is labeled “Fiction” on its back cover, someone told me, “Oh, that’s a memoir!” To which I responded, “you’re full of sh*t!” Or something more delicate and intellectual, if you’d prefer to think of me that way.
In any case, I found it hard to believe. But I took it upon myself to do a little bit more research about the book, and it is actually considered an “autobiographical novel.” We describe those in a variety of ways, but I think creative memoir works. After all, it is based on Duras’s real life, real childhood, real family, and real events. And yes, her real lover. It’s just told in such a dreamy, disconnected, modernist way, that it’s impossible to read it like a memoir unless you’re really trying.
The memoir begins this way: “I often think of the image only I can see now, and of which I’ve never spoken. It’s always there, in the same silence, amazing. It’s the only image of myself I like, the only one in which I recognize myself, in which I delight” (3-4). Duras is referring to the mental image of herself as a young girl–fifteen and a half–standing on a ferry that’s crossing the Mekong River. She’s writing about this image from her perspective as a much older woman, aged somewhere around seventy. And yet it is this single image that informs the entire memoir, because it sits squarely atop the moment she comes of age. Everything prior to this image is innocence, and everything after it, experience.
In episodic, atmospheric descriptions, Duras recounts her relationship with her family, strange and tragic, and with her first lover, a much older Chinese man. Throughout, she constantly belittles his appearance, his weakness and femininity, in stark contrast to the presence of her older brother, whom is the exact opposite. There’s a severe danger alluded to in her relationship with her brother, and his dominance over her, even when her much older lover is in the room, is bizarre and unsettling. It becomes clear that this has affected her deeply, including the way she sees herself, her place in the world, and everything that happens or anyone else she meets.
Often throughout the retelling, Duras seems to interrupt the past moments with insight from her current perspective as someone much older and experienced. There’s a lingering longing in these confessional interjections, as well as some chastisement. I sometimes wondered just how much of young Duras was truly aware of what she was doing, and how much of it was influenced by the fact that Duras is writing about these experiences in retrospect. The non-linear narrative and the coy, curious way she unravels the events of this part of her life, make it difficult to find the boundaries between past and present, youth and age, fact and fiction.
Ultimately, this is one of the more interesting memoirs, or “autobiographical novels,” that I’ve ever read, but it requires, I think, at least two reads to really understand what she’s doing here. I almost want to assign this one to my students to see what happens.
“I wanted to kill–my elder brother, I wanted to kill him, to get the better of him for once, just once, and see him die. I wanted to do it to remove from my mother’s sight the object of her love . . . to punish her for loving him so much, so badly” (7).
“Drink accomplished what God did not” (9).
“I’ve never written, though I thought I wrote, never loved, though I thought I loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door” (25).
“The way my elder brother treats my lover, not speaking to him, ignoring him, stems from such absolute conviction it acts as a model. We all treat my lover as he does. I myself never speak to him in their presence” (51).
“I forget everything, and I forgot to say this, that we were children who laughed, my younger brother and I, laughed fit to burst, fit to die” (62).
“I am worn out with desire” (74).