A first idea was suggested by John Ruskin and Marcel Proust. It is that books are friends. But when we take up with a book rather than with a person, we don’t have to worry: “What did she or he think of me?” Whereas, in ordinary life, the people we meet depend on circumstance, with books we are not restricted. We can choose from across time, and from all over the world. The idea of book-as-friend is a metaphor. But it’s more than that. A novel or short story offers a kind of invitation, in the way that a person might. So a book might say: “Please engage with me, maybe just for a short time.“ And, in the same way as some people affront us with something like: “Look at me, I’m far better than you,” so a book may issue a challenge. Other books, like some people, affect indifference.
A second idea is that we human beings construct mental understandings of each other. Without doing so, we could not interact, could not make arrangements with each other. We can often understand fictional characters better than many people we know. Sometimes, too, we can apply that understanding to our own selves. Then we can carry this kind of improved understanding into our day-to-day lives.
A third idea is that novels and short stories have to do with consciousness. Human consciousness is imagination, of words and images in which one aspect is what we know from our past, episodes of experience, skills, and knowledge. The second aspect is our understanding of the current social situation. The third aspect is of ongoing plans for ourselves and with others. Narrative has this very same structure: evocations of what’s remembered, circumstances and the emotions that are elicited in them, plans about what to do. A novel or short story, then, is a piece of consciousness that the author has constructed to exist on its own out there, with the possibility of it being taken up, and taken in, to become a reader’s own. With some books, though, an individual reader may not want to take in the piece of consciousness.
A fourth idea concerns resonance: whether a story evokes aspects of one’s idiosyncratic past, or of one’s culture, or both. When this happens, there can be a sense of recognition; we can also understand hints and nuances. But that doesn’t mean we can only successfully read about our own culture. If one could only take in books from one’s own culture, men could never enjoy writers who are women nor women enjoy writers who are men.
Marguerite Duras was born in 1914 and grew up near Saigon, in Vietnam, third child and only daughter of a married couple from France who took jobs in this French colony. Her father was a professor of mathematics in a school there, but Marguerite scarcely knew him because, soon after she was born, he became ill, moved back to France, and died there when she was five. She had two brothers: the elder four years older than her, and the younger, who was a bit developmentally delayed, two years older than her. She remembers her elder brother as cruel. He would beat up the younger brother, and terrorize his sister. He was the only one of her three children who was loved by their mother, who was also a teacher. Marguerite remembers her mother as proud that her daughter was clever, but says that her mother was hard on her, and sometimes beat her. Marguerite and the younger brother did love each other and this occurs, too, with the narrator and the younger brother of the novel. Also, as in the novel, Marguerite began an affair with a Chinese lover, who was aged 27 when she was fifteen-and-a-half. When she was 17, she went to Paris to go to the Sorbonne, starting in mathematics. Then she moved to political science, then law. In the War she was in the Resistance and became a member of the Communist Party.
The Lover, written by Duras when she was 70, is a book about a lover and a family. It’s both an autobiography and a novel in which, at a young age, the narrator finds that she can be loved. The first evocations of this are tender and moving. But in the middle of the book comes a paragraph that is shocking. It starts like this, on page 46: “I tell him to come over to me, tell him he must possess me again. He comes over.” Then we read this: “He … says he knew right away, when we were crossing the river, that I’d love love, he says he knows now that I’ll deceive him and deceive all the men I’m ever with …” Then this: “He calls me a whore, a slut, he says I’m his only love … nothing’s wasted, the waste’s covered over in the torrent, in the force of desire.” In English, the words “whore,” and “slut” have no male equivalents (perhaps it’s the same in French). What do we make of that? This calling of names is followed, on page 97, by what the narrator’s mother says, when she finds out about the affair. She accuses her daughter of “blatant prostitution,” and calls her a “little white tart.”
The paragraph that starts on page 46 is an indication, I think, of how the narrator feels, when she is loved by her lover … so that, at the same time, she also despises herself in a way that, during her childhood, her mother has made her feel despised. What do we make of how we can carry forward feelings of our earliest relationships into our later love-relationships?
Among reasons for the derogatory words used by the lover, and later by the mother, are that, although the narrator is French and a white person, her lover is Chinese. So, for her mother and for French society at that place and time, what the narrator does must absolutely not be done. It’s far worse than having an affair while still at school.
The book is written in the first person, and ranges from the time in the 1930s when the narrator lived near Saigon, when she crossed the Mekong River and first met her lover, to later times, in Paris, when she has a child and when she is in the middle of World War II. Part of what makes Duras’s writing so engaging, I suggest, is that she writes in paragraphs and short sections, in the kind of way that consciousness works, thinking this, then that, sometimes coming to wonder, sometimes feeling delight, sometimes reaching no conclusion.
The family dynamics in The Lover are dreadful. When a child grows up knowing that a sibling is cared about far more than they are, this tends to have a life-long negative effect. For both Marguerite herself, and for the narrator of the novel, this combines with the absence of a father, and with the experience of being hated by her elder brother. Perhaps the fact of being left alone by her husband was a factor in the mother loving her older son. This boy grows up to be repellant, a layabout, never interacting with others except to say or do something malicious, stealing from his mother to buy drugs and to gamble, so that even though the mother and the family live in poverty, he further impoverishes them. Later on, in the novel, during the war, the narrator says: “I see war time and the reign of my elder brother as one … I see the war as like him, spreading everywhere, breaking in everywhere, stealing, imprisoning ... (p.67).”
In terms of the four ideas, this novel came to me with an invitation, as a friend. I became able to understand the character of the narrator, her lover, and to some extent her mother and her elder brother. It seemed also, to me, an engaging piece of consciousness that I wanted to take in and make my own. And, quite strongly, I experienced several kinds of resonance.
Marguerite Duras (1986) The Lover (translated by Barbara Bray) London: Flamingo (original publication of L’Amant, in France, 1984).
Marcel Proust & John Ruskin (2011). On reading, & Sesame and lilies 1: Of kings' treasuries (translated by Damion Searls). London: Hesperus.