Actually the title of this post is a bit of an understatement. On the plane back from Maine, I read Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, which is a French novel from the 80s that I’ve been meaning to read to for awhile, and it was legitimately one of the best novels I have ever read in my life, and quite possibly the best novel I’ve so far read this year.
This is one of those novels that sounds both uninteresting and possibly skeevy when you describe it. The book is about a fifteen year old white girl in colonial Vietnam, in the 30s, who has an affair with a very wealthy thirtysomething Chinese man. The book is about this girl’s sexual awakening: her realization that as a woman she has a power that both enlarges and reduces her. And it’s just very…complex. Because she is a colonizer. In this land in which she has lived for her whole life, but which isn’t really hers, the color of her skin makes her in some way ineluctably superior to this much-older man.
And yet she’s also a child, and there’s something very unsavory about the way this man uses his wealth to take up with her and to turn her into an object for his passions. But then you also don’t want to condemn him, because if you do you feel like you’re falling into this trap of fearing the yellow peril, and projecting upon this somewhat-hapless individual that image of a scary Asian man who lures nubile white girls into sexual slavery in order to sate his lust.
It all feeds upon itself, so many layers of power and powerlessness, and you can never quite figure out who wants what or who is oppressing whom. This isn’t Lolita. For one thing, the story is being told by the girl (it’s apparently based on a very real affair that Duras herself had when she was a girl in Indochina), and the girl refuses to blame the man for the affair. No, it’s not even a question of blame. It’s that she doesn’t feel reduced by the affair. Instead it marks for her the moment at which she began to live for herself.
And yet, and yet, and yet, you as the reader cry out for her that there is something here which is not right.
The novel realizes this. The affair is only one part of it. The other part is the story of this family: a widowed mother, her daughter, and her two sons. The story of their barren plantation. The story of an elder brother who is an opium addict and a thief. The story of a younger brother who never quite seems to collect himself and come alive. A story about a mother who falls into deep despairs in which she can’t speak or think, much less take care of her children. It’s a story about a terrible loneliness. And the book continues long after the affair. It’s a book told out of order, with a narrative voice that projects far forward into the girl’s life after she’s lost touch with the man and moved to Paris. Despite its short length, you feel like you’re being given so much.
The girl in this story does have some agency. She’s not fully being taken advantage of. But she was also led to this place out of reaction to terrible circumstances. And that’s something the novel does not look away from. This is a book that sees all of the ambiguities of the situation it’s posing.
And it’s also a book that is so beautiful. It’s very short, perhaps less than thirty thousand words, and it’s written in small sections. The point of view changes, shifting from first to third, and the tense also shifts, sliding from present to past to imperfect, and none of it feels like a mistake. There’s so much energy in the writing. And the wobbliness in the telling is part of its artifice, because you can see, right there in the structure, that there aren’t easy answers here. You can see that sometimes the girl is alienated from herself and sometimes she is not. Sometimes she is reliving these moments as she tells them, and sometimes she is looking back upon them from a great height.
So much ‘lyrical’ writing is simply fakery. It’s authors who’ve been told that good writers search for fresh ways of saying the same old thing, so they explode their descriptions, expanding upon them for paragraphs, in the hope that if they write for long enough and use big long strange words, then they’ll get credit for originality. And it’s all such a pointless exercise, because the mind skips right over it.
And then, once in awhile, an author actually manages to it. Take, for instance this passage from The Lover:
I can’t really remember the days. The light of the sun blurred and annihilated all color. But the nights, I remember them. The blue was more distant than the sky, beyond all depths, covering the bounds of the world. The sky, for me, was the stretch of pure brilliance crossing the blue, that cold coalescence beyond all color.
It’s like…yeah, I can see it. I can actually see that sky, in the way that I’ve never been able to see it before in any other work. Of course this is a work in translation, but there’s still some unique cadence here that makes the work feel so alive.
She’s sparing in her lyricism. You don’t get pages upon pages of this stuff. Maybe a page here or there. But every thought, every description, and every line of dialogue, has the same clear gaze.
I love this book. Read it.