The Lover – Andy takes a ferry with Marguerite

January 15, 2013

“…we’re in the long hot girdle of the earth, with no spring, no renewal.”

The LoverI liked this. I liked this a lot. In fact I didn’t just like it. I pretty much loved it. Which is odd, arguably, because it’s a story about a teenage girl who has sex with an older man. Yuck, is what we’re supposed to say. Melancholy whores? None of that nonsense for Netty and me, thank you very much.

But there’s a bit of a difference here. For a start, it’s written by a woman, from the perspective of the teenage girl. And the “older man” is in his twenties, not his seventies. And – oh yes. Also, it’s fucking spectacular.

Also it’s a novella (although so was Marquez’s), a literary form I find myself increasingly fond of, and not just because they’re, er, short. Those who describe the novella as halfway between a short story and a novel understand nothing of the form but its length. The Lover is impressionistic, montage like, not remotely linear. And yet it tells a number of stories – the French narrator’s affair with an older Chinese man, the narrator’s familial history, the narrator’s time as a part of wartime Paris’s literary circle. In other hands this might’ve been a novel the size of War and Peace. Duras swirls it all together, condenses it, heightens and intensifies it, and produces one of the most perfect examples of the novella form I’ve ever read (and OK, I haven’t read that many but I’ve read a few).

Initially I wanted to say something about Duras paring things back, stripping them back, I wanted to say s9mething about her economy of expression. But The Lover doesn’t feel pared back, or stripped back. It doesn’t feel economical. It actually feels lush (and not in an Oops I’ve drunk too much sauv blanc kind of a way). It feels rich, and profound, and deeply felt, and deeply experienced.

Which is explained, at least partly, by the fact that it is deeply autobiographical, I’m not sure exactly how autobiographical, Netty may shed more light on that question, But at one point Duras says something like, I’ve written about this before, but I haven’t written about it this honestly. and she’s not just being metafictive (although she is French, so she’s presumably being at least a little bit metafictive). She is in fact being, um, honest.

And that’s one of the things I love about this book. A woman – well, a person, the gender isn’t important – a writer who has used elements of their personal experience in their earlier work, who in their latter years – and Duras was pretty old when she wrote The Lover – looks back on something that to some extent at least has been a defining moment of their lives and writes about it honestly and openly. Perhaps. And with incredible style and artistry. Not eroticism though, despite what the cover of my edition says. Kind of sexy yes, but not erotic. In an erotica sense, anyway.

I’m not sure about the last scene though. (And yes, SPOILERS!) My gut feeling is that it’s probably what really happened, But a lover from the other end of your life, the better end of your life, coming back to tell you that they’ve never forgotten you, always loved you – it seems a little neat, although the subtext isn’t straightforward. Should we be delighted to know that we have always been desired, that, despite the decades intervening, we have always been desired? Or should we feel desolate that, at the other end of our lives, had things gone differently we’d be so much happier now?

It/s a tribute to Duras’ skill, I think, that either of these interpretations dovetails perfectly with her work,

So not only will I be seeking out more of Duras’ work, I’ll be re-reading this I suspect in the not-too-distant future. Because it’s damn awesome.

Oh, and that quote that I opened with? Means nothing, really. Just seemed appropriate, given I’ll be turning 44 next month…


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