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In which Netty discovers that The Lover is, well, just loverly … and also that she is not very punny after all …

January 20, 2013

lover-coverThere is a moment in Madonna’s ever-so-slightly egotistical, but nonetheless hugely entertaining 1991 concert doco Truth Or Dare that has always stayed with me. Ms Ciccone, then aged 33, is playing the game that lends its name to the film, asking and being asked questions of various degrees of provocativeness, when she is suddenly asked: “Who is the great love of your life?” She fixes the questioner with a steely stare, eyes blazing, and answers immediately, and without any scrap of hesitation: “Sean”.

Madonna is 54 now, and her first marriage to American actor Sean Penn, whom she wed on her 27th birthday, is long over (the reportedly fiery union lasted a mere two years). I wonder if French author and film director Marguerite Duras had been asked the same question, would her reply have been: “Huynh Thuy Le”. Because Duras wrote and rewrote the account of their affair – conducted when she was a 15-year-old girl and he a wealthy young Chinese businessman in his late 20s – several times, most notably in the 1985 novella The Lover (L’Amant to give it its original French title).

Did I say novella? The Lover is actually a memoir, written mostly in the first person, sometimes (deliberately) lapsing into the third person.  Set in Duras’ birthplace of Saigon (now Vietnam) in the early 1930s, it concentrates on her two-year affair with an unnamed lover, but also catalogues in unflinching detail her early years with her mother and two brothers. Like Duras, her fictional counterpart loses her father to illness early in her life but her mother, a French national and a teacher, chooses to remain in Saigon and bring up her family there.  The difficult family dynamic is exacerbated by the mother’s depression, and possibly other mental illnesses, the elder brother’s capacity for violence – both physical and emotional – and the relative poverty in which they live.

Here is the plot, in a nutshell (and as any “spoilers” are basically irrelevant in this case – the story and the outcome are so widely known – I won’t be skirting around the details). The girl is on a ferry, crossing the Mekong River from Sadec to Saigon, on her way to boarding school. On the same journey is the Chinese businessman. He approaches her on board and offers her a lift, upon docking, to her school in his chauffeured black limousine. The rides from her boarding school to her nearby high school become a regular occurrence, until one afternoon he instead takes her to his house in Cholon, where they make love for the first time. He meets her mother and brothers and takes them out to dinner, but the affair remains unacknowledged within the family circle; as it does at the girl’s boarding school, where the teachers turn a blind eye to her comings and goings, to nights spent away from the dorm rooms. The affair finally ends two years later when the girl and her family return to France. Many years later the businessman – now married – tracks down the girl to tell her what she has always known: that he has always, and would always, love her.

None of this is told as a straightforward story: the novella moves in, out and around the various events of Duras’ life, suddenly catapulting itself into the future, then just as quickly dropping back into the past. It’s also told in almost anecdotal “snippets”, sometimes five to a double-page. I guess some readers might find such chopping and changing annoying; for me, it added depth and resonance to the overall story. Few writers could take the various threads and weave them so successfully into such a cohesive whole. The ecomony and precision of Duras’ prose is breathtaking; she is not just a masterful storyteller but also a formidable stylist, with a languid fluidity to her words. The physical account of the affair itself offers a literary eroticism both muted and explicit, and far, far superior to anything that, say, an Anais Nin ever committed to print. Her skills in the medium are not surprising – more than once throughout these pages Duras (in character) expresses her desire to be a writer – “What I wanted more than anything else in the world was to write, nothing else but that, nothing” – even as her mother is pushing her into doing a maths degree (which both she – and her character – eventually do).

The Lover was turned into an eponymously titled film that had attracted a bit of controversy upon its release back in 1992, notably for the reasonably explicit scenes between young English actress Jane March (who was then 18) and her co-star Tony Leung Ka-fai, which were rumoured to have been real (March has vigorously denied the allegations, blaming the director Jean-Jacques Annaud for exploiting the whispers). Interestingly, given her long involvement in film, Duras does not appear to have been part of its making, even though her alternate version of The Lover, entitled The North China Lover, is written as a script.

See that cover of the book, above? That is Duras herself, taken in 1932 – when the events portrayed in the novella were taking place – at the age of 18. The Lover was first published in 1985, when Duras was 71 (she died at the age of 82 in 1996), and had a considerable bibliography of both writing and film under her belt. While Andy has expressed his keenness to explore more of Duras’ work; I reckon I’ll probably settle with The Lover, perhaps a biography should I come across one. For I doubt anything else comes even remotely close to being quite as good as this.

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