Skip to content

The Story of a Face

Reading Marguerite Duras, with and against her self

Three-hundred-and-seventy pages of endnotes would be excessive for most novels, let alone one that runs to just under one-hundred pages by itself, but that is how we are invited to view the new Everyman’s Library edition of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover, which comes packaged with her Wartime Notebooks and an essay collection, Practicalities. These supplementary texts contain the astonishingly accomplished French novelist, screenwriter, and director’s reflections on her films, her association with the Resistance and later the PFC (the French Communist Party), fragments of aborted novels, and records of her long struggle with alcoholism—but it is around The Lover that everything revolves, as we return again and again to the 1920s Indochina (now Vietnam) of Duras’s youth and the transformative affair with a much older, wealthy Asian man (Chinese in the novel, Vietnamese in the journals, and prefiguring the Japanese lover of Duras’s screenplay for 1959’s Hiroshima Mon Amour) that forms the basis of the novel, written when its author was seventy years old. The result is a book that flows out of itself, gradually decompressing the layers of memory, fiction, and history—though it is none of these things altogether—packed into The Lover’s pithily enigmatic prose, which disarms from one of its much-quoted opening lines: “Very early in my life it was too late.”

Rereading The Lover with the benefit of these glosses, it’s incredible it was ever mistaken for eroticism.

The Lover must be one of the most consistently misread books in the Western canon. Putatively the story of a fifteen-year-old girl’s seduction on the ferry to Saigon from Sa Đéc, where her depressive, widowed mother is headmistress of the girl’s school, it has been variously cast as a kind of sinewy, feminist Lolita (or, more accurately, Emmanuel!), an existential colonialist parable a la The Stranger, or—and this is especially true of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s treacly-by-comparison film version from 1992—an odd-couple-versus-disapproving-family melodrama like Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows or Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. And let’s not forget that in 1984, the year of its publication, the image of its heroine in her men’s hat and gold lamé shoes was not too far removed from the vogue for pre-teen girl sexuality celebrated in Pretty Baby, Age of Consent, and Claire’s Knee. Duras herself seems to have been amused by these responses, writing in “Men,” one of her most brilliant essays, that:

Some men have been repelled by the couple in The Lover—the little white girl and the Chinese lover. They skip some pages, they say, or shut their eyes. Shut their eyes while they’re reading! To them The Lover’s just the crazy family, the drives, the ferry, Saigon by night and the whole colonial caboodle. But not the little White and her Chinese lover. On the other hand, the couple in The Lover fills most men with a strange desire—one that rises up from the mists of time and the depths of humanity: the desire of incest and rape.

Rereading The Lover with the benefit of these glosses, it’s incredible it was ever mistaken for eroticism. After the first blush of physical love, the sexual encounters are violent, despairing, even squalid. Just as there is no question of marriage between a white girl and a Chinese man, there is no question of equality (sexual, economic, racial) on either side. Her lover is ignored as a nonentity by her family, even when picking up the bill at dinner (in the movie, they come to fisticuffs). And in fact the book seems to be about almost anything more than it is about first love or the loss of innocence: the war and the liberation of Paris, the poverty that colors her childhood, her mother’s mental illness, her younger brother’s death of bronchial pneumonia—sex is only the nexus around which Duras arranges her life, fighting to preserve moments in time against forgetting or the disfigurement of dreams and fictionalization; as she puts it later, “It’s between men and women that imagination is at its strongest.”

Given the sensuality for which the book is remembered and Duras’s own gestures toward holistic autobiography, reader and writer are engaged in something of an impasse in The Lover. We are trying to read the story of a teenage girl. Duras is trying to tell us something else, something she hints at when she relates how a stranger approached her in public place to tell her, “I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.” The Lover is the story of a face, and how it came to look as it does, and a mute face needs to find a language—fiction or true story—to speak on its behalf.

The Lover is almost always taken to be autobiographical, but as Rachel Kushner notes in her introduction, it feels more like a story repeated so often that it became true to Duras before being set down in print (and it turns out that’s not the only thing we’ve been getting wrong about Duras; Kushner begins her essay noting that the s is sibilant, not silent). When, in the Wartime Notebooks, she tells the true story of her lover, the Vietnamese man named Léo, he is a pathetic figure, a scarred and trite dilettante whose amorous words seem cherry-picked from cheap romance novels: “He told me he would love me ‘till death,’ that I had ‘a heart of stone’ and that I was ‘breaking’ his own heart; I loved him ‘for my money,’ he said, and ‘not for myself.’ He said he was ‘born to be unhappy,’ that ‘money can’t buy happiness,’ that he was too sentimental and that the world was cruel.”

We are, in other words, a long way away from the eroticization of age-inappropriate romance and if Léo’s wealth, age, and gender granted him power over the young Duras, the seventy-year-old author of the Notebooks has long since taken it back. In an essay on women, domesticity, and Virginia Woolf entitled “House and Home,” she witheringly remarks that “women and martyrdom go together,” but there’s not a trace of vulnerability anywhere in these pages. Here was a woman quite capable of giving an account of herself—in sexual compromise, in drunkenness, in illness—and controlling the terms of that account with a clarity just this side of acerbic.

Duras’s subject, at least in the present volume, is herself.

If The Lover is to be rescued from quaint sexuality, it must also be delivered from colonial critique. Duras is explicit on this point, writing “I don’t wish to paint a portrait of Indochina in 1930; I want to speak above all about what my youth was like,” and it’s true that The Lover is only incidentally concerned with white/native relations. There’s nothing in Duras of the urge toward reclamation of overshadowed populations that we see in something like Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea. Duras’s subject, at least in the present volume, is herself. But whether that qualifies as vanity is an open question. It seems more that she is determined to catch herself at a distance, marveling at how each new layer of storytelling—journals, novels, films—distorts the surface. She admits to liking her own books (“I find them interesting”), but despairs of literature’s ability to act as vessel to authentic feeling (“The essence of this love is that it can’t be written. It’s a love that writing hasn’t yet reached”). In an essay about her transcendent, excruciating film India Song, she writes, “My life is a film that’s been dubbed—a badly cut, badly acted, badly put together. In short, a mistake . . . It could have been a real film, but no, it’s a sham. But who’s to say what one would have had to do for it to be otherwise?” In other words, it takes a lot of artifice to begin to tell the truth about one’s self. 

It’s possible to be grateful for the dimension the Everyman’s Library edition lends to Duras scholarship while wishing there was a bit more of some things (a representative screenplay or two, one of her earlier novels) and less of others (rough drafts, the unfinished novel Théodora, quite a lot of jottings). Of the good, there’s Alcohol, a harrowing missive from the depths of alcohol abuse, (“Drinking isn’t necessarily the same as wanting to die. But you can’t drink without thinking you’re killing yourself . . .”), “House and Home,” “Men,” “Childhood and Adolescence in Indochina,” scattered reflections of her wartime activities, and a few scholarly essays through which the doyens of French intellectual life—Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jean-Luc Godard—occasionally flit. But she pursues no subject with the same animating force as her own biography; her tortured mother, her dead brother, her distant lover. In the end, she recovers her life from the success of her novel, and the abiding revelation seems to be that to be in complete possession of the facts of one’s self is to be alone at last. Discussing the lot of women—but, as usual, using herself as the measure—she writes:

We’re here. Where the story of our lives takes place. Nowhere else. We have no lover but those in our sleep. We have no human desires. All we know is the faces of animals, the form and beauty of the forests. We’re afraid of ourselves. Our bodies are cold. We are made up of cold and fear and desire. They used to burn us . . .