“I am worn out with desire for Helene Lagonelle. I am worn out with desire.”
The 1984 novel, L’Amant , by one of France’s most esteemed writers, Marguerite Duras, is a ravishingly beautiful work of art. Reading it, you feel you are looking at a dark-hued portrait of lovers embracing, faces and torsos radiant in gold-flake paint, surrounded by a mysterious and impenetrable jungle of blackness.
Deftly translated by Barbara Bray, The Lover flows in tropical langour, like a river through a jungle. It flows along just like a wide river, drowsy, thick with heat and mosquitos. You feel the long oppression of the days the way you would if you were on the river ferry, slowly drifting, the engine coughing and inhaling, numbing you into reverie.
Something about the book is like a series of still, sepia-tone photographs. It is like an old picture album. The images, faded, are sad. They belong to the jaded past.
Finished reading, you wonder where the day went, what was happening in the world while you were drifting, how you and the memories of a woman who was a girl in Saigon in the 1920s could have become so inextricably entwined that the present lost its meaning. Frozen smiles and stiff poses, like fractured shadows in a tropical forest, will have hypnotized you, then engulfed you.
There is something exhausting about the story of the young white woman in Saigon. It is the way the 15-and-a-half-year-old French girl and the older Chinese man she meets weep when they make love, the way their need is so desperate they cannot be happy. They are exhaustingly, painfully unfulfilled, the way the French are about love.
There is something French, too, in the peculiar attention paid to fashion, to the oddities and extremes of clothing, especially of the girl, while she is still pretty, before her face has grown old at 18, while she is standing on the deck of a ferry on the Mekong River, wearing a threadbare silk dress, a pair of gold-lame high heels, a man’s brownish-pink fedora with a broad, black ribbon. Somehow in the sweltering tropics, where all the colors melt into milky green pools, the girl has found a way to stand out, partly by her white skin, but more by the clothes she wears as an act of defiance.
The book is a dreamy postmodern fantasy of escape through sex from madness and provincial bigotry. The escape is that of the French girl from her mother who lives a life of despair, self-deception, depression, jealousy, and dementia. The surrender is to the passion and wealth of an elegant Chinese man with a limousine, a financier who smokes opium, who has been to Paris and knows its refinements, especially in the matter of making love.
The most remarkable aspect of the story is the strength of character of the young woman who is its central figure, her amazing capacity to retain love for people who are weaker than she is.
She loves her mother, a manic-depressive uncomprehending in her meanderings through life, unaware that she is decaying in the heat and humidity and humiliation of her existence, and that everything she touches decays with her. She has adopted a noble air, an ungainly farce. In the haze of her existence, she is able only for a moment to give a half smile when she notices her daughter has dressed herself in an interesting fashion, one that might even merit praise. But praise is not forthcoming. In the blankness she inhabits– in the hole of despair out of which she cannot climb– her bitterness turns to sadism and she undresses and beats her teenage child.
Duras treats the mother’s madness ironically, with a melancholy understanding and generosity of spirit that dispels revulsion and arouses pity. The mother is not loathsome, but innocent, a victim. She has been done in by the harshness of the world, and her daughter is strangely sympathetic.
But while the girl merely abides her mother, she loves her younger brother poetically, without reserve, though with some sadness and condesension. He is beautiful but not bright, romantic but dull-witted, but terribly fragile. Sadly, she knows, her brother, in all his wild, mysterious appeal, is like a glorious blossom that blooms overnight, then dies the next day.
The girl also loves her older brother, no matter that he’s brutal, corrupt — a crude, dissolute man, stupidly dependent on his mother and sister — a wastrel. And still she loves him, even as she fears him, because, in a different way, like his mother and his brother, he is helpless.
The girl loves the man who possesses her, her lover. Their love is erotic, immediate, carnal, unrestrained. It is physical, tumultuous, and devastating. Their love encompasses the sweating of bodies, tears flowing out at orgasm, and the rumpled, spent sheets of sex.
The girl loves other young women, especially the beautiful, remote, 17-year-old Helene Lagonelle. This love eclipses all her other loves, even that for her younger brother. It is the aching, gnawing, impossibly unfulfilling love of desire:
I sit on the bench . I’m worn out by the beauty of Helene Lagonelle’s body lying against mine . . . . Even the body of my younger brother, like that of a little coolie, is as nothing beside this splendor.
The girl’s passion for Helene Lagonelle is so intense she longs to giver her physical pleasure — by giving Helene over to her Chinese lover. She wants Helene to cry out with pleasure in her presence, to do as she wishes, to give herself where she has given. She does not know that she is capable of giving Helene that pleasure herself. It is not within her range of experience or understanding. This makes us sad. It is possible she is afraid Helene will withdraw at her touch. This makes us sadder still.
Marguerite Duras was born in Indochina in 1914, in the town of Giadinh. Not coincidentally, the story parallels the life of Duras herself. The setting in Indochina is one she knows intimately, having been that 15-and-a-half-year-old girl beginning her studies at theLycee de Saigon in 1924. The story is set mostly in the early 1920s following the decline of French domination of the territory that is now Vietnam; it jumps forward occasionally into the 1940s with the occupation of the peninsula by Japan and, as well as into post-World War II years in France.
The Lover is fraught with a tension and an unburdened yearning that makes it fairly crackle with breaking energy. It is a most extraordinary journey along a winding river of passion. It ultimately flows out into the sea, that vast accumulation of experience where Duras resolves her story.
– Mark Mardon