History: The Lover is an autobiographical novel, published in 1984.
Plot: In 1929, a 15 year old nameless girl is traveling by ferry across the Mekong Delta, returning from a holiday at her family home in the town of Sa Đéc, to her boarding school in Saigon. She attracts the attention of a 27 year old son of a Chinese business magnate, a young man of wealth and heir to a fortune. He strikes up a conversation with the girl; she accepts a ride back to town in his chauffeured limousine.
Compelled by the circumstances of her upbringing, this girl, the daughter of a bankrupt, manic depressive widow, is newly awakened to the impending and all-too-real task of making her way alone in the world. Thus, she becomes his lover, until he bows to the disapproval of his father and breaks off the affair.
For her lover, there is no question of the depth and sincerity of his love, but it isn't until much later that the girl acknowledges to herself her true feelings.
Review: 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.
Opening Line: “One day, I was already old, in the entrance to a public place a man came up to me.”
Closing Line: “Told her that it was a before, that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he’d love her until death.”
Quotes: “The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any center to it. No path, no line. There are great spaces where you pretend there used to be someone, but it’s not true, there was no one.”
“We’re united in a fundamental shame at having to live.”