“The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any center to it. No path, no line.” But, for as self-effacing as the unnamed narrator in Marguerite Duras’ The Lover might try to be in downplaying the tragedy of her existence as commonplace, there can be no denying that the circumstances and trajectory of her life in Sa Đéc and Saigon are especially ruinous. And it all starts with the fact that is her mother, a manic depressive widow with little in the way of warmth or love to give her fifteen-year-old daughter, with particular regard to her aspirations.
As the narrator states, “I want to write. I’ve already told my mother: That’s what I want to do–write. No answer the first time. Then she asks, Write what? I say, Books, novels. She says grimly, When you’ve got your math degree, you can write if you like, it won’t be anything to do with me then. She’s against it, it’s not worthy, it’s not real work, it’s nonsense. Later she said, A childish idea.” While, in some respects, the narrator’s mother is something of a hero for discouraging the calamitous pursuit of writing as anything resembling a profession, her harshness toward her daughter is bequeathed with an augmented meanness when considering how much better she treats the narrator’s brothers, the younger of which our heroine favors, while the older one provides yet another unwanted source of fear. Thus, while crossing the Mekong River to get to boarding school in Saigon one day, the narrator laps up attention where she can get it: from an older Chinese man of affluence thanks to his birth to a wealthy businessman. As a French girl living in the Indochina of the 1930s, her impending affair with her lover is markedly scandalous not just because of the age difference, but for the very distinct cultural and racial divide.
Although her family, once with money of their own before the death of the narrator’s father, does not support the relationship–indeed, ignores him every time he’s in their midst–they are at his mercy once he starts bankrolling them upon becoming deeply involved with the narrator. In many respects, it only seeks to intensify her mother’s unpredictable emotional flux. The narrator describes it best in noting, “Every day my mother experienced this deep despondency about living. Sometimes it lasted, sometimes it would vanish in the dark. I had the luck to have a mother desperate with a despair so unalloyed that sometimes even life’s happiness, at its most poignant, couldn’t quite make her forget it.” And life’s happiness, for the narrator, was at its peak in those initial phases of being courted by her lover. But because of the young age at which she experiences this intensity of love, the narrator is perhaps doomed to peak too soon, not just in looks (quickly ravaged by the pain of loss), but also in the ability to feel anything of quite the same magnitude for another man.
With this in mind, the inevitable spiral that a love ill-fated can cause drives the narrator invariably to the bottle. After all, “Drink accomplished what God did not. It also served to kill me; to kill. I acquired that drinker’s face before I drank. Drink only confirmed it. The space for it existed in me. I knew it the same as other people, but, strangely, in advance. Just as the space existed in me for desire. At the age of fifteen I had the face of pleasure, and yet I had no knowledge of pleasure. There was no mistaking that face. Even my mother must have seen it. My brothers did. That was how everything started for me–with that flagrant, exhausted face, those rings around the eyes, in advance of time and experience.” It was this pre-“exhausted face” that had so effortlessly attracted her lover, and was now, after the few years they spent together, deteriorated and obliterated by the bereavement over a love never to be compared to or achieved again.
The reader is made aware of this from the outset, not led to believe that this ending will turn out well as the book opens with our narrator already in the twilight of her life, beauty-wise. “One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said, ‘I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.'” And possibly, his preference for her objective ugliness speaks to the pain inside of everyone that can so rarely manifest itself half as meaningfully on the exterior.
Filled with aphorisms and platitudes tailor-made for the most macabre needlepoint business, The Lover does not encourage the now bankrupt notion that love will triumph over all. But it does, at the very least, lend encouragement to those women who have lost their luster–that certain sparkle that comes with an excess of sebum–in terms of allowing her the hope that the true love she lost will always see her as she was. Alas, the narrator is given this satisfaction from her lover when it’s far too late in life: “And then he told her. Told her that it was as before, that he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, that he’d love her until death.” But perhaps it would be a different story if he actually saw her in the present. For it is not as Shakespeare assured with “Love is blind,” but rather, what Friedrich Schiller blew to pieces with the statement: “Appearance rules the world.”