Saturday, 31 December 2016

THE LOVER by Marguerite Duras

Let me tell you that Marguerite Duras had a tough childhood. This semi-autobiographical novel gives the outlines. Poor, white, French Indochina. Unstable mother makes a terrible investment in farmland which then sinks into the sea. Older brother has a gambling problem and is unhealthily attached to unstable mother. Teenage girl wears old dresses of her mother’s (“It’s the sepia colour real silk takes on with wear,” she tells us, as if we all know what that’s like), and strange gold evening shoes, and a man’s fedora. One day on the ferry across the Mekong to boarding school, where she is the only white student, she meets a Chinese millionaire, and becomes his mistress. Everyone believes it must be for the money, and so she tells them, but in fact it is some kind of wild romance, with lots of showering each other and weeping. His father won’t let him marry her, and eventually her mother sends her off to France. She doesn’t see her family again for decades, not so much because of the shame as the cost of travel by ship.

This is the sharp end of the colonial experience, and is a beautiful, dream like sort of book, capturing Vietnamese gardens by night, mixed race high schools of the 1930s, and family dysfunction in a strange and gorgeous way. Here’s a taste, in speaking about her mother, who while unstable was also indomitable in her own way:
She owes it to herself to do so, so she does, her cousins are all that’s left of the family, so she shows them the family photos. Can we glimpse something of this woman through this way of going on? The way she sees everything through to the bitter end without ever dreaming she might give up, abandon – the cousins, the effort, the burden. I think we can. It’s in this valour, human, absurd, that I see true grace.

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