I happened to be in Paris in 1984 when Marguerite Duras published her new novel, L’Amant (The Lover), so I bought a copy because I was studying French at the time and I could tell that the vocabulary and sentence structure she’d used in the novel were relatively simple. But while I did manage to get through it – it’s not a long book – I always wondered if my French was good enough to allow me to understand the depth and subtlety of her writing.
In the years since, I had never bought or read a version of the book in English. But a couple weeks ago, while on a family vacation in Vietnam, we checked into our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and found that our window overlooked a café called L’Amant. Was that an omen? I found a bookshop on the main square and scoured its English language section looking for a copy of The Lover but did not find it. When I asked one of the assistants, he replied with a look of disdain, that they did not stock books by Marguerite Duras. Perhaps our position overlooking the café had not been an omen after all.
Then, on our last day in the city, having recovered from my disappointment, my wife and I were returning to the hotel following an afternoon of exploring when she spotted a narrow little bookshop on a street we had not previously walked along. I entered the shop with not much expectation, well maybe just a glimmer, and there, on a table just inside the door, sat a pile of copies of The Lover by Marguerite Duras. And all it cost was 220,000 Vietnamese Dong.
I have just finished reading the copy of The Lover I bought recently in Saigon.
What strikes me most powerfully about the The Lover is the way in which the style of writing Duras has employed supports and embellishes the subject matter. The constant shifts, the changes in narrator, in point of view, in place and time, all combine to create a sense of furtiveness as though she is reluctant, even ashamed and embarrassed, to tell the story; and yet is compelled to tell it by an imperative that she might not understand but cannot resist. The details of the story escape out of the fractured narrative as though she is writing the events exactly as she recalls them, sporadically, in a logical sequence that makes sense only to her, and only now; and the reader who demands a more linear timeline must rearrange these desultory fragments for himself. But the sensuality of the love affair she has with the man from Cholon builds throughout the telling with tragic inevitability.
Marguerite Duras was not new to me when I first attempted to read L’Amant in French over thirty years ago. And at the time, her style appealed to me as a rebellion against what I regarded then as the painstakingly crafted but unnecessarily convoluted decoration – the self-indulgent arabesques – of the 19th Century writers. And the fact that my recollection of the novel has revealed itself now to be hopelessly scant suggests that the effort I expanded just to understand the French then seriously undermined my comprehension of the story and the manner in which it was written. On the other hand, my appreciation now is undeniably enriched by my recent personal experiences of Saigon, Cholon and the Mekong delta.
When one reads a book, one also unwittingly rewrites it, adding to the words on the page the personal associations that those words and sentences liberate. I have crossed the Mekong now on a ferry, as the central character in the story did in recollection after recollection; and while the Saigon I now know must be vastly different from the Saigon in which the story is set, in my internal retelling of the story it is a perfect fit.
Perth (WA) skyline from Kings Park January 2008