21 September 2017

Duras's closed door

The Lover by Marguerite Duras, translated from the French by Barbara Bray (Perennial Library, 1986)

Among personal tragedies, what could be more apocalyptic than the breakup of a love affair, even more so if the raw feelings never really subsided despite the distance and the years?

Years after the war, after marriages, children, divorces, books, he came to Paris with his wife. He phoned her. It's me. She recognized him at once from the voice. She said, It's me, hello. He was nervous, afraid, as before. His voice suddenly trembled. And with the trembling, suddenly, she heard again the voice of China. He knew she'd begun writing books, he's heard about it through her mother whom he'd met again in Saigon. And about her younger brother, and he'd been grieved for her. Then he didn't know what to say. 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.

In the intervening years from the end of the affair the woman became a novelist. Her sensuous phrases and images must be derived in part from her tumultuous, controversial affair with an older man, in part from grief caused by the death of her brother in the war. The Lover by Marguerite Duras was built from sensory images and poetic touches. It did so through repetitions and impressions waylaid by periods and commas. Memory was nudged by portrait images. Visual forms were elucidated, ekphrastic-like.

So, I'm fifteen and a half.
It's on a ferry crossing the Mekong River.
The image lasts all the way across.
I'm fifteen and a half, there are no seasons in that part of the world, we have just one season, hot, monotonous, we're in the long hot girdle of the earth, with no spring, no renewal.

Duras mobilized in her prose the power of these punitive punctuation marks to pause feelings, to pace her long drawn out grief, to startle. Within the photographic context the poetic flourishes worked; in isolation they lost their color. Her Saigon was a closed door that does not budge. 

In the books I’ve written about my childhood I can’t remember, suddenly, what I left out, what I said. I think I wrote about our love for our mother, but I don’t know if I wrote about how we hated her too, or about our love for one another, and our terrible hatred too, in that common family history of ruin and death which was ours whatever happened, in love or in hate, and which I still can’t understand however hard I try, which is still beyond my reach, hidden in the very depth of my flesh, blind as a newborn child. It's the area on whose brink silence begins. What happens there is silence, the slow travail of my whole life. I'm still there, watching those possessed children, as far away from the mystery now as I was then. I've never written, though I thought I wrote, never loved, though I thought I loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door.

In form, the novel (or novella) was artistic enough. In substance, it was lacking from an apparent slightness of frame. Its strength was in the uncompromising voice. Since then, there had been "novels of voice" with more heft, spun to more apocalyptic effect. Toni Morrison's early novels—Sula, Beloved, Tar Baby, Jazz—came to mind. Or The Book of Proper Names by Amélie Nothomb, which was a hyperactive, less mannered (anti-)love story. They were closed doors that admitted at the slightest provocation. As for The Lover ... it's as if I've never read, though I thought I read.

Doom is upon us—the apocalypse trifecta edition.


  1. Duras' "uncompromising voice," as you so nicely put it, is one of the things I like best about her. I think she and Juan Carlos Onetti could be siblings in that regard. Haven't yet read this novel, but I will someday "slightness of frame" or not. Thanks for this Doom post--a very nice surprise and the usual great read from you!

  2. Thanks, Richard. I want to post about another doom-flavored French novel but my online connection is not good at the moment.

    For some reason that I can't explain well above, the voice used in The Lover alienates me. Maybe that's a strength of the book.