Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Words on Duras’s L’amant (The Lover)


Fanning through the pages of Ms. Duras’s novel—the book held close to my face—I am enraptured.  The scent of clean linen, soft linen, immaculate linen, neatly folded in wooden drawers, little bars of soap tucked neatly within (where?). My great aunt pacing about the house. White hair and little worried eyes—blue as a blue parrot. Mexican Tile, cake, puzzle boxes, photo albums, black-and-white photos of my great aunt, my ancestress, in the Canary Islands, a kerchief tied around her head.

But this is only the scent of my paperback copy. The tone and content of Duras’s novel are quite antithetical to all this ‘clean linen’ ‘Mexican tile’ stuff.

“As seamless and polished as a peal,” says the Boston Herald.

The novel’s central characters are unnamed, but we can identify them. They are Duras’s family, her Chinese lover, and Duras herself.

There she is. 15 ½. Crossing the Mekong river from Sadek to Saigon in current-day Vietnam. She wears her gold lamé shoes and her man’s fedora hat. The fedora makes her feel whole. It completes the inadequacy of her girlish body. “With the shoes it must have been the same, but after the hat. They contradict the hat, as the hat contradicts the puny body, so they’re right for me.”

We begin reading the lover, and find ourselves on the threshold. The threshold between Marguerite’s girlhood and her womanhood. (She is 15 AND A HALF.) The threshold between love and sex, between this side of the Mekong and that side, the threshold between the privacy of the Chinaman’s dark, little room and the din of the city.

Duras recalls her affair with a wealthy Chinaman when she was a young, poor girl living in French Indochina. Her prose is, as often noted, “spare” and “emotionally charged.”
“The shapes of men’s body’s are miserly, paternalized.”

“I'm worn out by the beauty of Hélène Lagonelle's body lying naked against mine. Her body's sublime, naked under her dress, within arm's reach. Her breasts are such as I've never seen. I've never touched them. She's immodest, Hélène Lagonelle, she doesn't realize, she walks around the dormotories without any clothes on. What's the most beautiful of all things given by God is this body of Hélène Lagonelle's, peerless, the balance between her figure and the way the body bears the breasts proffered to the hands, this outwardness held out towards them."  

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