No one writes about romance quite like the French. Intellectually and emotionally their very best writers are on it, picking over each liaison from every conceivable angle until the familiar and expected way of viewing the subject has evaporated under the laser heat of their enquiries.
‘The Lover’ by Marguerite Duras is a case in point. It’s the tale of a 15-year old French girl’s affair with the son of a rich Chinese businessman that takes place in the sultry heat of what was then French Indochina and which is now Vietnam.
It sounds incredibly romantic until the fevered realities of what is occurring are revealed.
His powerful father cows her lover while the French teen, recovering from a life of poverty under the crazed gaze of her mother, has scandalized French colonial society with her behavior.
Though fictionalized the work is highly biographical of Duras’ own upbringing.
For a 117 pages she lays it all out there, exposing the intolerable relationships with her cruel older brother and highly critical mother, along with the death of her younger brother.
She is not afraid to share with us the nature of her desires. Not for her gentle bloodless candlelit romance of regular fiction. Instead she demands her lover treats her like other whores he has had and revels in his violence and insults mixed in with the heartfelt declarations of love and tenderness.
It is a love that burns for it is a love that is utterly doomed. In the end both know that the girl will be sent away to France and the young man’s family will insist he marries the Chinese girl who has been found for him.
The book is written from a distance, 50 years after the events that inspired them took place, and perhaps in the end this is what gives it such a psychological truth. For the narrator is so far removed from the unbearable pain of that time, she can now fashion it into something utterly enduring.
‘The Lover’ stands as a testament both the power of our early sexual experiences, how they can stay with us delighting or tormenting us by turn and in the end forming us into who we will be.