Saturday, July 25, 2015

My book review of The Lover: A Novel by Marguerite Duras

The Lover: A Novel, considered to be autobiographical, was presented to me as a memoir. I read it as a memoir of Marguerite Duras. Since the story jumps around in time, I ended up pretty confused. In my opinion, the story is not cohesive enough to be a novel either. The book cover says it was an international bestseller, and the slim volume begins with three pages of glowing testimonials by literary critics. I must have missed the sparkle the critics saw.

I found The Lover’s trajectory impossible to follow and its characters impossible to know. The narrator, Duras, I presume, is told at some unnamed point in her life that she has a ravaged face, then she’s eighteen, then she’s fifteen and a half, then she’s fifteen, then she thinks her face changed between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. That’s in the first eight pages. One day her mother is a responsible mother, the next day she’s negligent; one day her mother seems normal, other days she seems mad. In spots Duras calls her younger brother her son. Is he her son or truly her younger brother? Did the younger brother die in the war or did fear of the older brother kill the younger? If Duras hated the older brother so, why did she bail him out? From her disjointed vignettes, I never figured out any of these things. I thought about rereading the book to see if a second reading would illuminate any answers, but found I didn’t care enough about any of the characters to do so.

I tried appreciating The Lover as a prose poem. The language is often lyrical. And I really wanted to like this book. Again, however, the author’s fragmentation got in the way. “The blue was more distant than the sky … The sound [of the night] was that of … the country dogs baying at mystery.” Descriptive images, but how do they contribute to her point in that paragraph, which was that she doesn’t remember the days? 

Beautiful language or no beautiful language, a story needs to communicate. Suppose I wanted to tell you: Once upon a time I had two brothers, a mother, and a lover who was twelve years older than I. To communicate this, I gave you a poem with all the words mixed up and some missing:

Time once brother
Two upon mother
Old twelve lover

Did I write poetically? Yes. Did I clearly convey my meaning? No. Though this example is a slight exaggeration, that’s how confusing this book was for me. Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees is lyrical prose that makes sense, creates characters I care about, and communicates profound truths. Marguerite Duras’ The Lover is not.

The one area in which The Lover unequivocally shines is the relationship between Duras and her lover. She is a young teen; he is twelve years older. The tenderness of their sexual encounters is achingly beautiful. Although most readers will not identify with Duras’ exact situation in this love affair, I think most readers would be drawn back to the innocent discoveries of young love.

The evocative love scenes save this book. In The Lover, the author has chosen scenes from her life that show sadness, anger, jealousy, injustice, prejudice, fear, and other emotions. As I read, however, I felt these emotions only minimally, if it all. I connected with Duras best when she described the fragility of first love.

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