"An old face is nothing to the frivolous world; the frivolous world is shocked by the sight of the destruction of such comeliness as it can understand; a commonplace artist sees nothing there. An old face is the province of the poets among poets of those who can recognize that something which is called Beauty, apart from all the conventions underlying so many superstitions in art and taste." - Honore de Balzac
"One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said, “I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.” From The Lover by Margaruite Duras
One of the great enigmas and pleasures of the reading life is discovering a new to you writer and feeling like you should have been reading them decades ago. After reading The Lover by Margaruite Duras I have added her to my growing list of "read all I can authors list".
Duras was born in Vietnam when it was a French colony. The French government advertised in Paris for people to move to Vietnam, hoping to strengthen their hold on the area and her parents took the offer. Shortly after moving there her father died. Her mother stayed on working as a teacher to support Duras and her two brothers. Duras is most famous for writing the script to the movie, Hiroshima Mon Amour. She was a prolific writer of fiction and political journalism. She was a communist. The Lover won the very prestigious French literary prize, The Prix Goncourt award. Over a million copies have been published.
The narrator is a fifteen year old girl living in Saigon. Duras beautifully invokes the feel for colonial Vietnam. Her mother works as a teacher struggling to support her family. We see the special status of "white people" in the society. The richest people are Chinese descendent land owners and merchants.
The heat and the sensual richness of the city, the wonderful food, the crowds of people permeate The Lover.
The girl attends the school at which her mother teaches. She is one of only three white students. The rest of the girls are Vietsmese, from rich families. She is intimidated by the beauty of these girls, being groomed for marriage to rich men. One day a man in a large limousine sees her waiting for the bus to go to school.the wealthy Chinese man in the car offers her a ride. He is a bachelor, in his late twenties from a very rich Chinese family. He is very worldly, sophisticated. His father sent him to school in Paris but he focused on the pleasures of Paris, especially the women. Soon he is picking her up in his limo every day to take her to school. The relationship would be unacceptable to his family and sexual contact with a fifteen year old was not legal. He begins having sex with her after school. She falls in love, not so much with him but with sex. The descriptions of the sex is very sensual. The man feels guilt over the relationship, he gives her a very expensive ring and takes her mother and her two brothers to expensive restaurants. There is a complicated plot line involving her relationship with her brothers and her mother. The story is kind of colonial sexual role reversal, normally it is the white man exploiting younger Vietnamese women.
There is much more to The Lover than I have been able to mention. It is a work of great art and sophistication.
Please share your experience with Duras with us. What should I read next?