Revisiting Marguerite Duras’ novel today reminds us how poignant it remains.
Bertrand Russell wrote his History of Western Philosophy from memory, to earn some money while in the US. It was published in 1945 and is magisterial. But there, amidst chapter after chapter devoted to individual philosophers, is the sudden inclusion of the scandalous poet Lord Byron. Russell has him as a philosopher of freedom — of romantic revolt — as the first great champion of what we now call “Orientalism,” but trying all the same to penetrate the exotic and give the East its due.
By the same token, John Lechte, in his 1994 book, Fifty Key Contemporary Thinkers — meaning largely European thinkers from Sigmund Freud to Jürgen Habermas — suddenly has a chapter on Marguerite Duras. She is here presented not as a philosopher, as all 49 others are, but as the novelist of “emotional disequilibrium,” somehow drawing on her own life of gendered madness to paint a picture of trauma as a modern condition. A lot of the chapter on Duras is in fact an account of Julia Kristeva’s psychoanalytic reading of The Lover, Duras’ perhaps most scandalous work — in which Duras, as the autobiographical narrator, emerges as the possessor of a Jocasta complex; not a son in love with the mother, but a daughter loving and intensely hating the mother in competition with the oldest son. But I think the book is much more than that, and much more than the citations that accompanied its winning of the 1984 Prix Goncourt, France’s greatest literary honor.
It is also a book about underage sex, in which it is the Lolita figure who speaks and takes charge. She is not a victim but the determiner of all around her, and her older lover is a kind of exotic cipher. If the book was a scandal because of its sexual core and obsessiveness, the 1992 film of the book directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, despite the prizes it won, was coolly received in the US. The question constantly asked was, “How old was Jane March when she made the film?” In fact, she was 18, but she looks every inch the 15-year-old girl who has an affair with an older man — in the film played by the great Chinese actor, Tony Leung. The book’s sex scenes are not explicit, in the sense that there is almost no genital detail, but they are torrid, and the author constantly reminds the reader that the protagonist is a skinny “little white girl.” But it is she who is as much the debaucher of the Chinese man as the other way around.
It is also a book about class relationships, but nothing that European class theory can explain. Located in colonial Vietnam, it is set against the relationship between colonial whiteness — struggling against economic misfortune to avoid becoming white trash — and cosmopolitan Chinese-ness, Paris-educated, immensely wealthy. The man drives her to and from school in a luxury black limousine.
It is certainly about what Kristeva observed: An obsessive death desire against the mother and the older brother — but a love for the mother that transcends all narrowness and murderousness. It is the mother, after all, who persuades the school to let her daughter come and go, chauffeured by the Chinese millionaire, clearly spending days and nights with him, and dressing not as a schoolgirl but as some kind of eccentric and seductive vamp — with gold lame high heel shoes, a thin white dress and a fedora. She has no breasts and is clearly underage. For Duras, hers becomes a desolate but desperate urge to freedom that today’s society would not bear.
But it is the fact that the lover is Chinese that took my attention. Years later, Duras rewrote the novel in a harsher light as The North China Lover, but the harshness is much more to do with the environment of colonial deprivation and an immersive adolescent frustration at a school where everyone is awakening to desire, but no one, except one outcast, experiences its fulfilment. In The Lover, despite its trauma and psychoanalytic invitations, there is a huge tenderness and bleak sense of genuine love. But the book, even so, is a harsh one in terms of relationships between races.
It’s hard now to remember how excoriated Chinese people were throughout the entire first half of the 20th century. Laws existed against them in the US. Sun Yat Sen had to impersonate Hawaiian birth in order to visit the US to raise support for a republican China. In my own adopted country of New Zealand, laws discriminated against my parents when they landed as World War II refugees. In Paris even today, at the café where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir used to drink and argue, aux deux magots on Boulevard St Germaine, the statues of the two magots, Gog and Magog in the English version of the Bible, Satan’s last henchmen in the last rebellion against God, are Chinese. After medieval lizards, the demons were portrayed as Chinese — above all, unclean and evil.
The intensity of that discrimination saturates Duras’ book. I think you have to be Chinese of a certain age to appreciate that she gets it right — and that the little thin white girl is, in fact, a revolutionary. She chooses him. She is stronger than him. He loves her forever, even years after their inevitable separation.
But it was a curious form of being Chinese. He is Parisian in many ways. And that reminds me of other recent films, in particular John Woo’s 2014 film, The Crossing. Derided as boring by Western critics, it is the story of the flight to Taiwan as the nationalist armies were crumbling. But one of the bravest and most handsome nationalist generals, played by Xiaoming Huang, falls in love with a society girl. The scenes that touched me most were of their early moments of idyll, set in a Shanghai that was already the Paris of the East, but depicting their own elite society as immersed in Western habits, wearing Western dress and altogether behaving like Parisian gentlemen and ladies. The crossing over from being Chinese to being Parisian is as great an epic as the crossing of the Taiwan Straits with death and communism as the only alternatives.
The other film it reminded me of was Teddy Chan’s 2009 Bodyguards and Assassins, which won a huge float of artistic awards. It is about the terrible carnage that accompanied Sun Yat Sen’s efforts in 1906 to inaugurate a nationalist and republican movement against the dead hand of the emperor. Sun Yat Sen, in this film using his birth name Sun Wen, had modern ideas. Even today, both communists and nationalists on either side of the Taiwan Straits idolize him. But in the film, both the assassins and the bodyguards are remnants of a very old China. One of the great fight scenes near the end portrays a lone bodyguard, a beggar who has joined the republican cause, fighting off a horde of assassins armed only with an iron fan. His decorum is classic Taoist abstraction from the tumult of the universe. Yet he fights to the death for a modern idea.
This tension, this ability or desire to step over, to cross, to be an equal on both sides of the divide is the final tragedy of Duras’ novel. The Chinese lover is not allowed to cross over. His own father, a multimillionaire, will not allow him to cross over. White colonial society will not allow him to cross over. The thin white child is cold-shouldered by all her school mates as an irredeemable slut for crossing over. It is as if she slept with the devil.
REVISITING THE STORY
Re-reading this book after many years from first reading, I was struck by how poignant it remains. The intense and forbidden eroticism serves to carry the sense of a relationship forbidden in more ways than one.
It reminded me of 1991 in South Africa. Nelson Mandela had just been released from prison. I decided to visit for the first time. I went to visit a newspaper editor in Pretoria. He had been part of the very first effort in 1984 to establish a negotiating dialogue between white Afrikanerdom and the rebel African National Congress in their Zambian exile headquarters. I was part of the process, having been asked to host the visitors for their first night in Lusaka — to put them at ease. I invited a small number of my Zambian students to take dinner with them. Later that night, the editor confessed to me he had never eaten in black company before. In 1991, me walking the main street of Pretoria — with long black hair, a dark blue suit and white dress shirt, and the Cuban heels fashionable then — cars driven by white motorists suddenly skidded to halts, almost hitting each other, all gawking out of their windows to look at the apparition from a realm of demons.
We cross over, Duras writes of crossing over. She writes about the terrible emotional cost of crossing over. Kristeva is completely wrong. The novel is not one of trauma between mother and daughter. That is only the backdrop. It is about the trauma of impossibility caused by stupidity.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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