Posts Tagged ‘Jean-Jacques Annaud’

Marguerite Duras’s The Lover: But, but, but … did it really happen?

Sunday, May 4th, 2014

duras3We’re gearing up for the next “Another Look” event a week from tomorrow – that’s Monday, May 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Stanford Humanities Center. The Book Haven wrote about the upcoming event here.  It’s going to be a lot of fun – fans of The Lover are coming out of the woodwork and writing to me. Anyway, Blakey Vermeule will lead the discussion, with Paula Moya and Stephen Seligman, who is a psychiatrist and professor from UC-San Francisco. After doing a little digging to answer the eternal question – “but did it really happen?” – I think a shrink might be just the ticket. But hey, that’s just my opinion. Here’s what I found out from my digging:

“I swear it. I swear all of it. I have never lied in a book. Or even in my life. Except to men. Never.”

With these words, Marguerite Duras penned a categorical denial of any fanciful invention in her many autobiographical novels and films. One ponders the odd qualification: admitting she “only” lied to men implies she was willing to deceive half the human race.

The denial invites the question: Did she ever tell the truth? She says she was ostracized for her reckless teenage affair with an older Chinese millionaire – yet one classmate remembers Marguerite as secretive and well-behaved, though she boasted mysteriously of leading a double life. The former student clearly recalls Duras appearing at school, flaunting a diamond ring, saying she knew a rich man. This incident represents one contact point between her fiction and the truth. Yet another lycée classmate said, “I just don’t understand this story about a Chinese lover. It wasn’t like today. There were no lovers, especially not Chinese lovers.”

One boarder at the Duras domicile described the mother as a strict teacher able to keep order among her unruly charges; she took him to mass every Sunday. A school counselor described her mother as a great teacher:


The mad queen of desperate poverty? With kids in 1906

“They worship her in Indochina because she’s so dedicated to her profession. She has educated thousands of children … They say she has never given up on a child, not until he could read and write. She would hold classes late into the evening for children she knew would someday be workers … when students lived too far away to go home in the evening, she had them sleep at her house on mats in the living room, or in the school’s playroom…”

The mad queen of desperate poverty? Not quite. And yet the counselor’s account comes from Duras herself, documented in a later memoir. Duras herself is telling the other side of the story, the side that undermines and argues with her own earlier versions.

She didn’t always reverse herself. Duras portrays her mother as crazy and desperate, frozen in time and literature as the tenacious colonial mother struggling to save a disastrous investment in 1950′s The Sea Wall, or the seriously depressed and abusive mother in 1984′s The Lover. But the mother wasn’t only a naïve victim of the French bureaucrats in the Land Registry of Cambodia. Far from languishing in her misfortune, she had become a wealthy woman by the time she returned to France in 1950, sending lots of money to her children. She had launched an upper-crust Saigon boarding school and purchased five houses which had proven to be a lucrative investment. She also trafficked in the Indochina piastres that all whites in the colony went in for, according to Duras’s biographer Laure Adler. She was a resilient self-made woman, more than able to get on her feet again after an economic disaster.

Did the Chinese lover exist? It appears so, but the story changed greatly over the years. InThe Sea Wall, Duras told the story of the teenage Suzanne courted by “Monsieur Jo,” the unattractive, depraved son of a wealthy planter. In this version he is white, not Chinese, and courts his prey in a seedy nightclub. By 1984, he would morph into the more alluring, nameless Chinese millionaire in The Lover.


Is he the “real” lover?

The lover has been identified as Huynh Thuy Le. The mansion with the blue tiles exists: his family home, 140 kilometers southwest of Saigon in Sadec, is now a tourist attraction and welcomes 1,000 visitors a month. The photo shows the gentle, wispy man she describes in the lover, a little wan and eager to please. By the time of her next book on the subject in 1991, The North China Lover, the hero has changed again, and Duras insists that this version is the once-and-for-all “truth”:

The man who gets out of the black limousine is other than the one in the book, but still Manchurian. He is a little different from the one in the book: he’s a little more solid than the other, less frightened than the other, bolder. He is better-looking, more robust. He is more ‘cinematic’ than the one in the book. And he’s also less timid facing the child.

Her trademark gold lamé down-at-the-heel party shoes had turned to black with rhinestones. Overall, the second book is a longer, weaker effort – the result of Duras’s quarrel with film director Jean-Jacques Annaud as they collaborated on the 1992 film of the book. Duras retaliated with The North China Lover as a way of reclaiming her story, she said.

In The North China Lover, the reader hears the sound of coins clinking in the background. The girl admits to her lover:

“On the ferry I saw you covered in gold, in a black car made of gold, with shoes made of gold. I think that’s why I wanted you so badly, right away, on the ferry – but it wasn’t just for that, I’m sure of it. Or maybe it was the gold I wanted, all the same, without knowing it.”

When the lover’s father insists that the affair is finito and that the son negotiate the payment of the family’s debts, the mother and lover talk money in a congenial tête-à-tête. She is not selling her daughter’s sexual services, but bargaining the payment for her departure.


The Mekong ferry boat existed, anyway.

The discovery of an undated notebook after Duras’s death in 1996 sheds new light on the affair. The notebook, most likely written during the war and not intended for publication, discloses a very different version of what happened. The lover, Léo, is no longer Chinese, but Annamese – native Vietnamese, socially a cut below the Chinese, who were a cut below the French. If the affair created a scandal, this greater social distance would have exacerbated it. In this telling, the lover is ugly – Duras is blunt about that. His face is badly scarred by smallpox. “He was much uglier than your average Annamese,” she wrote, “but his taste in clothes was impeccable.” She came to like him, but resisted his sexual overtures. After two years, they had sex, once, and she was revolted.

The hints of prostitution in the other books become even more open here. The mother is waiting for her after her sexless assignations, to see how much money she had been given. The girl learns to ask for more. Léo is on to the game and finds it squalid and distasteful


The lover’s house with blue tiles … now a tourist attraction.

It’s hard to square the elegant Chinese wastrel who described in The Lover with the ugly, pockmarked Vietnamese Léo she describes in these private writings. While some have doubted that the lover existed, perhaps no one so far has asked if there might have been two, entwined into one character in her fiction. After all, in The Lover, the Chinese man prophesies that the girl will never be faithful to one man. In The Sea Wall, the patient Monsieur Jo is juggled with another lover, Jean Agnosti. Could there have been another lover? Perhaps one before and after the trip to France in 1931? Duras died in 1996; we may never know the truth, and we don’t need to.

With her books, the adult looks back on the skinny teenager who was little more than an economic bargaining chip. She creates instead a powerful alter ego and heroine – one who, at 15, could take control over a much older and more sexually experienced lover, determining when the relationship would begin, and how it would proceed, touch by touch, kiss by kiss. Duras turns a sordid affair, with the smell of money in the background, into a tale of timeless eroticism.

pantheon-coverBiographer Adler writes, “The lover fails to separate mother and daughter, or to make the girl exist apart from her brothers. But he does offer her another life: that of writing. For the lover is the first to hear and believe that the child wants to become a writer. The affair with the lover disconnected Marguerite from the family group. While she was living the experience, she was thinking it, already selecting words so that she could write about it later. All her life, in one form or another, Marguerite never stopped telling the story of the lover.”

In the end, The Lover is a work of art more than it is a memoir. And the bigger creation is the one in Duras’s head: the invention of a deathless love that reverberates through a lifetime.

Stanford’s “Another Look” spotlights Marguerite Duras’ The Lover

Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014

Stanford’s book club honors the famous French writer’s centenary with a May 12 discussion of The Lover, her autobiographical tale of her scandalous teenage affair with an older Chinese millionaire, set in her native Saigon. Read more below.


pantheon-coverLong before most Americans could find Vietnam on a map, the French ruled Indochina, and its Chinese, French, and native Annamese denizens lived in an unequal colonial stew. So when a 15-year-old French schoolgirl had a passionate affair with a wealthy 27-year-old Chinese lover in Saigon, it created a scandal. The affair eventually became a book, and the book became a masterpiece.

The writer, Marguerite Duras, would tell the story again and again, throughout her lifetime, but never more compellingly than in The Lover, which received a prestigious Prix Goncourt when it was published in 1984, and sold two million copies.

Now, in Marguerite Duras’s centenary year, the “Another Look” book club is celebrating the author and her book at 7:30 p.m., Monday, May 12, at the Stanford Humanities Center’s Levinthal Hall. The panel will be moderated by Blakey Vermeule, professor of English, with her colleague Paula Moya, professor of English, and Stephen Seligman, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of California, San Francisco. The event is free and open to the public.

Vermeule had read the short novel as a high school student, but on rereading it, “I was gobsmacked,” she said. “It’s one of these masterpieces that gets rediscovered again and again. It’s a very intense book, so powerful it had slipped my mind what a truly great and subtle work of art it is.” With the centenary, she thought it was an excellent moment to revisit the book the New York Times Book Review had called “powerful, authentic, completely successful … perfect.”

Duras’ simple, terse writing style reads “as if language itself were merely a vehicle for conveying passion and desire, pain and despair,” wrote British author and journalist Alan Riding. “The mysteries of love and sex consumed her, but she had no room for sentimentality in her works, or indeed, in her life.”

“I write about love, yes, but not about tenderness,” she had told him in a 1990 New York Times interview. “I don’t like tender people. I myself am very harsh. When I love someone, I desire them. But tenderness supposes the exclusion of desire.”


A presidential pal

Duras was born in Gia Dinh, near Saigon. Her father fell ill and returned to France, where he died. Her widowed mother, a teacher, was bankrupted in a shady land deal. The family struggled as impoverished colonials in a small tight-knit, gossiping community. Duras recalls an abusive mother who had severe bouts with depression, a drug-addicted brother who beat his sister fiercely and stole from the family (and even its servants), and a beloved younger brother who died young. When she met a Chinese millionaire on the ferry crossing the Mekong River, the teenager saw a doorway to a different world. The affair continued until Duras returned to France to finish her education at 18.

In France, she worked in the French Résistance in a team under the direction future French President François Mitterand, who remained a lifelong friend. After the war, she became a member of the French Communist Party. Duras is often categorized with the writers of the postwar “nouveau roman,” a movement that loosened the grip of plot- and character-driven narrative, blurring the boundaries of time and space, but Duras resists easy categorization. She experimented with novels, plays, films, essays, journalism, and memoir. She was fascinated, in particular, by the possibilities of film, most notably writing the screenplay for Alain Resnais‘s 1960 classic, Hiroshima, Mon Amour.

She wrote The Lover at 70, when she had become a tiny old woman, her body wracked by alcoholism and cigarettes, giving interviews often read like a parody of what a French avant-garde writer is expected to sound like. She told the story in different ways with widely divergent details, so much so that until the discovery of an unpublished diary, there could be doubts that the affair had happened at all.

“She had an intensive, almost anti-social capacity to tell the story the way she wanted to tell it, in all its violence and ugliness,” said Vermeule. “The need to be utterly solitary, and socially antipathetic – very rarely does one see it in women writers. It’s not a pose they claim,” she said.

“This book is so very psychoanalytic. She’s clearly under that spell. Look at the nonlinearity of the story. As narrrator, she is almost dissociated from herself, moving from first to third person and back.”


The 1992 film that irked her…

Duras quarreled with film director Jean-Jacques Annaud as they collaborated on the 1992 film of the book, and retaliated with 1991’s The North China Lover, as a way of reclaiming her story. But no version before or since had the luster of The Lover. According to Stanford scholar Marilyn Yalom writing in How the French Invented Love, “She could transform a somewhat sordid affair into a mutually passionate romance and project into posterity her vision of love as an irresistable force that penetrates through the skin, regardless of its color.”

That vision continues to transfix readers, and The Lover continues to draw fans, decades after its first publication. In The Independent, South African playright and novelist Deborah Levy wrote in 2011, “The Lover does not just portray a forbidden sexual encounter of mind-blowing passion and intensity; it is also an essay on memory, death, desire and how colonialism messes up everyone.”

“Marguerite Duras was a reckless thinker, an egomaniac, a bit preposterous really. I believe she had to be. When she walks her bold but ‘puny’ female subject in her gold lamé shoes into the arms of her Chinese millionaire, Duras never covertly apologises for the moral or psychological way that she exists.”


The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have gotten the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of the Bay Area readers whose time may be limited. Registration at the website is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.