Pages: Marguerite Duras’
Writer: Ruthanne Minoru
Editor: Rachel Hurn
Rejection is either an act or a state of being. Marguerite Duras explores both in “The Lover,” an autobiography that itself rejects conventional prose and linear narrative. “One of the things writing does is wipe things out,” notes Duras, who expertly sculpts her tapestry of memories into a book of striking emotional depth.
A poor French girl in prewar Vietnam, Duras’ poverty and race make her an outsider everywhere she goes. At 15, she falls in love with another outsider, a rich Chinese man, the son of a millionaire. Duras and her lover exist on the periphery of society, but they quickly realize their exclusion is not of the same type. Where one is accepted, the other is not. Duras’ whiteness offers her some privileges in Vietnam, such as admittance at the state boarding school, but when the news of her affair spreads, the other students are told not to speak to her. She is marginalized further—both poor and a “slut.”
As Duras comes of age, she discovers that rejection has real teeth. Her mother warns her that because of her lover, she will never get married in the colony, where “everything gets known.” But she also discovers that rejection is not absolute. Both possessions and people can be transformed. Rejection can be accompanied by freedom, and what one person rejects can be beloved by another. Duras realizes that even she, as a young girl, possesses this transformative power.
Throughout the book, she wears a man’s felt fedora and gold lamé shoes, all her clothes purchased at their final markdown. Rather than feeling shame in her odd outfit, Duras feels glamorous. In these clothes, inadequacy “turns into something else…a choice of the mind.” She knows that the hat and shoes contradict each other and her small body, but she wears them everywhere and on every occasion. They become precious. Duras uses the power of her body to endorse her independence, her rebellion.
People, she finds, are not as simple. As the obstacles to their relationship increase, Duras and her lover succumb to social pressures. When her lover’s father forbids their marriage, stating he would rather see his son dead than married to a “white layabout,” Duras meets this dismissal with her own, and insists she would not have married him anyway. Her family also disapproves, calling him “so ugly, such a weakling,” and Duras denies their intimacy, claiming to use him for his money. Later, she weeps in private.
“Very early in my life it was too late,” she writes. “I’ve…never done anything but wait outside the closed door.” And yet, much of what “The Lover” reveals is the fallibility of assumptions about when it is “too late.” Years later, when Duras is an old woman, a man tells her, “Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young. I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then.” After the war, marriages, children, and divorce, when she has left Vietnam and moved to France, Duras and her lover reconnect. He calls her to say “that it was as before, that he still loved her, that he could never stop loving her, that he’d love her until death.”