MARGUERITE DURAS' The Lover -- a best seller last summer in Europe, and her biggest success ever -- is an old fashioned colonialist romance, with a difference. Duras, who is best known in America for her script of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, has for many decades been a leading figure in the vanguard of French fiction and film. She is now 71 years old, and the intensely autobiographical tone of this novel has convinced many readers that Duras is herself both the "ravaged" writer portrayed as relating it, and the nymphet of 50 years ago who is at the center of its love story.
The colonial scene is French Indochina. Our coquettish little heroine is a vision most lovingly recalled from that past. An irresistible child of 15 steps off the Mekong ferry in Saigon, a slender, wispy poor-kid, who has cooked up her schoolgirl high style from scraps and pieces. A man's fedora swims on her head. She wears a silk dress (from the bargain basement), tied with one of her brother's leather belts. She cannot be separated from her gold lam,e shoes -- just the thing for her trudge to school. She is a little belle on the verge of everything, and she is being watched there at the ferry dock from inside the depths of a long black limousine. The watcher is another vision. A 27-year-old Chinese rich-boy, who watches her aching with an outsider's love.
The stage of memory is set.
Chinese rich-boy approaches Caucasion poor-girl. The chauffeur drives them to the Chinese quarter of Saigon, where in his own apartment they become lovers, first tentative, then eager, then insatiable. Duras' images may come from real life, but they are also classic. Were The Lover an English novel, we would invoke Somerset Maugham or, mutatis mutandis, The Jewel in the Crown. Not only do we have the long black limousine, we have the teeming native quarters, sunlight seeping through slatted shutters, along with the odors of meat roasting on coal braziers, of jasmine and incense. The lovers' moans cover the clatter of rickshaws and clogs, the shouting from the streets and bazaars. There is whiskey and black silk robes and white suits. Beneath those Casablanca fans, the sex is clean and smooth- skinned and for-the-first-time. The two lovers weep in each others' arms. A lot. From her lover's hairless skin Duras recalls inhaling the scent of English cigarettes, perfume, honey.
OF COURSE their romance is doomed. Each family -- both outsiders among the Vietnamese -- views the other with equally lethal racial contempt. Meanwhile, the girl's mother is hounded by almost uncanny incompetence and bad luck and her two brothers, one brutish, the other sweet but dim, are ne'er-do-wells.
The boy's rich father, "glued to his opium pipe," loathes "the little white whore." To win over the girl's family, the lover invites them to an expensive restaurant, where the oafish brothers gorge themselves without once speaking, even to thank their despised host, and the mother breaks into neurotic laughter when he pays the tab. A good scene. Driven into secrecy, the lovers' game grows more erotic and elaborate. But within a year and a half, the dotty mother will drag what is left of her family back to France, and the girl's first affair will be over.
The girl is mother to the woman. The novelist portrayed as writing The Lover describes herself as "ravaged" by age and, especially, drink. So it has been in real life with Duras. It's a quite widely publicized fact that several years ago Duras experienced what is called in Alcoholics Anonymous "touching bottom." Near death from alcoholism, she entered a detoxification clnic and emerged, sober, to resume her work, notably writing this book.
The shadow of self-destruction lies across this novel. It begins with a description of Duras' "ravaged" face in such contrast to the perfect freshness of that distant girl with her large watchful eyes. (It helps that in France Duras is famous enough for many readers to know that face. For others, her publishers have disseminated all kinds of photographs of their author, girl and woman. One includes her, pretty and eighteen, sitting beside a brother in old Saigon. And, by God, there it is -- that wide brimmed hat.) We follow that shattered trail of her family, as the sweet brother dies in Indochina and the brutish one dies brutishly amid wreckage and debt. The bereft and homeless mother moves between France and Vietnam as if dazed. Only the girl moves on to success and eminence. And the ravaging of that face.
The Lover is an intensely romantic book, and romance -- since there can even be a certain romance in self-destruction -- doubtess accounts for its great success. It does indeed have perfection of a kind, though I would call it a perfection of elegance rather than of depth. Duras' style is indebted to the classic French recit and Madame de Lafayette is one of her leading mentors. The relation between its love story and the harsh truths to come is the source of its power, and that relation is seen as a classic link between passion and a will to self- destruction. The story unfolds in a repetitive, incantatory style (admirers of Hiroshima, Mon Amour will recognize it) which suggests to me what the psychotherapist must hear -- the compulsive return to the same set of stories, enlarging and unfolding them in steps as more is recovered. And indeed recovery, in the dual sense of recuperation from and recapture of the past, is a major theme of the book.
I am not sure the formal perfection of this novel entirely compensates for its lack of scope. If it is indeed an act of recovery, what it very elegantly leaves unexplored is a long ravaging look at the lower depths which Duras invokes without quite steeling herself to recall. In a recently published profile of Duras by the French novelist Michel Tournier, we learn that hallucinating in the detox clinic, she imaged herself pursued by a terrifying Chinese man. The suggestion is that this awful avenger has been recovered in the writing as the sweet, life-promising lover we meet here. So the demon is retrieved as lover -- and so be it; it is a rich and powerful transaction, worthy of a great novel. The Lover is a very good novel indeed, and it may be presumptuous to ask for more, but I would feel the power of its recovery more if we were given a clearer view of the depths from which its sweetness is retrieved.