on recollection (iv)

I first came across Marguerite Duras during my first year of undergrad, in a comp lit course centering on global coming-of-age narratives dealing with trauma. The class was one of my favorites, and Duras was one of the first writers I came across in college whose work I actually enjoyed reading.

The French author of a great number of books and screenplays, Duras is famous for her cinematic style as well as her tendency to blur the line between fact and fiction. The writer adapted film techniques such as the bird’s eye, jump cut, and long take to literature, and many of her most famous books make art out of her memories of growing up in French Indochina (now Vietnam).

Duras began publishing in the forties, in the midst of WWII, but she rose to prominence during the mid 1950s and early 1960s as a key figure in the Nouveau Roman movement. Early novellas such as The Square anticipated Duras’s signature style, while Moderato Cantabile brought her national fame in 1958.

But the author’s most well-known work is The Lover, released in 1984. The book, which offers a fictional account of an affair Duras had during her teen years with an adult man, was later adapted into a film in 1992. So unhappy with the screenplay was Duras that she rewrote it as The North China Lover, a kind of variation on her original novel.

Earlier in the year, I had the chance to read, or reread, several Duras novels. Mini reviews of three are included below.


Written almost exclusively in dialogue, stitched together by lines of poetic prose, The Square centers on a conversation between an aged man and a young woman, both of the working class. The conversation lasts the length of a day, and happens in a public square; it recalls the past and anticipates the future, and at its core is the question of whether or not change is preferable or even possible. The setting is theatrical, the voices stylized. The novella reads as a philosophical dialogue between two perspectives that clash more than they harmonize. Duras wrote The Square at the onset of the Nouveau Roman movement, decades before she published The Lover, and the influence of existential thought is palpable. The book is a bit dated, but it’s full of affecting moments.

An autobiographical story about an affair between a young French girl and a Chinese man, set near Saigon, The Lover wavers between repression and indulgence. The tone is detached, the description spare, the narrative fragmented; in spite of the the cool aloofness of Duras’s prose, though, the novel is incredibly sensual. Each image glints and radiates a warmth much at odds with the narrator’s emotional reticence. The unnamed French girl’s tendency to return to describing a few central images from her past, capturing them from different angles, lends the photographic text a cyclical and erotic quality. In the end, though, the story is rather disturbing: the girl is exploited by her lover, and her family regularly abuses her. The novel is more of a harrowing survival narrative than a romance, and Duras’s story of her adolescence is well worth reading.

Initially conceived of as notes toward a screenplay for The Lover, The North China Lover instead became a conventional retelling of the original novel. Much of what made the original so fascinating has vanished, from the novel’s fragmented structure to its astute representation of the power dynamics between the French protagonist and her Chinese lover. In this recounting of her adolescence on the outskirts of Saigon, Duras juxtaposes stretches of suggestive dialogue against descriptions of the lush setting, self-reflexively framed as directions for the film adaptation of The Lover. The novel, though easy to read, isn’t especially imaginative or memorable.

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