I was seventeen years old when I read The Lover for the first time. It was the autumn of 1984, the book had just come out, and people were talking about it a lot, saying that Duras would end up winning the Prix Goncourt. I had never read Duras. I only knew that she was old. The book even begins with a description of her age: she says she has a face ‘scored with wrinkles’. She stresses that – her wrinkles, her beauty lost to this so visible ageing – she even speaks about a ‘ravaged’ face; and then, just after, in a short paragraph, she writes: ‘So, I’m fifteen and a half, on a ferry crossing the Mekong river’, and in one sentence, one single sentence, I find myself catapulted to Indochina at the end of the 1930s. There I am, on the ferry with a young girl in the fullness of youth, a young girl with her infernal beauty suddenly restored, while her Indochinese lover awaits his cue, just the other side of the rail, comfortable in his luxury car.
Afterwards, it never stopped, I was transported, as though I were being swept along by the muddy waters of a rushing river, captivated by this story of skin, bodies, sweat, secret embraces, by this fevered love that takes place behind shutters, by the scandal of this love affair because the young girl is so young, because the lover belongs to the colonized people. I was fascinated too, of course, by the madness of the mother who fights in vain against the elements, against the Pacific, by the violence of the elder brother, which can surface at any moment, by the fragility of the younger brother, by death prowling in the vicinity, by the fatality that bears down on each character. I trembled at the final moment of separation, when the brazen girl, now almost a woman, stands on the deck of the ocean liner, returning to France for good; and yet separation was predestined in the story, it was even its condition. And I burst into tears reading the last lines: ‘he still loved her, he could never stop loving her, he would love her until his death’.
I have reread the book a dozen times. Really. That’s not a number plucked from thin air. And every time I experience the same amazement. Every time. By now I know the text by heart, I shouldn’t be surprised, and yet I am; it’s an eternal renewal.
When, thirty years after my first reading, I threw myself into writing Lie With Me, it’s The Lover that I placed in front of me, on my desk, in plain view. The 1984 edition, yellowed, dog-eared, stained. I knew that I was going to write about my seventeen-year-old self, about what happened the year I turned seventeen, and I have never forgotten that that was the year I read The Lover for the first time. But there was something else: I had understood that I was going to call forth my memories, like Duras did, that I was going to write about the memory of adolescence, like Duras. And that, above all, I was going to write about how the events that came to pass changed everything, absolutely everything in my life, how nothing was the same afterwards.
‘I was her. The child who offers herself up, with false innocence, that was me. And the lover relegated to the shadows, to obscurity, that was him, the same one to whom I offered myself.’
I knew straight away that I would move away from places and moments, like Duras. So, you understand, I was not trying to imitate her – that would have been grotesque, and I could never reach her heights. No, I only wanted her to be with me, all the time, for her to guide me, her voice to guide me, her way of recounting things to guide me.
I wanted to approach that uncertain age, adolescence, when everything seems possible and everything is forbidden, like she knew how. I wanted to express how burgeoning love carries everything in its path. And I had to describe the dizzying secrecy, how necessary it was to hide our relationship, to stay silent, because we too were a scandal, outcasts, in our own way. I had to say that sexuality took the place of everything else, like in the story, that our bodies were our own unique language. I had to say that our love was destined to fail from the very first moment and yet that is why we launched ourselves into it. I had to talk about the weight of family, the family who turn a blind eye or the family who condemn, and explain that we were the victims of our environment and of our education. All of this was in complete and utter harmony with the tale of young Marguerite.
And then, finally, I understood why the shock of my first reading had been so violent. I was her. The child who offers herself up, with false innocence, that was me. And the lover relegated to the shadows, to obscurity, that was him, the same one to whom I offered myself. The young girl who wants to ‘write books, novels’ and to whom her mother, a teacher, replies ‘after your diploma in mathematics’, that was me, obeying my teacher father when he demanded that I spend long years studying rather than acting the clown. The one who receives, too late, the proof that she was loved, that was me, discovering a confession of lost love in an unsent letter.
And their Indochina was our Charente. Their far away, restricted world, beginning to fall apart, that was my own world, which was withering, quietly dying. The disdainful gaze of the indigenous people, I felt that too. You can never forget what it is like to walk in disgrace.
And their 1930s were our 1980s. Because they marked, for each of us, the end of innocence and the necessity of joining the adult world. And because they were a time of menace, war here, plague there.
In the end, it was only transposition. All that happened was a slight shift of terrain. Otherwise it was all the same. Marguerite Duras, in writing The Lover, had written my story.
Writers write our story, believing they write their own. When they are at their most intimate, they are at their most universal. When they give away everything about themselves, they speak for all of us. The emotions they felt, we felt them too. We recognize their desires, their regrets, their defeats and their indefatigable hopes because they are our own. This is the great story of literature: it holds up a mirror.
Let me tell you: sometimes, I would like to return to that moment in 1984 when I opened The Lover for the first time, not yet knowing what was to come, the amazement that would follow. I would like to be that boy again, standing on the edge of a precipice, about to throw himself into the void and learn to fly in the same movement.
Translated from the French by Isabel Wall.