When I was asked if I wanted to write about The Lover for its 30th anniversary, I said yes immediately, despite having never read it. Most people would assume that I, like many sad young literary women, love this novella. And considering the reverential awe it inspires among my cohort, that's pretty fair.
Published in French in 1984 and in English the following year, The Lover is often called an autobiographical novel, though that's not really what it is. It's more of a memoir, heavy on the memory, which means it's more subjective than factually accurate. Its author, the Marguerite Duras, wrote it when she was 71, after a long career during which she influenced the new French novel, an experimental literary movement that, like French New Wave, rejected traditional narrative concerns like plot and character development. She called the book "shit" and "train-station literature" and said she wrote it while she was drunk. It won France's biggest literary prize and sold over a million copies in more than 40 languages.
It was inevitable that I would eventually read The Lover, if not this week then at least sometime during my tumultuous 20s, a time when sexual awakening is distant enough to not be humiliating, but recent enough to justify a fixation. Before I read it, I understood the book to be about a poor 15-year-old French girl's coming-of-age via an illicit affair with a wealthy 27-year-old Chinese man in pre-war Indochina, which is appealing for several obvious reasons. (The headline for the 1985 People review of the novel: "France's Marguerite Duras Unveils a Secret Love Affair 55 Years Later in Her Sensual Best-Seller .") But wait, there's more: The Lover is one of those rare sensual, secret-love-affair best-sellers that is also stylistically rigorous, or challenging, or at least worthy of the vague but still meaningful literary designation.
I realized I had never encountered a person who didn't love this book until last week, when I went to see a panel discuss it in a performance space on the Upper West Side, also in honor of its 30th anniversary. The participants were as follows: a funny, well-versed French New Yorker editor (female), who played the role of expert; a good-natured younger novelist (female), who sort of played the role of moderator; a postmodern feminist critic and novelist (female), who played the role of die-hard fan; and a respected writer who recently published a novel with a similarly closely autobiographical bent and even more recently was announced as one of the recipients of a very prestigious arts fellowship (male). As in life, the French person seemed like she had it right, and the man was a contrarian hater.
Not easily swayed by what sounds in synopses like soap opera, the hater (Akhil Sharma) criticized Duras to the incredulity of the postmodern feminist critic (Kate Zambreno) and the bemusement of the French New Yorker editor (Françoise Mouly): Duras's language was "enigmatic due to grammar and… awkwardness"; the "lack of wisdom in the reflection" felt "unearned"; he was "not sure what to take away." The younger novelist (Catherine Lacey) was good-natured, but skeptical. The French New Yorker editor was funny and appeared to know much more about Marguerite Duras, The Lover, and everything than anyone else in the room, or anywhere. The postmodern feminist critic was flabbergasted and kept saying that the book (which she said she'd read pretty much every year since she first found it) was "magical," that various aspects of it had just "struck" her.
That kind of emotional appeal has rarely, if ever, worked on a contrarian (male) hater, but it's in keeping with the popular opinion. People talk about The Lover as if it's not a book but some kind of spiritual experience. The cover of my copy calls it, in a small serif font that is both whimsical and definitive, "THE HYPNOTIC BEST-SELLER." I can see why someone might find it undeservedly hazy, though I think you have to go into the reading experience as a hater to end up feeling that way. The Lover is both very specific and very vague, and it ranges wide in time and perspective. You're just as likely to run into passages on abstract concepts—"desire," "despair"—as you are very concrete sex scenes. Duras switches from first person to third, from the reflection of an older woman to the narrative of the young girl. It requires a couple of reads to get the hang of. But when a funny, well-versed French New Yorker editor agrees with a postmodern feminist critic that part of a book's appeal is simply its "magic," shouldn't you try to understand that special quality for yourself?
Yes, sentimental attachment is also a part of it. Discussion of The Lover is almost always framed with personal narrative: "I was [insert 20-something age here] when I first read …" begin the laudatory essays. Even the good-natured younger novelist started the panel by asking her fellow participants to describe how they felt the first time they'd read it. Reading The Lover becomes an after-the-fact milestone for people, particularly for women. The book is a part of its readers' life stories, immediately and forever associated with whatever point they picked it up, with particular relationships, or breakups, or epiphanies, or sex.
For most of the way, I got it, sort of, but not really. I wasn't hypnotized, though I did think, Oh, great line, many times. I probably wanted to be ambivalent because contrarian haterism is easy. It wasn't necessarily the ending itself—though that is devastating, in a romantic way it embarrasses me to admit—but the culmination of the specificity and vagueness, the abstract concepts and the concrete sex scenes, had changed my mind by the ending. To say The Lover is about an illicit affair does the book a real disservice. Though blessedly short, Duras's "enigmatic" perspective manages to also cover family, childhood, memory, class, pre-war Indochina, etc. If you've read it, you probably know what I'm talking about. If you haven't read it, well, you should.
Lauren Oyler is a staff writer for Broadly. Follow her on Twitter.