By CYNTHIA HAVEN
“I swear it. I swear all of it. I have never lied in a book. Or even in my life. Except to men. Never.”
With these words, Marguerite Duras penned a categorical denial of any fanciful invention in her many autobiographical novels and films. One ponders the odd qualification: admitting she “only” lied to men implies she was willing to deceive half the human race.
The denial invites the question: Did she ever tell the truth? She says she was ostracized for her reckless teenage affair with an older Chinese millionaire – yet one classmate remembers Marguerite as secretive and well-behaved, though she boasted mysteriously of leading a double life. The former student clearly recalls Duras appearing at school, flaunting a diamond ring, saying she knew a rich man. This incident represents one contact point between her fiction and the truth. Yet another lycée classmate said, “I just don’t understand this story about a Chinese lover. It wasn’t like today. There were no lovers, especially not Chinese lovers.”
One boarder at the Duras domicile described Duras’s mother as a strict teacher able to keep order among her unruly charges; she took him to mass every Sunday. A school counselor described her mother as a great teacher:
“They worship her in Indochina because she’s so dedicated to her profession. She has educated thousands of children … They say she has never given up on a child, not until he could read and write. She would hold classes late into the evening for children she knew would someday be workers … when students lived too far away to go home in the evening, she had them sleep at her house on mats in the living room, or in the school’s playroom…”
The mad queen of desperate poverty? Not quite. And yet the counselor’s account comes from Duras herself, documented in a later memoir. Duras herself is telling the other side of the story, the side that undermines and argues with her own earlier versions.
She didn’t always reverse herself. Duras portrays her mother as crazy and desperate, frozen in time and literature as the tenacious colonial mother struggling to save a disastrous investment in 1950′s The Sea Wall, or the seriously depressed and abusive mother in 1984′s The Lover. But the mother wasn’t only a naïve victim of the French bureaucrats in the Land Registry of Cambodia. Far from languishing in her misfortune, she had become a wealthy woman by the time she returned to France in 1950, sending lots of money to her children. She had launched an upper-crust Saigon boarding school and purchased five houses which had proven to be a lucrative investment. She also trafficked in the Indochina piastres that all whites in the colony went in for, according to Duras’s biographer Laure Adler. She was a resilient self-made woman, more than able to get on her feet again after an economic disaster.
Did the Chinese lover exist? It appears so, but the story changed greatly over the years. In The Sea Wall, Duras told the story of the teenage Suzanne courted by “Monsieur Jo,” the unattractive, depraved son of a wealthy planter. In this version he is white, not Chinese, and courts his prey in a seedy nightclub. By 1984, he would morph into the more alluring, nameless Chinese millionaire in The Lover.
The lover has been identified as Huynh Thuy Le. The mansion with the blue tiles exists: his family home, 140 kilometers southwest of Saigon in Sadec, is now a tourist attraction and welcomes 1,000 visitors a month. The photo shows the gentle, wispy man she describes in the lover, a little wan and eager to please. By the time of her next book on the subject in 1991, The North China Lover, the hero has changed again, and Duras insists that this version is the once-and-for-all “truth”:
The man who gets out of the black limousine is other than the one in the book, but still Manchurian. He is a little different from the one in the book: he’s a little more solid than the other, less frightened than the other, bolder. He is better-looking, more robust. He is more ‘cinematic’ than the one in the book. And he’s also less timid facing the child.
Her trademark gold lamé down-at-the-heel party shoes had turned to black with rhinestones. Overall, the second book is a longer, weaker effort – the result of Duras’s quarrel with film director Jean-Jacques Annaud as they collaborated on the 1992 film of the book. Duras retaliated with The North China Lover as a way of reclaiming her story, she said.
In The North China Lover, the reader hears the sound of coins clinking in the background. The girl admits to her lover:
“On the ferry I saw you covered in gold, in a black car made of gold, with shoes made of gold. I think that’s why I wanted you so badly, right away, on the ferry – but it wasn’t just for that, I’m sure of it. Or maybe it was the gold I wanted, all the same, without knowing it.”
When the lover’s father insists that the affair is finito and that the son negotiate the payment of the family’s debts, the mother and lover talk money in a congenial tête-à-tête. She is not selling her daughter’s sexual services, but bargaining the payment for her departure.
The discovery of an undated notebook after Duras’s death in 1996 sheds new light on the affair. The notebook, most likely written during the war and not intended for publication, discloses a very different version of what happened. The lover, Léo, is no longer Chinese, but Annamese – native Vietnamese, socially a cut below the Chinese, who were a cut below the French. If the affair created a scandal, this greater social distance would have exacerbated it. In this telling, the lover is ugly – Duras is blunt about that. His face is badly scarred by smallpox. “He was much uglier than your average Annamese,” she wrote, “but his taste in clothes was impeccable.” She came to like him, but resisted his sexual overtures. After two years, they had sex, once, and she was revolted.
The hints of prostitution in the other books become even more open here. The mother is waiting for her after her sexless assignations, to see how much money she had been given. The girl learns to ask for more. Léo is on to the game and finds it squalid and distasteful
It’s hard to square the elegant Chinese wastrel who described in The Lover with the ugly, pockmarked Vietnamese Léo she describes in these private writings. While some have doubted that the lover existed, perhaps no one so far has asked if there might have been two, entwined into one character in her fiction. After all, in The Lover, the Chinese man prophesies that the girl will never be faithful to one man. In The Sea Wall, the patient Monsieur Jo is juggled with another lover, Jean Agnosti. Could there have been another lover? Perhaps one before and after the trip to France in 1931? Duras died in 1996; we may never know the truth, and we don’t need to.
With her books, the adult looks back on the skinny teenager who was little more than an economic bargaining chip. She creates instead a powerful alter ego and heroine – one who, at 15, could take control over a much older and more sexually experienced lover, determining when the relationship would begin, and how it would proceed, touch by touch, kiss by kiss. Duras turns a sordid affair, with the smell of money in the background, into a tale of timeless eroticism.
Biographer Adler writes, “The lover fails to separate mother and daughter, or to make the girl exist apart from her brothers. But he does offer her another life: that of writing. For the lover is the first to hear and believe that the child wants to become a writer. The affair with the lover disconnected Marguerite from the family group. While she was living the experience, she was thinking it, already selecting words so that she could write about it later. All her life, in one form or another, Marguerite never stopped telling the story of the lover.”
In the end, The Lover is a work of art more than it is a memoir. And the bigger creation is the one in Duras’s head: the invention of a deathless love that reverberates through a lifetime.