When I was fifteen, during a layover in a sprawling airport, I picked up a book that changed me forever, as hyperbolic as that sounds. Marguerite Duras’s The Lover solidified my desire to become a writer, God help me. To try and emulate the protagonist, who was also fifteen, also traveling, crossing the Mekong river in Indochina. Crossing and re-crossing, because Duras is a writer of spirals; she dips toward and veers away from her subject, touches on pain then runs. How terrible for my parents that I found this book, that I began to harbor fantasies of wearing a man’s hat and taking lovers. How terrible for my future that I realized “writer” might be an occupation, that it might accompany a life of questionable romantic choices, drinking, and odd sartorial selections—ah, those gold lamé shoes she wears on the boat, those inappropriately adult clothes for a young girl.
Had I just picked up something else that day, I could have been respectable. Instead, I decided to follow the example of a French author who was at times in her life a severe alcoholic, who worked for the Vichy government, who aided the Resistance, whose husband was sent to a concentration camp, who claimed she tortured a French collaborator, and who played fast and loose with the truth. She didn’t exactly lie—one senses that Duras always believed herself, even as she told dramatically different versions of the same autobiographical stories. The events in The Lover are retold in The North China Lover and in various other books. The lover himself is sometimes ugly, sometimes handsome. She acknowledges past versions, disavows them, erases then reframes them to suit her often self-serving needs.
Much of The Lover concerns memory, how we fill in the pieces that are missing with bits that please us, how we know things we couldn’t possibly know, and how we invent the past in our minds. How we self-deceive. I reread The Lover every few years. Every time I do, I notice things I missed before. The book is a litmus test for me—I tell someone I love that it is my book, my most important book. I see if they read it. Only two men I’ve loved ever have, and I married each of them. The other ones? I suspect them of not really wanting to know me. I’m convinced in some way that the book is me, not because I am like the protagonist (though in some ways I am), not because the home life described was my childhood (though in some ways it was), nor because my experience of love is like that in the book (though it has been at times), but because I view the world as a constant negotiation between our present self and our past self. And just so, the book tells its story through a series of vignettes, pieces, and scraps assembled and reassembled in different orders. And oh, that language, the spare words, the unsaid. That girl on the cusp of adulthood, and that old woman looking back at her, rewriting the past self into something the present can live with.
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