Befogged with influenza, shivering slightly despite a blazing fire, reading The Lover, by Marguerite Duras, seemed fitting. Short enough for a single sitting and exotic enough to take me away from ‘flu-riddled England, a perfect afternoon’s reading.
Duras, a favourite of mine from a lifetime ago, often writes autobiographically.
In the books I’ve written about my childhood I can’t remember, suddenly, what I left out, what I said. I think I wrote about our love for our mother, but I don’t know if I wrote about how we hated her too, or about our love for one another, and our terrible hatred too, in that common family history of ruin and death which was ours whatever happened, in love or in hate, and which I still can’t understand however hard I try, which is still beyond my reach, hidden in the very depths of my flesh, blind as a newborn child.
Living in Vietnam, our fifteen and a half-year old narrator, wearing a threadbare silk dress, gold lamé shoes and a brownish-pink fedora, attracts the attention of a wealthy Chinese businessman.
I already know a thing or two. I know it’s not clothes that make women beautiful or otherwise, nor beauty care, nor expensive creams, nor the distinction or costliness of their finery. I know the problem lies elsewhere. I don’t know where. I only know it isn’t where women think.
Duras’s stripped-down, forthright prose is perfect for these compact stories, the brutality revealed in layers. The opening paragraph ends with a comment from an acquaintance, “Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.” A few pages on and Duras adds:
Now I see that when I was very young, eighteen, fifteen, I already had a face that foretold the one I acquired through drink in middle age. Drink accomplished what God did not. It also served to kill me; to kill. I acquired that drinker’s face before I drank. Drink only confirmed it.