Inspired by Richard's commitment to multi-lingual reading and blogging, I've decided to try to work on my languages as well, and read more novels in the original French. How many is "more"? Well, last year I read a grand total of one. So, in order to top that, this year I'll need to read...two. Maybe the year after that I'll read three. As you can tell, I'm practically signing up for À la recherche du temps perdu already.
Considering that last year's pick, J.M.G. Le Clézio's Ourania, was something of a struggle for me and took several months to complete, I'm startled to find that I've already finished my first French book of 2010: Marguerite Duras's L'amant de la chine du nord (available in English translation as The North China Lover). Duras's book is actually a re-working of her earlier novel L'amant; it re-envisions the story as a film, and retells it from a more complete, possibly mature angle. Both L'amant and L'amant de la chine du nord are fictionalized memoirs dealing with Duras's sexual coming-of-age as a young - very young - Frenchwoman in 1920s Vietnam (then French Indochina). Well, let me be blunter: it tells the story of her first consummated affair, with a wealthy 28-year-old Chinese man, when she was fourteen.
Given that plot there's obviously a lot to talk about here vis-a-vis sexual and gender dynamics, but let's get some formalist stuff out of the way first: Duras's prose is vivid and lush, and the fact that she wrote this novel as if giving screen directions (including camera pans, fade-ins and fade-outs, etc.), makes the reading experience overwhelmingly visual. This kind of narration is often a turn-off for me; I tend to find it choppy or overly mannered. But in Duras's case I think it works perfectly for two reasons. In the first place, this is one of those books in which the setting is almost as much of a character as the characters themselves. The hot monsoon nights, the flooded rice fields, the night sounds of the young Vietnamese night guards singing outside the gates of the main character's colonial boarding school - presenting all this to the audience front-and-center brings it to the foreground, and persuades the reader to concentrate on it, to see it. And secondly, in a film all the viewer knows about a character's motivations is how she sees them acting - she has no direct access to their interior monologue. A cinematic approach, then, plays perfectly into one of Duras's main themes in this novel: the ambiguity of human actions.
For L'amant de la chine du nord does not leave the reader with any clear answers about why the characters act as they do, or how we ought to feel about it. Compared to, say, Lolita, which argues pretty plainly for Humbert as a delusional, dirty old man and Delores Haze as his victim, Duras's moral universe is extremely murky. The main character, known only as "l'enfant" ("the child"), comes from a desperately poor family of French settlers in Indochina; we later learn that she has already had several offers of marriage/concubinage from men in their thirties, which her mother has pressed her to accept in order to alleviate the family's poverty, but which she has refused. In her boarding school, certain teachers and even students choose to prostitute themselves in the streets. In this light, her meeting with and choice to pursue her wealthy lover (known in the novel as le Chinois or The Chinaman) seems a clear economic decision, the best she can do in a bad situation.
But things are not so simple. There's no question that l'enfant lusts after le Chinois - that her psyche is, in fact, super-saturated with lust. She has incestuous thoughts about her younger brother, with whom she is extremely close. She is already involved in a semi-sexual relationship with one of her female school friends, and the two of them fantasize about taking the place of their prostitute teacher - the idea of forbidden sex being thrilling to them. From practically the moment she meets le Chinois, she is fascinated by his physicality - she is the aggressor in their relationship, and it seems as though she is acting from real feeling, not just aping the actions of adults in order to produce a desired effect.
At the same time, it's not completely positive for her, or comfortable to read; her experiences of actually having sex, especially at first, involve a lot more pain and suffering than pleasure, and she seems perplexed by the strength of Le Chinois's emotions when he falls in love with her. He is weeping about how his magnate father will disinherit him if he marries her, and she is teasing him and wanting him to tell her more about life in China. Duras does a creepily effectual job at blending L'enfant's precocious sensuality and sexuality with certain other, very kid-like, qualities in her. She kind of just wants to experiment and learn about the world, and also to have sex. Would she want to have sex if it weren't for her family's poverty, and the possibility of getting her hands on some of Le Chinois's money? Would she want to have sex if she hadn't been prematurely sexualized by the men who want to buy her from her mother, and by her feelings for her brother, and by the boarding school atmosphere? One can't help asking these questions, but at the same time they're a bit pointless: if those things had been different, she would have been a completely different person.
And here's another thing that's unusual in this type of story: L'enfant and Le Chinois enjoy each others' company. You never get the sense that Lolita and Humbert ever have fun together, but L'enfant and Le Chinois go out late at night to restaurants in the Chinese section of town, tell each other stories, laugh at each others' frankness. To be fair, there is also a lot of crying in the book, and overall it's somewhat melancholic, but unlike Kristin Lavransdatter it also has its fair share of mutual enjoyment of the present moment. And although the affair (inevitably) ends, and everyone feels sad about that for a while, L'enfant doesn't really suffer as a punishment for having sex, in the way that Lolita, Tess Durbyfield, and other literary sexual victims do (dying in childbirth, no less! Talk about sexual punishment). Duras's protagonist goes through a mixed emotional experience and then gets on with her life, but one never gets the sense that she is suffering, or enjoying herself, as a vehicle for the author to make a point about who is right and who is wrong. Duras's book is the most non-judgmental treatment - in either a positive or negative way - of sex between a very young person and an older person, I've ever come across. I wouldn't call it primarily a love story, but neither would I say it's primarily a tale of oppression. (And speaking of oppression: the racial dynamics among the transplanted white French, colonized Vietnamese, and wealthy landowning Chinese are another whole fascinating subject.)
The whole tale brings up interesting questions about the triangulation of love, lust, liking, and money. If L'enfant is more or less engaging in sex work, does that mean she doesn't love Le Chinois? Does it mean she doesn't like him? If her first feeling upon seeing him is one of lust, does that invalidate the money motive? To what extent are the desires for money and sex interwoven? And what should we, as readers, be hoping for as we read this story? Duras allows all of these elements to coexist in uneasy harmony, which in itself is an admirable feat.
(Because of the strong, thought-provoking themes of young female sexuality, I'm counting this novel toward the Women Unbound Challenge.)