Marguerite Duras’ book, The North China Lover (published in France by Gallimard), became a literary sensation for two reasons. The first reason was that Duras left Éditions de Minuit, which published The Lover in 1984. That book won the Goncourt prize and sold more than a million copies. The second reason was that the new book tells the exact same story as The Lover and with the same characters – the writer’s mother, her mean older brother, the younger brother who died too soon, and, most of all, the Chinese lover, a rich man of twenty seven who took her virginity when she was fifteen-and-a-half. He was her lover for more than eighteen months. This interview was made in Paris during June, 1991.
Marguerite Duras is still worn out from a recent operation, but she’s enthusiastic about this new literary effort.
Why did you feel the need to rewrite the same story you already told in The Lover?
Did you like the new book? You must have read the preface where I explain that after learning of the death of my Chinese lover in 1990, I felt the need to write the same story in another way.
This book reads more like a novel. It seems like you talk a lot more about your younger brother, Paulo, than about your mother. In The Lover your mother didn’t really know your Chinese lover. In the new book, you reveal that they saw one another. That they talked and liked one another, and it seemed almost as if your mother was fond of him.
My mother considered him almost like a son. I wrote the script four times for Jean Jacques Annaud, who is shooting a film inspired by The Lover. But I don’t like the film Annaud is making. It’s too commercial, and very different from my kind of cinema. I no longer like other people’s cinema. So I very happily wrote The North China Lover. It’s a novel that is like a film. The Lover was more like a chronicle than a novel, and the character Thanh, our houseboy, was missing. Thanh was an amazing person, and I loved him so very much. I had a strong impulse to write this new story. My adolescence in Indochina, an unforgettable and extraordinary place; my mother who had me when she was already in her forties; my younger brother Paulo who died in 1942 and who was my favourite; that monster of an older brother, Pierre, who was a mean, lying thief. My mother favoured him in such a terrible way, and, in any case, they were both terrible. My mother favoured him because he was a gigolo. He complimented her and stole from her. He left with our inheritance, and I never saw him again. But the protagonist of both books is the Chinese lover.
Didn’t you mythologise your father?
I didn’t know him. He died when I was five. Myths are Greek, and my mother and my brother Pierre were the tragedy. I loved my younger brother like crazy, and actually, in my new book, I talk about how we had an incestuous relationship.
You describe the Chinese lover the same way in both books, but many details are different. Which version is the truth?
The truth is in both books. But in the new novel I describe things better with more details. My fear of blood when he took my virginity. I describe how I took his hand and put it on my genitals when he picked me up for the first time in his big black car, a legendary Morris-Léon Bollée. Rewriting the same story in a bit of a different way with the same characters is a curious, almost one-of-a-kind literary event. They say that I’m the freest of French lady novelists. Perhaps it is my readers who have allowed me to express myself so freely. When speaking about The North China Lover a journalist said, “This isn’t just your memory. It’s our memory.” In this new novel, you sense my fear of death even more. The fear that my Chinese lover – who was a libertine, a layabout, and smoked opium – might kill me because he didn’t want another man to have me. They’ve always told me that I was a really free spirit from the time I was a little girl. I was free because my mother was miserable and poor – she had to sell the jewels I’d received from my father in order to buy food. My mother didn’t care that I was prostituting myself. She only loved Pierre anyway.
You had already described Pierre very well in The Lover.
Yes. He disgusted me. I hated him, and he still torments me to this day even though I don’t know where either he or my mother is buried. Obviously they are buried near one another. My mother’s love for Pierre was disgusting.
Why did you change publishers?
I will never go back to Éditions de Minuit. They wanted to cut fifty pages of the book after having kept it for nine weeks.
In your new book, you talk about how at how, at age fifteen-and-a-half, you told your Chinese lover that you would write a book about the relationship you were in.
Yes. At age ten, I was already writing poetry. As I write in both The Lover and The North China Lover, when my Chinese lover came to Paris after the war and called me – and he was married with kids at that point – he already knew that I was a writer because he had read a book of mine.
Did he really telephone you?
Yes. And he told me what I wrote on the last page of The Lover. That nothing had changed. That he still loved me, and he would never stop loving me, and that he would love me until the day he died. Now he is dead, and I could continue rewriting the same story.
June 13th, 1991