The Lover by Marguerite Duras

While I was reading Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, which is labeled “Fiction” on its back cover, someone told me, “Oh, that’s a memoir!” To which I responded, “you’re full of sh*t!” Or something more delicate and intellectual, if you’d prefer to think of me that way.

In any case, I found it hard to believe. But I took it upon myself to do a little bit more research about the book, and it is actually considered an “autobiographical novel.” We describe those in a variety of ways, but I think creative memoir works. After all, it is based on Duras’s real life, real childhood, real family, and real events. And yes, her real lover. It’s just told in such a dreamy, disconnected, modernist way, that it’s impossible to read it like a memoir unless you’re really trying.

The memoir begins this way: “I often think of the image only I can see now, and of which I’ve never spoken. It’s always there, in the same silence, amazing. It’s the only image of myself I like, the only one in which I recognize myself, in which I delight” (3-4). Duras is referring to the mental image of herself as a young girl–fifteen and a half–standing on a ferry that’s crossing the Mekong River. She’s writing about this image from her perspective as a much older woman, aged somewhere around seventy. And yet it is this single image that informs the entire memoir, because it sits squarely atop the moment she comes of age. Everything prior to this image is innocence, and everything after it, experience.

In episodic, atmospheric descriptions, Duras recounts her relationship with her family, strange and tragic, and with her first lover, a much older Chinese man. Throughout, she constantly belittles his appearance, his weakness and femininity, in stark contrast to the presence of her older brother, whom is the exact opposite. There’s a severe danger alluded to in her relationship with her brother, and his dominance over her, even when her much older lover is in the room, is bizarre and unsettling. It becomes clear that this has affected her deeply, including the way she sees herself, her place in the world, and everything that happens or anyone else she meets.

Often throughout the retelling, Duras seems to interrupt the past moments with insight from her current perspective as someone much older and experienced. There’s a lingering longing in these confessional interjections, as well as some chastisement. I sometimes wondered just how much of young Duras was truly aware of what she was doing, and how much of it was influenced by the fact that Duras is writing about these experiences in retrospect. The non-linear narrative and the coy, curious way she unravels the events of this part of her life, make it difficult to find the boundaries between past and present, youth and age, fact and fiction.

Ultimately, this is one of the more interesting memoirs, or “autobiographical novels,” that I’ve ever read, but it requires, I think, at least two reads to really understand what she’s doing here. I almost want to assign this one to my students to see what happens.

Notable Quotes
“I wanted to kill–my elder brother, I wanted to kill him, to get the better of him for once, just once, and see him die. I wanted to do it to remove from my mother’s sight the object of her love . . . to punish her for loving him so much, so badly” (7).

“Drink accomplished what God did not” (9).

“I’ve never written, though I thought I wrote, never loved, though I thought I loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door” (25).

“The way my elder brother treats my lover, not speaking to him, ignoring him, stems from such absolute conviction it acts as a model. We all treat my lover as he does. I myself never speak to him in their presence” (51).

“I forget everything, and I forgot to say this, that we were children who laughed, my younger brother and I, laughed fit to burst, fit to die” (62).

“I am worn out with desire” (74).

Giveaway: Everyday Mindfulness

I was pleased to receive from TCK Publishing two copies of Melissa Steginus’s new book, Everyday Mindfulness: 108 Simple Practices to Empower Yourself and Transform Your Life. After a brief scan of the book, I have decided to work through my copy starting in the new year and, as the rush of “new year new you!” commitments are sure to be rolling in soon, even in these strange times, what better time to get the second copy of this one into someone else’s lucky hands

With 108 mini-exercises, the book is designed to take you through exactly four months of practice. In her introduction, Steginus explains the importance of that number, 108, and her reasons why she asks the reader to commit to four months of practice rather than a quick shot of, say, 12 days, as is popular in many self-help type programs these days. In the last few years, I’ve worked through a number of writing and thinking practices, ranging from The Writer’s Daily Devotional, to See the Bigger Picture, and from A Writer’s Q & A, to The Daily Stoic. In 2021, I’ll be adding Everyday Mindfulness to my collection of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Everyday Peace, which is also a collection of 108 daily prompts for thinking and being in the world. 

About the Book: 

Transform Your Life with 5-Minute Mindfulness Exercises

Everyday Mindfulness guides you through the most powerful daily mindfulness practices that help you rewire your habits and rewrite your life. With step-by-step instruction and evidence-based exercises you can do in as little as 5 minutes a day, it’s never been easier to make positive changes stick in your life. This is a powerful personal development program cleverly disguised as a book.

Connect with Yourself and Discover Your Capacity

Most of us are so busy that we forgot to focus on how we really feel, what we truly desire, and what we need to do to move our lives in the right direction. This book is your master manual for reconnecting with yourself and your inner resources so you can take immediate action to transform your life. The power to change your life is in the small things you do every day. This book guides you through over 100 simple practices, in small doses, so you can discover what works best for you and build on it. This book is designed to help you master the six areas of your life:

  • Physical: Listen to your body and reconnect with yourself
  • Emotional: Understand your feelings and learn to trust them
  • Rational: Observe your thought patterns to gain mental clarity
  • Spiritual: Explore your relationship with yourself and your truth
  • Occupation: Manage your time and energy to pursue your priorities
  • Network: Nourish relationships that deepen your sense of belonging

Each of the six sections has 18 exercises, complete with reflection questions, to help you reclaim, redefine, and realize your untapped potential within that area of your life. With Everyday Mindfulness you will awaken to yourself, connect with your inner wisdom, and tap into your capacity for self-empowerment, fulfillment, and transformation. It all begins with paying attention. This book includes 108 daily mindfulness practices, explanations of the purpose behind each practice, and over 300 reflection questions that encourage profound self-exploration and transformative action.

About the Author:

Melissa Steginus is a coach and wellness specialist helping people structure their work and lives to be intentional, empowering, and fulfilling. She has served thousands of people through her workshops, online courses, and 1:1 sessions. For more information, visit: http://www.melissasteginus.com.

Giveaway:

The giveaway will run from December 7th at 6:00 a.m. until December 16th at 6:00 a.m. One entry per person via Rafflecopter. Bonus entries can be earned by following the prompts in Rafflecopter. The winner will be e-mailed and will have 72-hours to respond before a new winner is selected. Good luck! Click here to Enter.

Black Dog, Black Night: Contemporary Vietnamese Poetry

Black Dog, Black Night is a collection of contemporary Vietnamese poetry, collated and translated by Nguyen Do and Paul Hoover. The collection includes poets from the Vietnamese Writers Association (VWA), which is the government-sanctioned and sponsored writing organization, but perhaps more importantly, it includes Vietnamese writers from outside that group, including many who have or had been imprisoned for their political views and poetic/creative choices.

As a communist country, every form of expression in Vietnam is closely monitored, and only speech sanctioned by the government will see the light of popular publication. Knowing this, Nguyen Do and Paul Hoover set out on a mission to find, translate, and publish/distribute the greatest contemporary Vietnamese poetry they could, regardless of whether those writers were part of the authorized VWA or not. The result is a collection that acts as a study in Vietnamese writing, society, culture, and government; it is at once a virile condemnation of censorship and a championing of Vietnamese creative arts.

The collection is divided into small segments by poet. Each section begins with a brief introduction to the poet; as a western reader new to Vietnamese poetry (as most readers will be, especially anyone who does not read Vietnamese), I found these introductions, though brief, enormously helpful, as was the introduction to the collection, which discusses the realities of writing and publishing in Vietnam, as well as the penalties for going against state sanctioned themes (imprisonment, execution, etc.)

This collection is remarkable, and the styles, voices, and themes of these poets are unique, refreshing, and edifying. Some of my favorites include Te Hanh, whose “Missing My Home River,” begins, “My home country has a dark green river / Its water is like a mirror in which bamboo can see its hair / My soul is a summer noon / covered in shadow all the way to the shining river.” So many of these poets include nature imagery in their poems, but for many western readers, the metaphors and settings will be fresh and new, because unencountered.

Other favorites from this collection are Van Cao as well as Hoang Hung, whose poem dedicated to Nguyen Do lends its name to the title of the collection. Hung is one of the poets who was imprisoned (for thirty-nine months) and sent to a reform camp because he attempted to get his poetry published outside of Vietnam. Another stand out is Thanh Thao, who is the first member of the Vietnamese Writers Association to not be a member of the communist party.

One of the most interesting features of this collection, though, is that it includes poets who lived through the Vietnam (or what they call the American) War, those who are younger and know it only from the stories, those who are natives still living in Vietnam, and those who have expatriated. This provides a rich, complex experience with multiple perspectives and, perhaps, a hint at the changing landscape of and possibilities for Vietnamese literature now and in the future.

“Don’t” by Linh Dinh

According to a theory, the first word

Ever uttered was perhaps “don’t.”

Managing an unruly horde of kids,

The cave mother had to “don’t” nonstop.

Don’t [put that thing in your mouth]!

Don’t [climb up that branch]!

Don’t [wake your father up]!

150,000 years ago, the main purpose of language

Was to prohibit. In many places on earth, now,

The main purpose of language is still to prohibit.

Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan

Upon the publication of Man Tiger, which was longlisted for The Man Booker International prize in 2016, Eka Kurniawan was described as “a powerful new voice on the global literary stage.” This seems a wholly apt description.

The book tells the coming-of-age story of Margio, a typical young man living with his family in a small town on the coast of Indonesia. We are first introduced to Margio as the inheritor of his family’s long legacy: the spiritual marriage between his body and the tigress that lives in his bloodline and is passed down from generation to generation. We learn that, for some unexplained reason, when Margio’s grandfather dies, the tiger passes not to Margio’s father, but to Margio himself, skipping a link in the chain. The strange, imaginative, unwinding narrative that takes us backward in time, from the moment the narrative opens in violence, to the moment it closes at the exact same point in time, serves to explain why the tiger has skipped the father.

Part of what makes this novel wonderful is that it is so unexpected. The story begins with a shocking bang, and then goes ever backward in time in order to fill in the necessary information about the two families at the heart of this intense drama, so that when we return to the present, and indeed the very last page of the book, the justification for Margio’s initial actions, for the release of the tiger, doesn’t just make sense, it becomes a heartbreaking necessity.

I will say that, though the book is described as being part of the “magical realism” genre (and Kurniawan is now known for writing in this style), there was much less of it than I had anticipated. There is of course some, given the fact that the main character has a tigress living inside of him that can be released at any given moment, but aside from that initial folk story at the beginning, and its return at the end, the novel reads generally like contemporary Indonesian fiction. Ultimately, I think the tiger is less a primary function of magical realism and more of a metaphor for the fierceness with which we protect the ones we love.

I also appreciated the unique take on certain symbols in this one, like the garden. Kurniawan upsets–or disrupts–some of the conventional ways in which western readers, in particular, might read common themes and symbols, in order to explain the particular circumstances of this family in this time and this place. In all honesty, this is the kind of book that reminds me of how important, and how fun, it is to read non-western literature in translation.

Notable Quotes

“The white tiled floor with its streaks of red blood resembled the national flag. And still standing there was Margio, his face a mask of gore, nearly unrecognizable.”

“Only men marry tigers . . . but not all the tigers are female.”

“She hadn’t left him. The tigress was there, a part of him, the two of them inseparable until death.”

“Nothing was more embarrassing for a girl older than twelve than not knowing who would be her husband.”

“The mistakes were all his. He had carved out his own sorry life for himself.”

Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks

If you’re a novice poet and want to struggle with the existential dread of being wholly intimidated by a boxer far above your class and the simultaneous inspiration of a knockout mind and craftsperson, then why don’t you go ahead and read some Gwendolyn Brooks?

Seriously, folks, I’ve read Brooks’ poems here and there, in this or that anthology, or when shared by some fellow reader on Twitter or Instagram. But this is the first time I sat down with a complete collection of her works, and I don’t think it’s an overstatement to suggest that it left me stunned.

The collection itself includes poem selections from 3 previous publications spanning the length of her career plus a final section of “new poems” at the end. I certainly had my personal favorites among these, but at no point did I find any of her work weaker or uninteresting, or irrelevant. To me, that’s the sign of a master poet; someone who is digging as deeply and sharing as articulately and creatively at the beginning of her career as she does nearer the end of it, and across all sorts of themes.

Take, for example, this short poem, “the progress,” from “Gay Chaps at the Bar,” which was published in A Street in Bronzeville (1945).

And still we wear our uniforms, follow
The cracked cry of the bugles, comb and brush
Our pride and prejudice, doctor the sallow
Initial ardor, wish to keep it fresh.
Still we applaud the president’s voice and face.
Still we remark on patriotism, sing
Salute the flag, thrill heavily, rejoice
For death of men, who, too, saluted, sang.
But inward grows a soberness, an awe
A fear, a deepening hollow through the cold.
For even if we come out standing up
How shall we smile, congratulate: and how
Settle in chairs? Listen, listen. The step
Of iron feet again. And again wild.

Just look at what Brooks does before and after the volta. The first 8 lines seem to suggest a continuity of patriotism. A commitment to the nation’s commanders and even president, and the suggested idea that we are patriots, still. Proud to be American. But–I mean really, “but” in line 9 is the volta–then there’s a change. Context fills in. That proudness is a façade, isn’t it? There are whispers and rumblings growing inside of us. We are hollow where we should be filled with spirit. Our exterior poses and actions do not reflect the fear and resentment, the doubt, stirring beneath the masquerade.

Perhaps it is the state of the world (United States) right now, but this poem, which comes a little earlier than the 1/3 mark of this collection, had me sitting up at attention. It’s a clear indication of what Brooks can do with mastery of form, with subtlety and surprise. Whatever form she explores in this collection, she does it with deft touch and wild imagination. Some of her poems are biographical, like “A Bronzeville Mother,” which is a longer poem whose speaker, the woman responsible for the murder of Emmet Till, imagines herself a white princess and Till, that 14-year-old boy, a “Dark Villain.” It’s haunting.

I marked so many poems in this collection, and for so many reasons. I think it suffices to say that this is one I’ll return to again and again, not just to enjoy it, but to learn from it.

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