Mary Ruefle On Fear

mary-ruefle-poster-e1427311571580This morning I’ve been thinking a lot about this, from Mary Ruefle’s excellent excellent book of essays Madness, Rack, and Honey:

“I am much less afraid that I ever was in my youth–of everything. That is a fact. At the same time, I feel more afraid than ever. And the two, I can assure you, are not opposed but inextricably linked.”

Writing as the Creation of Self: Point of View Shifts in Marguerite Duras’ The Lover

the-loverI recently attended a writers’ conference in which the subject of writing and memory came up. I immediately suggested The Lover because of the circular, episodic, non-linear, and sensual way in which it addresses the narrator’s memory of a long ago love affair. A good part of the class had never heard of the book, or its author, which always surprises me. Duras is criminally under-read.

Here are some thoughts from a few years ago about the way in which point of view operates in the book:

The river crossing scene in The Lover—the story of a French adolescent girl’s affair with an older unnamed Chinese man—is the centerpiece of the book. In the beginning, the narrator tells us that she’s written the story before:

“What I’m doing now is both different and the same. Before, I spoke of clear periods, those on which the light fell. Now I’m talking about the hidden sketches of that same youth, of certain facts, feelings, events that I buried.”

And so begins the series of re-examinations of that event, from every possible angle and in every conceivable detail, that make up the first third of the book. One device that Duras uses to engage in this endless layering of memory over memory (or “sketch” over “sketch”) is shifts in point of view. The book is primarily written in the first person point of view from the narrator’s perspective. However, from time to time it also shifts to the third person, an idiosyncratic craft choice that left me curious to explore further.

The first point of view shift occurs as the narrator is describing what she was wearing that day on the riverboat. After describing her dress and shoes in detail, the narrator writes:

“It’s not the shoes, though, that make the girl look so strangely, so weirdly dressed. No, it’s the fact that she’s wearing a man’s flat-brimmed hat, a brownish-pink fedora with a broad black ribbon.”

The point of view shift is very brief and could almost be missed but for the use of the word “no.” It provides a break in the paragraph-long description of clothing that comes before, causing the reader to slow down and drawing attention to the hat as the one item of clothing that is the most distinctive. The use of the conversational “no” here also has the effect of pulling back, as if the narrator is stepping outside of herself, momentarily freezing the scene and reminding herself (or discovering for the first time) what it was about her that day that might have caused the Chinese man to get out of his car and put into motion the chain of events that would change her life.

The next point of view shift occurs after a brief vignette in which the narrator at age fifteen tells her mother she wants to be a writer. Her mother is against it, calls it “a childish idea.” Then, as if in childish rebellion, the narrator launches into a paragraph-long description of “the girl” (herself) on the riverboat that day. Not only does the point of view shift, but the style of writing shifts as well. The prose in The Lover is generally minimalistic, often short staccato phrases (e.g., “The body is thin, undersized almost, childish breasts still, red and pale-pink make-up.”) In this third-person interval, however, the sentences elongate and flow (e.g., “The girl in the felt hat is in the muddy light of the river, alone on the deck of the ferry, leaning on the rails.”) The longer sentences imbue the paragraph with a romantic air—as if an adolescent girl is trying her hand for the first time at what she thinks a novel sounds like—and serve as a contrast to the hardened, more adult style of the rest of the book.

After building from a two-sentence point of view shift to one that goes on for a paragraph, the next shift is six pages long. With this third shift, Duras also switches to the present tense:

“The elegant man has got out of the limousine and is smoking an English cigarette. He looks at the girl in the man’s fedora and the gold shoes. He slowly comes over to her. He’s obviously nervous. He doesn’t smile to begin with. To begin with her offers her a cigarette. His hand is trembling.”

The prose here reads like stage directions; with the use of the present tense and the progressive action, the reader can see it all happening moment by moment as if in a movie. The effect here is one of release—after 32 pages of obsessively coming back again and again to the memory of herself standing on the riverboat, there is finally a sense of forward momentum. As soon as the Chinese man and the French girl speak to each other, the action is allowed to move on from the riverboat, to where the man starts to pick up the girl from school and then to their first sexual encounter. After leading the reader over this hump, Duras reverts back to the first-person.

The affair continues and, predictably, given the differences in age and class but above all race, it is scandalous. One of the most interesting uses of point of view shifts occurs toward the end of the book as these realities mount against the lovers and the affair is reaching its inevitable end. In this section of the book, Duras juxtaposes the story of the narrator and her Chinese lover with that of “the Lady,” a married woman whose lover shoots himself after she ends their affair. The style in this point of view shift begins as it were gossip: “Every morning the little slut goes to have her body caressed by a filthy Chinese millionaire.” Duras briefly shifts back to the first person as the narrator, standing on the playground where none of the other girls will talk to her, remembers seeing The Lady standing on her terrace when she was walking back from catechism class with her younger brother. Then Duras is back to the third person as she compares the narrator and the Lady: “Both are doomed to discredit because of the kind of body they have, caressed by lovers, kissed by their lips, consigned to the infamy of a pleasure unto death, as they both call it, unto the mysterious death of lovers without love.”

This conflation of desire and death is then played out in a scene between the narrator and her lover followed by a scene in which the Lady’s lover shoots himself in the town square. The oscillating point of view here—from appropriating the language of the gossip mongers to a momentary first person childhood memory and then transitioning to a distant, third person omniscient narration—is unbalanced and disconcerting, which parallels the constantly changing and contradictory portrayal of the narrator throughout the book as, all at once an innocent girl desperate to be loved, a woman who knows what she wants and how to use her body to get it, and a person caught up in the web of colonial and societal forces greater than her which will result in inevitable tragedy.

The Lover ends with a point of view shift. Whereas in the beginning we see the narrator on the riverboat going toward the experience that will change her life, we now see her again on a ship, this time receding from view, leaving Vietnam and her girlhood behind: “For her too it was when the boat uttered its first farewell, when the gangway was hauled up and the tugs had started to tow and draw the boat away from land, that she had wept.” Throughout the book, the narrator has been constantly stepping outside of herself, trying on other voices and other perspectives, experiencing that day on the riverboat and its aftermath both as a photograph that does not exist because “while it was happening, no one knew of its existence,” and as an “image that becomes detached, removed from the rest” because of its importance to the trajectory of her life.

The cumulative effect of these shifts in points of view is that of layering of consciousness over consciousness, a young girl very explicitly and very purposefully creating herself through the act of writing. The decision to end with the third person point of view makes the transition complete. She is no longer the girl she was on the riverboat that day—she is a different person, a woman who, “[y]ears after the war, after marriages, children, divorces, books,” will receive a call from an old lover telling her that “he’d love her until death.” 


From Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts


 “A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase ‘I love you’ is like ‘the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.’ Just as the Argo‘s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use, as ‘the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.’

I thought the passage was romantic. You read it as a possible retraction. In retrospect, I guess it was both.”