shame

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THE LOVER BY MARGUERITE DURAS

I looked at my face in the mirror. I was fifteen. For the first time I wondered what others saw, when they looked. Those eyes, those lips. They aren’t so bad, I thought. Pleasing, could be worse. Soft and feminine, like my mother’s only dress. I wasn’t conscious of wanting approval, or attention. Not yet. It was simply an experiment. Just like it was two years later, with L. I was at a funeral. I had been noticed, she told my mother afterwards. Or words to that effect. Everyone noticed me that day, for I didn’t cry. Without the distorting ugliness of grief, she noticed. Those eyes, those lips. She validated the fifteen year old. L. was twenty-nine then. She became my first lover. My first lover without love. There have been many since. Too many, perhaps.

“He says he’s lonely, horribly lonely because of this love he feels for her. She says she’s lonely too. She doesn’t say why.”

The Lover by Marguerite Duras was published in 1984, when the author was seventy years old. Everything that I had read, or heard, about the novel prior to picking it up had led me to believe that it was a largely autobiographical account of a love affair between a young girl and a significantly older man. As I become increasingly mired in my memories, this of course appealed to me, bearing in mind my own experience. I wanted to compare notes. Yet while it is fair to say that the relationship is central to the book’s action it certainly isn’t its true focus. It is more the case that it is used to illustrate or highlight other, more important, or more interesting, themes or ideas.

The novel begins with the narrator telling an anecdote about an unknown man approaching her in the present and declaring: ‘Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you you’re more beautiful now.’ He prefers her face ‘ravaged,’ he says. One is immediately drawn to that ‘everyone’. It suggests something romantic. A once popular and dazzling beauty. One believes that one now understands his motivation. Her man. The lover. However, everything that the narrator writes about her physical self as a child gives lie to these conjectures. Indeed, she seems at pains to emphasise, if not her unattractiveness, then the unconventional nature of her appearance.

The hat is part of it, of course. The gentleman’s hat she wears almost at all times. But there are the clothes ‘that make people laugh’ too; the dresses she wears ‘as if they were sacks, with belts that take away their shape.’ Her appeal, it is made clear, has little to do with traditional feminine charms. Her body is ‘thin, undersized almost.’ No, this is no dazzling beauty. And yet he is dazzled. One of the questions The Lover makes you ask is, what is the basis of someone’s attractiveness? What makes this wealthy man ‘adore’ the young, tomboyish, white girl? The author herself writes: ‘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.’

Yet this is, of course, not an answer. Is there an enigmatic something? An essence. An attitude. Or is it, in this instance, her race? One cannot ignore that. The man cannot ignore that either. It makes him nervous. His hand trembles. ‘He’s not white, he has to get the better of it, that’s why he trembles,’ she states. He is dressed in European clothes. He smokes an English cigarette. He has spent time in Paris. He doesn’t, one presumes, want a Chinese girl. No, he wants this white girl. Or a white girl, perhaps. Exotic. Other. Or could it be that she gives the impression of being sexually available, and this supersedes all other considerations? She has a face for pleasure at fifteen, we are told, and there are certainly numerous hints at there being a business element to her relationship with the man.

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Her brother is said to have attempted to prostitute her, for example. And for the mother, and the narrator herself, her appearance is that of a child whore. The ‘transparent’ dress, let’s not forget. It is never explicitly stated that the man, the lover, pays for her company, but money is at the forefront of the relationship. The girl’s family is poor. Poverty is ‘the ruling principle’ of their lives. The hat speaks to that too. ‘The only thing left is the girl,’ her mother thinks, ‘perhaps one day she’ll find out how to bring in some money.’ The man is rich, as I have said, and interested, and ‘the child already knows how to divert the interest people take in her to the interest she takes in money.’ When he meets the family he is expected to take them to expensive restaurants, of course.

But the man is, I believe, less of a client, and more of a distraction and a comfort. A distraction from the family. From the poverty. From herself. For she is afraid of herself, she says. Her elder brother, the one who wanted to prostitute her, also tried to rape the housemaid. He is a man of ‘cold insulting violence.’ The girl, quite naturally, wants to kill him. Her mother is a depressive, and all around her are ‘wildernesses, wastes.’ Her sons. Her whore of a daughter. Her own failures. She attempts to breed chickens, but she bungles it and they are born unable to eat. They die of starvation. This is symbolic, of course. A family of stone. They feel ‘a fundamental shame at having to live.’ The younger brother’s heart gives out. Dead. His heart gives out, of course. This is symbolic too. The man, then, the weak Chinese, with his ‘supreme elegance,’ is a distraction from all this, and a comfort. In love, in sex ‘the waste is covered over and all is swept away.’

“When it’s in a book I don’t think it’ll hurt any more …exist any more. One of the things writing does is wipe things out. Replace them.”

When she grows older she will write. She does write, of course. We know. I wrote myself that The Lover is not about love, not really about a love affair. It isn’t. It is about many things, but not really that. Ultimately, it is, I’d argue, most of all about memory and writing. The book unfolds in a non-linear fashion. What of a story there is, one must piece together. As she must piece it together. In her mind. On paper. She admits, at one stage, to not knowing which shoes she was wearing at a particular moment. Yet she always wore a certain pair, and so of course it is those shoes she was wearing. She guesses. It doesn’t matter. She uses the image of her own son, years later, to describe herself as a girl. Memories superimposed upon memories. To tell the truth one must not worry about what is true. I know.

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SKYLARK BY DEZSO KOSZTOLANYI

I’ve written about Tom before. He is, you might say, one of my recurring, minor characters. I use him, not without a seasoning of guilt, when required, which is to say when the focus of the review is on those who feel small, ill-at-ease, and unappealing. In any case, I don’t have to worry about him reading this, because these days he only exists within me, caught in the sticky web of my memories. Tom always considered himself ugly, and it is true that he was no peach. A mess of curly hair, as though someone was building a bonfire on his head, and bad skin…these were probably his best features. Don’t get me wrong, I am not at all under the impression that I am a very handsome man, but I cannot, nevertheless, relate to those who, like my friend, are so self-conscious about their appearance that they hide themselves away, and run from life until all that is left of it is a small black dot in the distance; and yet I can empathise, of course.

How awful to be Tom, to be Skylark.

There are a number of novels featuring undervalued ‘plain Jane’ types – Austen’s Persuasion, for example – but Dezső Kosztolányi leaves us in no doubt that his creation is, in fact, a strikingly unattractive woman. Her face is described as ‘at once both plump and drawn’; she has, we’re told, a ‘pudgy nose’ with ‘flared, horsey nostrils’, ‘severe, masculine eyebrows’ and ‘tiny, watery eyes.’ Indeed, she is such a frightful sight that people cannot help but stare at her with ‘grey, benevolent sympathy.’ However, as is often the way with these kinds of characters, although Skylark is lacking in looks she does have an even-tempered, good-natured personality. She is thoughtful, most of all towards her parents, and industrious. This is, of course, how pathos is created; one is meant to feel for this ugly, but nice, duckling who will never turn into a swan.

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[After a spate of suicides in Budapest in the 1930’s a Smile Club was inaugurated in order to counteract this craze for self-harm]

Yet the book is not really about Skylark, or is about her only in so much as her presence, her existence affects those around her. The book’s true focus, its real central character, is Akos, her father. As previously noted, to be unlovely is an unfortunate thing, but what must it be like to be the parent of such a child? We don’t tend to like asking ourselves these kinds of questions, but Kosztolányi forces us to. What if your child was hideous? You would love it, that goes without saying, but wouldn’t some part of you be disappointed, perhaps even slightly embarrassed? No? Well, Akos loves his daughter very much, such that a few days without her seems ‘endless, hopeless and bleak,’ but, at the same time, he pities her, and pity is uglier than Skylark herself. Indeed, he is so ashamed of her that he walks ahead of her when they are outside, so as not to be seen with her.

Based on the above one may now have quite a negative opinion of Akos, and perhaps the author too, but I admire Kosztolányi’s fearlessness. He was, quite evidently, a man who did not care if, or rather wanted, you to shift uncomfortably in your seat. In any case, Skylark doesn’t just cause her father embarrassment; having her for a daughter changes his life in a profound way, so that he actually very rarely goes out and now ‘spends his time growing weary of doing nothing.’ It is as though the old man has given up on life, because it has handed him an onion instead of an orange. The world has cheated him, and played a cruel joke on the person he loves most. Indeed, he has an obsession with lineage, and one comes to realise that this is significant in that he will probably never have grandchildren, because no one will ever want to marry Skylark. In this way, one does feel for her, of course, but, for me, some sympathy ought to go to the father also.

“As soon as they began to laugh, he lowered his gaze. Their glances offended him. They belonged to a world of happy households, eligible daughters and handsome dowries; a world so very different from his own.”

Before continuing I must, once again, credit the author. As may already be apparent, he had an ability to gently pull the rug from under the reader’s feet, and take his work in unexpected directions. The best example of this is the change that takes place in Akos, and his unnamed wife, when Skylark goes away for a week. Initially, one suspects that the couple will mope and mourn throughout the entirety of her holiday, and there is certainly some of that, but ultimately her absence is liberating for them. For Akos in particular it is a burden lifted, or sent away, and consequently he experiences some kind of reawakening as a man. For example, he starts to eat, and enjoy, rich food; he spends money; he goes to the theatre and meets actresses; he hangs around with the Panthers – a hedonistic bunch of old acquaintances that he had previously been avoiding; he drinks alcohol and smokes cigars. In short, he has a wonderful time, and, as a result, starts to look younger. And, perhaps I was alone in this, I could not help but smile and urge him on. Have at it, Akos!

“Only the sober believe that the inebriate stagger to and fro. In reality they float on invisible wings and arrive everywhere much earlier than expected.”

I may not have given this impression, but Skylark is a moving, engaging, and complex little novel. Certainly, I am concerned that I have made it sound harsher than it is, when in fact there is not even the merest hint of an authorial sneer. As with Josef Škvorecký, the Hungarian was able to conjure up a cast of humanly flawed, but lovingly drawn characters. However, unlike with the Engineer of Human Souls, these characters are not caught up in world-altering events, they are not being oppressed by a political regime. Their tragedy is local, almost banal; it is the tragedy of shameful feelings and social awkwardness.