Sunday, February 13, 2011

What do we read about when we read about love?

A nice quote I picked up yesterday from somewhere (the Guardian?), Kurt Vonnegut said he didn't write about love because it takes over; as in fiction, in real life. Do men even read love stories?

The best love songs are often either the hope of love ("I'm Still Waiting") or its aftermath ("Band of Gold") and its the same in fiction. Feminist critics long ago identified that in the Victorian novel the girl only got the guy at some cost. George Eliot, her own life experience giving her a particular perspective on how low love was valued as a reason for marriage, peoples her books with couples in various degrees of disarray; marriage only ever becoming truly happy when its beyond the pressures and pleasures of youth. Come to think of it, Middlemarch, which is a book about politics and society, is also very much a book about love and marriage. But if they go together like a horse and carriage, the carriage is often rotten and the horse is lame.

The great "love stories" are anything but. Daisy and Gatsby, as told by Fitzgerald, is a story remembered. The re-kindling of the relationship briefly in West Egg is no replacement for the crass riches of the class to which Daisy belongs. Tom and Daisy Buchanan is the "love" that endures...not the other varieties. If men are drawn to love stories its probably those that are heroic in some way. A love that lasts through the years. Yet rarely is there a satisfactory ending. Someone usually has to die, or worse, lacks the courage to come back. No wonder films have been made of "The English Patient", "The Age of Innocence", "Brideshead Revisited" and "The End of the Affair." If movies usually prefer happy endings, in movies the happy ending can be a brief reconciliation. Love has survived, its protagonists will not.

Despite its somewhat purple prose I always liked "The Bridges of Madison County", which again fits into this pattern of love denied. In this case, they part for the sanctity of each other's families. That is the generation that stayed together for the good of the family. Tragedy haunts most fictional love stories, and its there on nearly every page of "Revolutionary Road", a portrait of a marriage that makes "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" look like an advert for

You could see this as part of fiction's innate conservatism. In real life people meet, marry, divorce, deal with the multiple families that have resulted, with more decorum than you'll find in any number of Iris Murdoch's. Love, in books, is rarely allowed to fade; in life it can and does. Reality gets in the way. Although novels reflect our world, they also exist in their own world, and this is a compact with the reader which usually requires some sort of resolution. Novels were once all called "romances" after all, and some of that lingers. Impressionable English students are likely to remain a fondness for Kundera's "Unbearable Lightness of Being", for love seems more important under repressive regimes, (and isn't "1984" more of a love story than anything else Orwell ever wrote?)

Women tend to write better about love, and more realistically. I'd recommend Louise Erdrich's "Tales of Burning Love", where four ex-wives accidentally get stuck in a blizzard on the way back from his funeral and tell their stories; or Nicola Barker's "Five Miles from Outer Hope", where an unlikely love blossoms despite the awkwardness of their personalities.

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