Monday, August 13, 2007

The loves to love the loves to love the loves to love

Norm Geras is somewhat exercised by a poll of the Greatest Love Stories of All Time, in particular by the number one position for Wuthering Heights. As he puts it: "a love story cannot be the greatest, in which things go badly wrong and one of the two romantic protagonists ends up merely a ghost... the greatest of love stories turn out well in the end".

It's understandable that a man who celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary recently would feel that way, but I don't buy his arguement. The greatest love stories have that epic-y, soul-shaking quality that, for many people, is bound up in failure, disappointment and all the rest.

I'm also guessing that most of those surveyed were women – please note, this is not supposed to be a criticism – partly because of the fondness for things like Gone With the Wind (I've never seen it, but I just know I'm supposed to hate it) and the preponderance of love stories in which the relationship between the two protagonists is absolutely central.

By way of illustration, let me point you to Rowan Pelling on this topic: "Great romantic fiction invariably requires that grim Fate conspires to keep two lovers from one another, so the reader is skewered on the rapier point of emotion. If the author is of an amiable and optimistic disposition, he or she may finally allow the beleaguered lovers their union. If the author is Thomas Hardy, then one or the other will usually end up dead."

Additionally, she makes the handy observation that a lot of men really aren't so good at this emotional stuff (imagine my surprise) whereas many women yearn for a Mr Darcy figure. (I'd be careful there, I think this Darcy complex is unintentionally revealing: that gold-digging little minx Lizzie Bennet suddenly got much more interested when she realised just how loaded he was. If he'd been broke he'd have been written off as a moody old bastard.)

Still, I might be able to answer Rowan's dilemma here (although I too prefer Patrick O'Brian):

Is it so wrong to demand a little romance in our dreary lives? As the UKTV poll establishes, 37 per cent of women would rather have a Darcy-type figure court them than a modern man. Modern men responded by saying that two thirds of them have never read a romantic novel in their lives - and "what's wrong with Patrick O'Brian anyway?" Well, that's what they said in my house anyway.

I don't think men are opposed to love and romance, per se, but a narrow, obsessive, sometimes neurotic, focus on it is alarming and off-putting. What I'm saying, really, is that a great love story doesn't need to be a simple relationship, or romantic, story. The epic-y soul-stirring stuff can come in many contexts: it is but one part of the richness of human experience, after all.

You can see this in some of the books on this list of love stories, particularly War and Peace and The Great Gatsby. This latter is an excellent choice – it's a favourite of mine – but it's about many things as well as romantic love. (We could, in fact, call those many things Romantic love: the glamourous world that seduces and damages many of the protagonists, Nick's own yearning for the sublime, Dick and Daisy's dangerous self-conceit, Gatsby's own talent for self-invention and myth-making and – of course – the yearnings which underpin all this).

Here are a few others I think worthy of inclusion on the list of great love stories, but they aren't just your few inches of ivory.

The Divine Comedy: Dante's love for Beatrice is the ultimate in hopeless yearning. Yes, there's a lot of theology, and plenty of score settling with Dante's opponents. But this near-lost soul is saved by her love, although he must first pass through the education of Hell and Purgatory before attaining his desire. After all that Paradise is rather dull. It's a good illustration that embellishments to Happy Ever After are a bad idea. (Virgil features in Dante, and I suppose you could also add the Aeneid to the list – love sacrificed on the altar of duty and all that).

The Odyssey: Come on, ten years to travel a few hundred miles through the Med. All those malicious intervention by the gods. The temptation to give up and enjoy yourself with foxy nymphs like Calypso must have been over-whelming. But no, Odysseus didn't give up, kept trying to get back to his missus. Penelope must have been pretty keen on him too since she stuck it out so long. That's quite some enduring love you've go there. (I could also include Ulysses in this list. Partly for Leo and Molly Bloom – I doubt Norm would approve – but also for Joyce's love of language and Dublin itself. I'm not so keen on the place myself: give me Cork or Belfast any day, but still. Incidentally, the title of this post is lifted from the book, via Van Morrison.)

Moscow-Petushki: If you don't know what I'm talking about, read it. Various English versions, with varying titles exist. The Stephen Mulrine translation (Moscow Stations) is out of stock unfortunately, but if you can beg, borrow or steal a copy, do so as it's the best. Otherwise, this translation is easily available.

Anyhow, Venedkit Yerofeev's work is better than The Great Gatsby, Ulysses and even PG Wodehouse, which makes it the best of the 20th century. Seriously. It has many of the qualities of Dante and Homer's great work, only much funnier: the profound, moral and theological struggle ("Eat less, drink more, so as not to be a superficial atheist"), suffering (especially when he can't find anywhere to serve him a drink, the struggle to attain the paradise that is Petushki (heavy irony there from Venichka) and the reunion with his loved one. Of course, it being set in Communist Russia there's no chance of him succeeding. His massive and heroic consumption of booze might also make things rather tricky. And there is a second, equally touching love affair here: between a man and the hard stuff. Alcohol is his only lodestone, the only thing which supports him and gives unconditionally to him, his life partner, his everything and nothing.

To give you an illustration, here is one of the greatest passages from the book.

In a word I offer you Dog's Giblets, the drink that puts all others in the shade! It's not just a drink. It's the music of the spheres. What's the most beautiful thing in life? The struggle to free all mankind. But here's something even more beautiful. Write it down.

Zhiguli beer 100g
Sadko the Wealthy Guest shampoo 30 g
anti-dandruff solution 70 g
superglue 12 g
brake fluid 35 g
insecticide 20 g

Let it marinade for a week with some cigar tobacco, then serve.

I have incidentally received letters from idle readers recommending that the infusion this obtained be strained through a colander, no less. Yes, bung it into a colander and leave overnight. God only knows what next – all these additions and emmendations derive from a flabby imagination and lack of vision. That's where these absurd notions come from.

Anyway, your Dog's Giblets is served. Drink it in big gulps when the first stars appear. After two glasses of this, I tell you, a person becomes so inspired you can walk up to within five feet of them and spit in their moosh for a whole half-hour, and they won't utter a word.

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Blogger Glamourpuss said...

Personally, I've always loathed Wuthering Heights; it's nonsense, and not especially well written either. As to being wooed by D'Arcy, no thanks, all that faffing about and urgent declarations would be exhausting.

One of my favourite love stories is Silk by Allesandro Baricco - simple, understated, human.


10:22 am  
Anonymous Venichka said...

You should have quoted the passage in Moskva-Petushki about "real, Turgenev-style love" concerning the old man pissing himself

10:46 am  
Anonymous Venichka said...

Furthermore, the "readily available" translation you refer to is crap.

You also neglect to omit of his love for the Virgin Mary. (although his love in Petushki may be a false Madonna, or Mary Magdalene)

It is notable that the closest Our Hero attains to Petushki is the station of "Pokrov" - which is Russian for "veil", and in particular that White Veil of the BVM that is the Protector of Russia.
(Also the location of the main biological warfare centre in the USSR).
Then he notices a rude word has been written on the opposite window of the train from that which he expected, so understands he is going the opposite direction and will never reach Petushki, only Moscow and murder by the horde of 4 (Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin)

Incidently, travelling from Barking to Grays on the c2c Sunday shuttle service is the nearest thing to that line in the UK, I think. Last time I was there I was the only person on my carriage with a ticket. Although the inspectors wouldnt' accept payment in Vodka, as in the book,, they just gave up trying to issue penalty fares

11:00 am  
Blogger bill said...

Yes Ven, I know about the religious aspects - hence the comparison with Dante.

But while its another dimension to the thing, what concerned me here was eros rather than agape, or human love rather than the more numinous spiritual form. We are non angelorum sed angeli here, after all.

12:05 pm  
Anonymous Nick said...

was Brideshead Revisited on the list?

4:06 pm  
Blogger bill said...

It wasn't, Nick, but it's a good choice for the type of love story that isn't just about two hearts beating as one.

Of course, Waugh (and to a slightly more detached degree, Ryder) seems primarily in love with the aristocratic, big house ethos. Then there's the choice between personal relationships and religious belief, then there are the love stories.

It divides opinion, that book, and it has spawned a thousand unforgivably affected undergraduates (I knew one fellow who had a teddy called Aloysius. He is now a priest), but I like it still.

8:47 pm  

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