The Jason Cowley Column

February 2006 /

In the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington of 11 September 2001, Ian McEwan wrote of how confronted with the certainty of their own deaths some of the people on the hijacked plane that would eventually crash in a field in Pennsylvania as well as those in the burning towers in Manhattan used their mobile phones to call their loved ones. A new technology has shown us an ancient, human universal, he wrote. “There was really only one thing for her to say, those three words that all the terrible art, the worst pop songs and movies, the most seductive lies, can somehow never cheapen. I love you.”

In the early weeks of February as our high street shops become cluttered with the paraphernalia and ephemera of the love industry, we are forced, often reluctantly, to confront the question of love - in abstraction, and in our own lives, its presence and its absence. But love, as we know, takes many forms, often violent and destructive, and many of our greatest works of literature - those to which we return again and again - are love stories.

Here, in the spirit of 14 February, is my list of ten of the best, in no particular order and each exploring a different aspect of love.

Brideshead Revisited (1945) - Evelyn Waugh
The narrator of this ruminative novel is an Englishman called Charles Ryder. During the Second World War, and in disillusioned middle age, he recalls his youthful adventures at Oxford and a time when he was searching for “that low door in the wall ... which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden”. He passes through that door in the wall when he meets and falls in love with a fellow undergraduate called Sebastian Flyte, the youngest son of an aristocratic English Catholic family that has its own ancient country estate. Many years later, and now married, Ryder has an affair with Sebastian’s elder sister, Julia, who is separated from her American husband. But their relationship is doomed because Julia’s ultimate loyalty is not to Charles, who wants to marry her, but to her God. Brideshead is a novel of homosexual as well as heterosexual love, but it is also a story of how one aspirational young man falls in love with an entire family and their enchanted but careless way of life, a love that can never be properly returned. There are similarities, in atmosphere and mood, between Brideshead and Alain Fournier’s novel of youthful wonder, Le Grand Meaulnes, and Donna Tartt’s remarkable The Secret History.

An American Tragedy (1925) - Theodore Dreiser
There are also close similarities between Dreiser’s great naturalistic novel and Woody Allen’s most recent film, Match Point. In both book and film an ambitious young man from a poor family falls in love and begins a relationship with a charming rich girl while at the same time having a second, clandestine girlfriend, who is from his own social background and becomes pregnant by him. In both book and film the young man is forced to choose between loyalty and money, between becoming a father and a new life rich in fabulous possibilities. In each case, he finds that he cannot choose, and that murder offers the only way out from his dilemma. Dreiser’s novel was filmed, in 1951, as A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor.

The Great Gatsby (1926) - F Scott Fitzgerald
Jay Gatsby, like Clyde Griffiths, the doomed hero of Dreiser’s novel, is an American dreamer from the wrong side of the tracks, the poor boy who conforms to the American ideal of the self-made man. He believes in the power of money to do anything he wants - to liberate him from his ancestral inheritance and even to recapture the past. To Gatsby his lost love, Daisy, who is from a wealthy southern family, embodies the splendour and possibility of America. He enters her life wrapped in the “invisible cloak” of his army uniform. Her voice, he says, “is full of money”. War separates them. In his long absence, Daisy marries. It becomes Gatsby’s dream to reclaim her through acquiring the kind of wealth that he naively believes will make him worthy of her. Fitzgerald locates happiness in the search for love, rather than its realisation; in the dream of desire, not in its fulfillment.

Pride and Prejudice (1813) - Jane Austen
The romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy continues to delight each new generation of readers. Here, at last, is proof that lovers can indeed live happily ever after, which is the aspiration of even the most spirited and independent of Jane Austen’s clever and witty heroines. Where would Helen Fielding be without this novel? And where would Bridget Jones be without her own Mr Darcy, the intense leading man who, despite his reserve, haughtiness and occasional cruelties, knows how to treat a woman properly.

Madame Bovary (1856) - Gustave Flaubert
Emma Bovary, the spirited young heroine of this wonderful novel, is convent-educated and an enthusiastic reader of romantic fiction. She is willful and capricious - and she longs for excitement. Married to a decent but dull provisional doctor, her life is thwarted. Love and indeed urgent, passionate life are resolutely elsewhere for her. She embarks on two affairs, both different, both disastrous, about which her husband remains ignorant until after her premature death. Flaubert’s novel warns of the dangers of romantic love and, as in so much French literature - one thinks especially of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, Pierre Ambroise Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses and, most recently, the fictions of Michel Houellebecq - sex and death are insistently linked. You respond to Emma’s romantic struggles and yearning while admiring the decency of her unfortunate husband. He reveals in his loyalty a different kind of love - founded on duty, respect and friendship.

Beauty and Sadness (1961) - Yasunari Kawabata
In 1968, Yasunari Kawabata became the first Japanese to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was an elegist: nearly everything he wrote is suffused with anxiety and an acute sense of loss. His best novels - The Sound of the Mountain, Beauty and Sadness, Snow Country - are among the strangest and most memorable I have ever read. Erotic obsession and death are insistently linked in his fiction, as in Madame Bovary, and the preoccupation with mutability is profound. Beauty and Sadness is about the relationship between a successful married writer and a young girl, whom he abandons, even though she is pregnant with his child. The child does not live. The writer goes on to write his relationship with the girl in a bestselling novel. Many years later, he returns to Kyoto to find out what became of the girl he loved and left behind, and discovers that she is now a painter but has never remarried. Instead, she lives with a young woman - their relationship is sexual, though this is suggested rather than enacted - who knows all about the aged writer and uses seduction as a form of revenge for what happened all those years before.

Enduring Love (1997) - Ian McEwan
This is an anti-love story, a work of obsession and violent sexual passion. Two men meet at the scene of a fatal ballooning accident in the Oxfordshire countryside. They are affected in different ways: Joe Rose, the narrator, is tormented by the notion that he could have done more to save the man who dies in the accident. Jed Parry, a mystic and neurotic, believes that both he and Joe were brought together at the scene of the accident for a purpose and that their destiny is to be together. He begins to stalk Joe, who is a science writer, and thus a hard rationalist, turning up at his house and at his place of work, calling him on the phone and writing to him. Meanwhile, Joe’s relationship with his own partner begins to disintegrate, destabilized by guilt and paranoia. Unrequited love is one of the great engines of fiction and here McEwan reminds us of how too often it can lead either to violence or despair. Enduring Love was made into a very good film, starring Daniel Craig, soon to reinvent himself as James Bond.

Brokeback Mountain (1997) - Annie Proulx
Annie Proulx’s wonderful short story was first published in the New Yorker magazine, where it became something of a sensation. Ang Lee’s excellent film version deserves to be garlanded with prizes and awards in the spring. The story tells of the love and friendship between two tough, laconic cowboys in the American West. They first meet in 1963, while looking after sheep on the wilderness of Brokeback Mountain, and continue, irregularly, to see each other over the following decades during which they marry and have children. The two cowboys never speak of “love” but their need for each other is profound, and what they share on the rare occasions that they are together, those days of grace together, is true and pure. But the prejudices of wider society as well as a mutual fear of acknowledging the truth of who they really are and what they feel for each other prevents them from sharing a life together. So this is a story of willed separation and of the impossibility of a love that can never be named.

Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” The arresting opening sentence of Marquez’s best novel tells you all you need to know about this tale of a love that, after initial rejection and then separation, endures for more than 50 years and finds an unexpected flowering in old age. The wonder of romantic love - love hoped for and love unfulfilled - is contrasted with the compromises of love as routine and as domestic obligation.

Othello (1604) - William Shakespeare
Shakespeare’s tragedy continues to be performed all over the world, proof of its contemporary relevance and universality. Othello, the Moor of Venice, the warrior, is destroyed by the absoluteness of his love for his loyal young wife, Desdemona. Tricked by diabolical intent into believing that she is unfaithful, Othello plots his revenge. If his wife has wronged him, he reasons, the whole universe is false. He seeks metaphysical justification for his act of revenge - murder. Yet even as he prepares to smother a sleeping Desdemona with a pillow, he longs to make love to her, enchanted as he is by her “balmy breath” and skin as smooth as “monumental alabaster”. But he must act, and he does: each man, it is said, kills the thing he loves most. Othello lives just about long enough to discover that he was wrong, that Desdemona was pure and that he was grotesquely misled.