Book lovers: Eileen Battersby’s Valentine’s Day reads
From Persuasion to Wuthering Heights, The Dead to Le Grand Meaulnes, make a date with one of these classics
Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
You could listen to Rachmaninov’s piano concertos or even better, just about everything Chopin ever composed….or perhaps wallow in endless rewatchings of Casablanca and practice saying “Here’s looking at you kid…” perfecting your rueful smile…while, of course, unless you happen to be a refugee fleeing for your life it’s still a free world – well, at least it is until the deranged US president insults a leader with an itchy finger – so you can buy as much chocolate as you like and exactly how many red roses does it take to win a heart or heal one?
It may be safer and more dignified to sit quietly with a copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and/ or the Collected Verse of Robert Browning, author of Meeting at Night with its haunting closing stanza:
“Then a mile of warm, sea-scented beach;
Three fields to cross till a farm appears;
A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, thro’ its joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each!”
The great Victorian led a quiet life until at the age of 35 he eloped with Elizabeth Barrett, thus consolidating his status as a true romantic. But in the absence of someone intent on elopement (a meaningful elopement does require two) or candlelit suppers, and assuming that you already have read Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, posthumously published in 1905, consider the following selection which offer variations on that exciting, high-risk lottery we call love.
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Published in 1774, when the great man was only 25 and bruised by a bout of unrequited love for a good friend’s betrothed, Goethe had finally conceded defeat when he heard about another rejected suitor’s response to rejection. The result is this poignant tale about young Werther from a time when if young men did not manage to fall in battle they could instead kill themselves for love. It is the first tragic novel of European literature and also the first bestseller. It concludes with the chilling: “Guildsmen bore the body. No priest attended him.” It is wonderful stuff.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
Everyone loves Pride and Prejudice and why not? It is brilliantly written, has superb characterization and dialogue as well as insight into human folly. Austen was a gifted observer with a flair for nuance. And even if the personal beauty of Colin Firth (I know – I interviewed him) has drawn readers who may not otherwise have ventured into Austen’s world, no matter, they now have the source material as well as the fabricated fantasy. Still, Pride and Prejudice is about the realities of social class and the pressure on women to marry into money. Austen’s romantic masterpiece is Persuasion, her final novel which was published in 1818, a year after her death. In it, Anne Elliot, second daughter of an impoverished idiot father, Sir Walter, has foolishly broken off her engagement with a young naval officer, Fredrrick Wentworth, on bad advice and has had to live with her regrets. Years pass and he returns, now a captain, and eligible. His attention is cast at two sisters, the Musgrove girls, and all Anne, now dangerously aged – 27, can do is seethe politely. Things happen. Austen’s finest novel and that is saying something.
Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
This cautionary study of the destructive power of love marks the birth of the Russian novel. The poet Pushkin was a hothead and his own worst enemy. He was also a genius and clearly a natural romantic, the sort of guy who gets involved in duels, and did, and died from his wounds on January 29th, 1837, at only 37. But before this disaster, and during various other adventures, he did publish in 1833 a complete and final edition of his dramatic verse novel, which had been composed and circulated in sections between 1823 and 1831.
It is an astonishing technical feat as much as a compelling account of the twists and turns a naïve young girl’s devotion to a fop takes. The girl, forsaken and hurt, does eventually wed and matures. Meanwhile the fop also changes and when he does see the true worth of Tatyana, it is too late for both of them. She chooses duty and as for Onegin: “He could not stir./ By what a storm his heart was shaken./ What pride, what grief/ what thoughts of her!” Forget Tolstoy’s Anna – although her characterisation is a superb element in a magnificent novel, Anna is not particularly sympathetic whereas Tatyana is heroic and beguiling.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
What? Do I hear dissent? This is one of my all-time favourite novels and while Heathcliff has his critics, I believe in his demented world view. Published in 1847, the only novel by a poet who died unmarried at 30, Wuthering Heights is intense and unwavering in its examination of the sheer madness inflicted by doomed passion. Harrowing and brutal, Bronte wrote as one possessed and this early Victorian family saga will never lose its power because Bronte looked beyond passion to larger issues of obsession and eternity; the ordinary and surreal; sin and damnation. If ever a novel sustains its hold on a reader throughout a reading life, it is this one which most truly exposes the angry residue often left by feelings which began as love.
First Love by Ivan Turgenev
For an author with such a body of work – Rudin (1855), A House of Gentlefolk (1858), On the Eve (1859), Fathers and Sons (1861), Smoke (1867) and Virgin Soil (1876), which chronicled Russian life from the 1830s to the 1870s – it is surprising that his delicate novella First Love, which was published in 1860, should be so little known.
A man recalls a painful episode from his school days. He can’t speak about it, so he writes it all down. As a young boy he fell in love with a slightly older girl who moved in next door. She was the daughter of an impoverished princess and the girl, Zinaida, had a circle of admirers. The narrator begins to notice a change in her personality. He realises that she is suffering and deduces that she too, is in love and that her passion is also doomed.
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Rarely considered to be a romantic, James nonetheless created an enduring study of unrequited love in the character of Ralph Touchett in this splendid novel, which was published in 1881 and showcases the architectural control James applied to narrative.
Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier
Boyhood idealised and innocence lost are major themes in this most romantic of novels written by a writer who was to die on the Meuse within a month of joining the French army in 1914. It is a dream-like, Symbolist work confronting the passage from childhood fantasy to adult realities. It is both haunting and exquisite, unsettling in its absolute beauty.
The Dead by James Joyce
For all his linguistic and stylistic innovation, Joyce was at heart an old style traditionalist with an interest in Ibsen. At the risk of being stoned in the street by an army of Joyceans, I believe The Dead to be his best work. Tender and human with a nod to Chekhov, the story which was first published in 1914 and is included in the collection, Dubliners, observes Gabriel Conroy, who is pompous, yet clearly loves his wife Gretta. They have been attending the annual Christmas party given by his aunts, the Misses Morkan in Dublin, snow is falling and it reminds her of a young man, Michael Furey, who loved her years earlier. His vigil in the rain waiting for her cost him his life. She has never forgotten him. Her distraction upsets Gabriel, who feels she is remote and has had a life elsewhere. Joyce juxtaposes youthful love with its older counterpart to heartbreaking effect.
Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau
The multi-talented Cocteau also fought in the Great War but he survived and dominated the arts world in France, mastering a variety of genres including fiction as this daring novel published in 1929 shows. Two children, Elizabeth and her somewhat younger brother Paul, are living with their mother. She dies but they remain together and begin The Game. Their world is private and theirs alone. One of the darker love stories, but a strange romance it most certainly is.
Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali
This is a gentle, deeply moving and, to be honest, unforgettable love story. A tentative young Turkish man is despatched to Berlin to learn about business, instead he discovers literature – cue Turgenev – and becomes entrance by a self-portrait. The artist is an independent young woman with a philosophical turn of mind. First published in 1943, Ali’s gorgeous romance did not conform to traditional notions of male behaviour. Yet when it did attract a readership in Turkey almost eight years ago, it quickly achieved bestseller status. Finally translated last year by Maureen Freely and Alexander Dawe, it is currently beguiling English-language readers – it will make you weep but then so does the film Manchester by The Sea and that’s another masterpiece with love at its huge heart.
In Love by Alfred Hayes
Even without the title, the author’s name will send red alert notices to readers. Hayes wrote seven novels including My Face for the World to See (1958), which should help to put the overrated La La Land in context. It is a devastating noir study of Hollywood and what aspiring ambition can do when it finally acknowledges failure and there is no second chance.
Well, In Love, published in 1953, opens with yet another man in a bar with a story to tell. It is some story, a meticulously recalled account of a love affair between the man and the wistful, damaged young woman whom he remembers once saying: “….probably nobody would ever be mad about her, really mad, and shoot himself out of sheer love, and she sighed and reconciled herself to it…..it would be sort of nice, she thought, to be really madly loved and have somebody actually threaten to kill himself about her….”
In Love is so powerful, you can’t help suspecting that the author must have either lived through this affair or witnessed it. The precise conversational language sustains a mood of angry regret – it could make you feel a bit better about having had a bad romance – or it may well scare you off romance for life. Either way, In Love is compellingly authentic.
The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
A Booker winner when it was still called Booker, this elegant, crafted novel evokes the England of the 1930s and its political undercurrents, yet most of all it is a love story. Ayoung woman loves a man, Stevens the butler, who appears so bound to duty he cannot feel. Yet he does, only discipline and duty are all, leaving him to regret his life.
Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
Proulx is more known for her salty wit than for tender emotion yet this short story deserves its place in any selection of enduring love stories. Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are ranch hands. They are contrasting personalities and Proulx has never been better than when charting the evolution of their bond and how it survives separation and censure. First published in the New Yorker on October 13th, 1997, it is a landmark work and beyond beauty, it may well be perfection.
The Married Man by Edmund White
Rarely has a writer balanced artistry and stylistic elegance with candid humour and empathy as well as White. In The Married Man (2000) Austin is a middle-aged American working in Paris. By chance he meets Julien, a young French architect, who is married. They become involved. It is a love acted out against a backdrop of the Aids epidemic. Tragedy intervenes and Austin torn between loyalty to a former partner and devotion to his beloved, sets out to fulfil a promise which takes them to the Sahara.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times. Her debut novel, Teethmarks on my Tongue, was published last year