The love stories that writers love
From sultry sexuality to exquisite longing, love is one of literature’s most rewarding and enduring themes. Authors reveal the consummate fiction that won their hearts
Ali MacGraw and Ryan O’Neal in Love Story. Photograph: Getty Images
Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera is my favourite novel of love. From its evocations of sultry sexuality and passionate courtship to its picture of a marriage that shouldn’t work but somehow does, it has a truth on every page. And oh, what dizzying, ravishing sentences.
“The girl raised her eyes to see who was passing by the window, and that casual glance was the beginning of a cataclysm that still had not ended half a century later… It was the year they fell into devastating love. Neither one could do anything except think about the other, dream about the other, and wait for letters with the same impatience they felt when they answered them.”
“Together they had overcome the daily incomprehension, the instantaneous hatred, the reciprocal nastiness, and fabulous flashes of glory in the conjugal conspiracy. It was the time when they both loved each other best, without hurry or excess, when both were most conscious of and grateful for their incredible victories over adversity. Life would still present them with other moral trials, of course, but that no longer mattered: they were on the other shore.”
Joseph O’Connor is McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. This week, his novel Star of the Sea will be published in Cuba, where it will be launched by President Higgins on his official visit
I love a thwarted literary romance so, of course, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are favourites. But a book that slayed me was Love’s Civil War, edited by Victoria Glendinning. It’s the letters and diaries that document the love affair between Elizabeth Bowen and Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie. Bowen is achingly passionate towards Ritchie in her letters (his haven’t survived) but his diary entries, and multiple affairs, outline a different story. Still, Ritchie loved Bowen in his own way and they had a solid friendship and a great meeting of minds, though Bowen’s longing for him is often heart-breaking to read.
Nuala O’Connor’s latest novel is Miss Emily
It was Claire-Louise Bennett’s essay, I am Love, in gorse magazine, that led me to read By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept. The novella, by Elizabeth Smart, is intense, unsettling and fierce; it’s not a story of a sweet and gentle love, more about love of the obsessive, all-consuming, obliterating kind. “IT is coming. The magnet of its imminent finger draws each hair of my body, the shudder of its approach disintegrates kisses, loses wishes on the disjointed air. The wet hands of the castor-tree at night brush me and I shriek, thinking that at last I am caught up with.’
Tess Gallagher’s poetry collection, Dear Ghosts, contains some of the most beautiful writing on love I’ve ever encountered. Like Brushing Fate, dedicated to Lawrence Gallagher and Josie Gray. On re-reading it, I am felled, once again, by the ending:
“Only in that slip-knot time
of near-miss could those we are torn from
loom again, and in the starkness
of lost love, could you see me
afresh, Josie, and hesitate crucially
for him you never knew.”
And this from Sixteenth Anniversary, a poem written 16 years after the death of her husband, Raymond Carver :
“We survive on ritual, on
sweet peas in August, letting
the scent carry us, so at last the door
swings open and we’re both
on the same side of it
for a while.”
Danielle McLaughlin is the author Dinosaurs on Other Planets
In Raymond Carver’s 1981 story Why Don’t You Dance? a man places the contents of his house on his lawn. The television and the chiffonier. The stereo. The bed. The emptied-out rooms of his marriage. A young couple stop their car, hoping to buy some cheap furniture. He offers them drinks, puts on a record and in the evening shadows they dance, hold each other close in the lyric dusk of the American century. The longing is what is in the withheld. Love best told in its absence.
Eoin McNamee is author of The Blue Trilogy
In The Lady with the Lapdog by Anton Chekhov, Gurov, middle-aged, married, miserable, a serial philander who has never ever been in love though he’s had a lot of sex, is holidaying in Yalta when he spots a lady on the promenade with her dog. She’s holidaying like him, but without her husband and she’s lonely and he thinks, I’ll have her. And he does. He seduces her. They have a short affair. At the end of the summer she – her name is Anna as we discover – returns to the provinces and her husband and he to Moscow and his wife.
And that should be that. But this in Chekhov. Back in Moscow Gurov realises he‘s in love, for the first time ever: he tracks Anna down and finds his feelings are reciprocated. She starts coming to Moscow (for gynaecological reasons, she tells her husband) to see Gurov and the affair continues. And there the narrative ends…
This is a story about actual, real, messy middle-aged love. It is absolutely free of rancour and authorial judgment. (Imagine what modern writers would make of Gurov?) The storytelling is elegant and quick and lean and true as it always is in Chekhov. He is such an artful, artless storyteller. But it’s also more than simply a story scintillating told: it also contains a profound truth that we need to cleave to. According to Chekhov, in The Lady with the Lapdog, the best of ourselves is never what we show: the best is always what we hide, like Gurov hides his love for Anna and she hides her love for him. Our secret self living its secret life is where our decency is concentrated and what we show the world is false and fake and meaningless. That is why totalitarians (regardless of whether they are of the left or the right) hate the private sphere and always try to stamp it out. In other words – and as the world gets madder, never has this truth been more important – the first line of resistance will be through love between people. We would do well, in these febrile times, to remember that. To love as one chooses is to say no.
Carlo Gébler’s latest work is The Wing Orderly’s Tales
In VS Pritchett’s You Make Your Own Life, a man, waiting on a train in an anonymous English town on an anonymous summer afternoon, decides to kill time by getting a haircut. He enters a Gent’s Saloon and impatiently watches the barber finish with his current customer. The man is “having everything”. When they finish, the customer and the barber exchange a terse but evidentally mutually fond farewell, and the man leaves without paying. The barber begins cutting the narrator’s hair. Amid the usual trickle of unobtrusive chitchat that marks a typical interaction between a barber and his customer, the barber asks the narrator if he had noticed the previous customer’s throat. “What about his throat?” the narrator asks. “He cut his throat once.” the barber quietly replies.
To detail what follows would be to ruin the effect of Pritchett’s story. It features a not-quite-love triangle, and a litany of acts of the deepest turpitude, deceit and violence, all in the name of love, and all delivered in the amused, ironical, cheerily brisk voice of the barber.
Pritchett is a genius of human observation and a remarkable short story writer. This is one of his most memorable. It is a story not just about love, but the unaccountable human passions that seep over into mundane reality everwhere, and at all times. Early on in the story, still waiting for his haircut, the narrator picks up a newspaper: “A man had murdered an old woman, a clergyman’s sister was caught stealing gloves from a shop, a man who had identified the body of his wife at an inquest on a drowning fatality met her three days later on a pier. Ten miles down from this town the skeletons of men killed in a battle eight centuries ago had been dug up on the Downs.’’ In its own understated, English way, this story is an icy and mordant celebration of just such passions.
Colin Barrett is the author of Young Skins
Christine Dwyer Hickey
Great romances in literature tend to be complex, they are generally doomed or at least fraught with pain and loss. I’ve chosen a more direct approach to love - the song, Lay Lady Lay by the much maligned Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan.
The lyrics have a beautiful simplicity while the music swirls around them in an utterly seductive way. Dylan sings it as if he is a much older man, a man of experience who is also completely in love. His words are plaintive but never needy. He invites but does not demand. It is a song of love from the opposite side of the tracks - he is poor and she is not. We can also surmise that the love is in some way forbidden - she may be married or promised to another. Lay Lady Lay is not informed by the past nor does it promise a future; it is a song that is set firmly in the present - there is only this night in this dimly-lit room with that big brass bed in the corner.
Christine Dwyer Hickey’s latest novel is The Lives of Women. She has just been longlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award
When I think about depictions of love in literature I inevitably return to Colum McCann’s Fishing the Sloe-Black River where the mothers, and later the fathers, fish in vain for their departed children; the astonishing ending of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath when Rose of Sharon suckles the dying man and of course Gatsby, described by Nick Carraway as having “a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person”.
But if pushed for one story about what we call romantic love – the pain of its loss and our incessant need to search for it – it would be Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, whose central character stumbles into a “lost domain” and spends his life trying to find once more the love he experienced there. The poignancy of the story is amplified by the knowledge that a year after the novel’s publication Fournier would perish in the first World War.
David Park’s latest work is Gods and Angels
Marian Keyes is one of my favourite Irish authors and while her books deal with issues such as addiction, depression and abuse, there is usually a truly heart-warming love story at its core. Keyes has no patience for romanticising “bad boys”; the men she writes about are decent, dependable, bone-deep kind. After meeting her husband, Himself, it’s clear to me where she gets her inspiration.
Louise O’Neill’s latest novel is Asking for It
My favourite novel is LP Hartley’s The Go-Between. The love affair that lies at the heart of the story displays characteristics familiar to most of us in that it’s obsessive, romantic and completely one-sided. A young boy, Leo Colston, falls in love with his best friend’s older sister Marian during a Norfolk summer and although Marian uses him shamelessly to deliver letters to her farmer lover Ted, the boy is too innocent to recognise how he is being used. The discovery of her deception will leave a scar that shapes the rest of his life. So not the most cheerful of romantic stories for Valentine’s Day but certainly one of the most truthful.
John Boyne’s latest novel is The Heart’s Invisible Furies
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne
Favourite stories of love?
I’m going to select a few short stories, or novellas. Short story writers often capture the evanescent, mysterious, next to inexpressible nature of deep romantic love. It is as if, in the realm of fiction, the airiness of love can be caught best by the small light net of short story, the poetic prose form. It can express the simplicity and the complexity of this most common and glorious emotion perfectly.
Top of my list is William Trevor’s Reading Turgenev, which captures the mysterious essence of romantic love in its lovely evocation of countryside, flowers, nature, weather – he just “gets it” perfectly in this bitter-sweet prose poem.
Alice Munro is one of the world’s experts on love – romantic love, married love, filial love, maternal love.
Lots of her stories describe romantic relationships which end poignantly, ie in break-up, or death. Simon’s Luck is a wonderful example of the latter. An astonishingly good story with a happy ending, for once, is Accident, in her collection The Moons of Jupiter. Bardon Bus, also in that collection, is a perfect account of a passionate affair that ends, not badly, but just ends:
“When you start really letting go is this what it’s like? A lick of pain, furtive, darting up where you don’t expect it. Then a lightness. The lightness is something to think about.. a pleasure in taking into account, all over again, everything that is contradictory and persistent and unaccommodating about life.”
Tricks in one of her later collections is also superb, a tale of love and chance – and what is more chancy than love? And To Reach Japan is excellent too.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest work is The Shelter of Neighbours
Chekhov has that story The Lady with the Dog, which is sometimes translated with the title The Lady with the Little Dog or The Lady with the Pet Dog, A Lady with a Dog, Lady with Lapdog. Brian Friel adapted it for the stage a few years ago as The Yalta Game - that’s a good title. It’s the story of an affair. Gurov, a married man, seduces Anna, a married woman. He grows tired of her. But then he realises that he loves her after all. It is a story about constancy and inconstancy and it has perhaps the most perfect ending of any story: ‘And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.’ Perhaps a new and splendid life will begin. Perhaps not.
Ian Sansom’s latest novel is Essex Poison
My choice of love story is Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. It’s an intense exploration of, and explosion of, the language of love, which starts with the question “Why is the measure of love loss?” and never lets up. Almost 25 years after first reading it, I can still quote whole paragraphs. It has a rare quality too in that the narrator’s gender is never stated, so we don’t know if we are reading a story told by a straight man or a gay woman. But it’s also another love story: after it was published in 1992, Winterson was asked, along with other writers, to name the best writer in the English language. She chose herself, and Written on the Body as her book of the year. “No one working in the English language now comes close to my exuberance, my passion, my fidelity to words.” The thing is, I kind of agreed with her.
John Self is a critic
Katherine A Powers
My favourite love story is JR Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip, an account of the author’s passionate relationship with his unruly Alsatian bitch. She was a creature of “fond, radiant beauty” in his view, though opinions differed. He discovered that, after one visit, his friends were “a little forgetful about inviting her back”. Throughout, Ackerley casts himself as the dullard compared to Tulip. And being English, he is, of course, preoccupied with excretory functions and class; thus, Tulip’s feats in the first respect and Ackerley’s efforts to mate her with an adequately pedigreed partner take up a large and unseemly part of this funny and loving book.
Katherine A Powers is on the Board of the (U.S.) National Book Critics Circle and is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life – The Letters of JF Powers, 1942-1963
When Proust chose to document some aspect of the human condition, he didn’t mess around. You either did the thing properly – anatomised it in remorseless detail over hundreds of pages – or you didn’t do it at all. His treatment of romantic love is no exception, and his account (in Swann’s Way) of Charles Swann’s love for Odette de Crécy is arguably the consummation of his extraordinary art. In its outline, their story seems almost archetypal: he disdains her, then comes to obsess over her; she flatters him assiduously, but ultimately casts him aside. Its particular genius, though, is in its fanatically attentive exposition of the subjective experience of love, and in its examination of emotion as a primarily aesthetic experience. It’s no accident, after all, that Odette – who is, for Swann, inextricably associated with the fictional “Vinteuil sonata” – becomes the first major character in the literary canon to merit her own theme music.
Paraic O’Donnell is the author of The Maker of Swans, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson
The Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard’s 1980 award-winning novel features two orphaned Australian sisters, Caro and Grace Bell, who arrive in a drab postwar Britain to seek their fortune. It’s about the progression of love in the sisters’ lives, from seduction to betrayal, marriage to divorce, courtship to widowhood. The language is exquisite, the emotional effect, heartbreaking.
The hero of the novel is astronomer Ted Tice – hence the planetary motif of the novel - who holds steady to his devotion to the elder sister Caro. “The possibility that he might never, in a lifetime arouse her love in return, was a discovery touching all existence. In his desire and foreboding, he was like a man awake who watches a woman sleeping.” Unrequited love is not a lesser virtue in Hazzard’s scheme of things.
I read this novel first in my early 20s and identified with the heady illicit love affairs of the young sisters who were the same age as me. But now I see the compassionate wisdom in Hazzard’s writing about ageing emotion. What adds poignancy is that Hazzard died in December 2016 so this is like her last word on love.
Mary Morrissy’s latest book, Prosperity Drive, appears in paperback on February 23rd
“Reader, I married him.” If these four words from the final chapter of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre don’t tug at your heartstrings then I can only assume you are made of stone. I would happily argue the case for this being one of the most romantic lines in literature; the perfect denouement to the turbulent relationship between the eponymous governess – “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me” Jane - and her employer, Mr. Rochester. Although also a deliciously dark novel, it is Jane and Rochester’s epic struggle to be together, and the honesty of the exchanges between them – especially during the final scenes at Ferndean - that makes Jane Eyre my favourite literary love story. Read it, and weep.
Hazel Gaynor ’s latest novel is The Girl from the Savoy
In Justine (1957), the first novel of his Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell draws on his experience as a wartime intelligence officer in Egypt to conjure a shifting mirage of doomed love and haunted memory. Set in a multicultural Levant which had, by the time of publication, already melted in time, Justine gathers all the elements of high romance – mystery, sexual intrigue, enigmatic beauty, deadly peril and a cast of vivid characters – to summon the aching, life-defining regret of having once been young, passionate and in love in a lost time and place. If anyone has ever written more beautifully in English, I haven’t read it yet.
Ed O’Loughlin’s latest novel is Minds of Winter
Richard Brautigan’s I was trying to describe you to someone is less a story and more a narrative ode, a kind of casual-but-sparkling retelling of Shakespeare’s My Mistress’s Eyes. Brautigan – himself an inveterate faller-in-love-r – captures the nerve-surging joy and the electrical thrill of encountering someone whose very presence changes the landscape. It’s a gorgeous piece of writing – and at only a page and a half in length, a neatly-folded photocopy would fit snugly into any Valentine’s card.
(And if you’re after something a little less romantic, Brautigan’s heartbreakingly honest Love Poem is a timely reminder of the relief that sometimes follows the end of a relationship. Probably best not to put this one in a Valentine’s card...)
Thomas Morris’s debut collection is We Don’t Know What We’re Doing
Invitation to the Waltz and its sequel, The Weather in the Streets by Rosamund Lehman are, to my mind, two of the greatest books ever written about a woman’s interior life as she embarks on an (ultimately doomed) love affair. Lehman is so brilliant at showing us what it is to fall in love – from the first, adolescent stages where her heroine Olivia meets the dashing Rollo Spencer at a ball, to the knotty complexities of pursuing an affair with a married man later in life.
Lehman never flinches from the difficult realities of this situation, but there is a clarity and force to her writing that makes you empathise with all sides. Olivia pursues the affair aware of her own moral ambiguity and knowing there will be no neat, happy ending. It’s a predicament many of us can relate to and it seems vividly real. In Lehman’s hands, love is a wonderful sort of chaos – and all the more powerful for it.
The Party, Elizabeth Day’s new novel, will be published by 4th Estate on July 13th
Romeo and Juliet purely and defiantly expresses first love with a resounding truth. Two teenagers reeling in shared obsession battle their families and all else; they speak for everyone who has ever felt that dawning and unforgettable surge of intense delight and anticipation – the raw, incapacitating and isolating terror of beginner’s passion. Lucky for them, Shakespeare understood in language which is fresh, beautiful and immortal, while in Antony and Cleopatra, mature ardour, battle-hardened, wary, still vulnerable, compromised by politics and power, remains magnificently, and equally, all-consuming. Cleopatra speaks of “my man of men”. Antony the general reverts to boyish lover while, for all her known ferocity, Cleopatra’s “passions are made of nothing but the finest part of pure love”.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times. Her debut novel is Teethmarks on my Tongue
In Shakespeare’s sonnet 154, Cupid falls asleep and a chaste nymph steals the flaming torch of desire with which he ignites human passions. Being a good Puritan, she thrusts Cupid’s brand into a cool well so that ardour be banished forever. But instead of the flame being quenched by the water, it is the water that is heated by the flame, making a hot spring that bubbles forever. “...and this by that I prove,/ Love’s fire heats water, water cools not love.” And, happily, nothing else does either.
Fintan O’Toole’s latest work is Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks, which he co-edited
R J O’Donnell
I’m convinced they wrote a better class of love story back then – in 1926 – when Mikhail Sholokhov began writing And Quiet Flows the Don. The love affair occupies only one event among the many forces stirring on the grand Russian canvas: war, revolution, toil, superstitions, folk songs. And that makes it all the more gripping.
The fury of Gregor’s family is unleashed when he and Aksinia no longer hold back their clandestine love and their feelings burst into shameless view. Marrying him off to someone else doesn’t work. It takes a richer rival to bring the liaison to a crashing end.
R J O’Donnell is author of France, the Soul of a Journey
“Years ago, before the trains stopped running on so many of the branch lines...”: the opening of Alice Munro's short story Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage (2001) both locates the tale in time, and suggests the beginning of a fable of sorts. Other elements add to this atmosphere: the downtrodden protagonist - Johanna - is about to throw away her life, money, scraped-together security, is about to hare off to Saskatchewan to marry a man she has never met - and all because of a trick played on her by a pair of malevolent schoolgirls.
From this hateful tangle of unhappiness, Munro fashions an unlikely love story. Johanna's “preposterous” dream of love seems to come true - even if, at the hands of this most unsentimental of writers, the happy ending is only glimpsed and provisional. The fable-like motifs which pattern the story are turned on their heads - and the result is a deeply human tale of a possible love, a possible redemption.
Neil Hegarty’s debut novel Inch Levels comes out in paperback next month
The upper reaches of New York City society in the 1870s practiced a way of life that was codified and predictable to within an inch of its stifling existence; and Newland Archer in Edith Wharton’s masterly The Age of Innocence (1920) is its mascot. Pampered, complacent, obtuse, his social standing is about to be confirmed by betrothal to May Welland. But - enter May’s cousin Ellen, recently returned from Europe and an ill-starred marriage to ruffianly Count Olenski. Pursue her Newland must. And Wharton follows him with stylistic and psychologic brilliance, combining tartness and sympathy in ways that are not only fully alive to Newland’s new-found desire but to the social milieu in which it, in its misguided innocence, tries to make a home for itself.
George O’Brien is an author and critic