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Posts Tagged ‘Marriage’

Romeo & Juliet Make an Omelet

Sunday, February 14, 2010 @ 11:02 AM  posted by Mark

The classical idea of romance is tragic—the lovers want something they really can’t have in this lifetime, and so someone must ultimately be sacrificed to the idea of love. Romance survives as an ideal precisely because it can never quite be realized in this imperfect world, where a collicky baby keeps Juliet up half the night and then Romeo prattles irritatingly at the breakfast table about the Veronese government. Imagine Romeo and Juliet living happily ever after, surrounded by a brood of yammering children, Romeo with a paunch and baggy eyes, Juliet with stretch marks. Their days are filled with the (possibly happy) tedium of everyday life, but happy or sad, the idea of eternal union was not what Shakespeare was going for—that’s not romance—it was the ideal of eternal longing.

Romance has a tough time in this modern world because of our many freedoms: we are free to marry or not, to sleep with our lovers or not, to divorce and remarry without censure, and no one really believes in immortal damnation for the soul who commits adultery or divorces or defies the will of the parents by eloping with someone from another kingdom. In our individual lives, the barriers to love that once inspired romance have disappeared, and without real obstacles, the ideal of romance simply does not apply. That’s why there are so many absurd, unbelievable obstacles thrown in the way of modern lovers, which make both their romance and their union ridiculous (How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, anyone?). But does the ideal of romance survive today?

Happily, yes.

Ian McEwan’s Atonement is not, in its main concerns, a romance. It asserts the redemptive value of art in a world where not all mistakes can be confessed or forgiven. However, the romance around which the major action revolves is classically romantic with a modern twist—not only are the lovers sacrificed for the ideal of Love, their romance takes place only after the lovers are already dead. It’s an ingenious way for us to eat our cake and have it to: by displacing the romance with a metafictional device, McEwan creates a satisfying romance in the classical sense and uses it to make a statement about storytelling itself. One of the best novels of the aughts.

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient features a straight up classical romance, with real obstacles of class, adultery, enmity and the lure of Impossible. The fact that it won the Booker Prize indicates how much we still long for the classical myth of Romance in our fictions and that, however self-aware and detached our modern attitude toward love, compared with earlier eras, we’re not beyond believing that our feelings are more important than life itself. The tragic sacrifice of the lovers in this novel return us to a conception of romance as ethereal, impossible and desirable.

Alain de Botton’s charming novel On Love is a prime example of what happens to romance in modern times. Witty and deft, the novel nevertheless replaces all the tragedy of classical Love with mathematical calculations, the exaltation of the everyday over transcendent passion, and the acknowledgment that any particular romance is just one in a string of romances that you will indulge and that will fail before you settle into marriage. A delightful book, with its share of surprise, discovery and romantic gestures, On Love captures the true-life experience of love for many of us moderns: engaging, essential but not transcendent. The One True Love has been replaced by the one you happen, by luck and effort, to work out all the details with. No lightning strikes or love potions here.

Finally, I would like to recommend the tale that started it all, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult. Quite a few versions exist, with minor variations, but this is the Bedier version. It’s a medieval story, so it has a fairy tale ring to our modern ears, and it has everything you want in a romance: passion, longing, adultery, battles with giants, dangerous voyages and most of all, a love to die for. As the model for all romances that came after it, right down to The English Patient, The Romance of Tristan and Iseult is still the best tale of love you can find: quick-paced, moving and tragic, it will make you long for the days when everyone knew what romance was and knew how to make real romantic gestures.

On a personal note: though the story of romance has been degraded by modern freedoms, I would still say that it’s possible to use the old, tragic gestures to express true love. Today, Valentine’s Day, my wife and I will be attending a matinee of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, after which I will make her favorite dish for dinner, which we’ll eat by candlelight. Is that romantic??

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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During this Valentine’s Week survey of Romances, we’ve noticed that a lot of characters in literary romances kill themselves for love. So we’ve invited some of the most notable lover-suicides here today to discuss their choices, along with Lucy Moderatz, the main character of the 1995 film While You Were Sleeping, who does not kill herself for love but lives happily ever after. This discussion is open for anyone’s comments, but let’s begin by asking Emma Bovary, wife of a successful doctor in a quiet town—why? Why kill yourself?

Emma Bovary: Of course, my first thought was to kill Charles, but he’s so boring he probably wouldn’t have noticed, and then I’d still be stuck in that backwater Tostes with all that debt! Then I thought of killing Rodolphe, who wouldn’t give me any money—you’d think he’d owe me something, after what he did. Honestly, I thought of killing everyone—Leon, the priest, even the butcher—but I was really, really depressed at the time, and flat broke, so I just got tired of it all and took the arsenic. I mean, if Rodolphe had just eloped with me in the first place, like he said he would, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, so maybe you should ask Rodolphe why he killed me!

Isabelle Huppert as Emma Bovary

Lucy Moderatz: But why not just get a divorce, declare bankruptcy and move to Rouen? There must be lots of nice guys in Rouen.

Emma: Divorce? Not possible! Bankruptcy? And go to prison? This is 19th Century France, you nitwit!

Lucy: Hey!

Bookmarkzero: Anna, can you relate to Emma’s suicide? Were you motivated by the same concerns?

Anna Karenina: Of course, I can relate. When divorce is not possible, and you can’t express your true love—

Zero: But Anna, did you kill yourself because of Karenin’s refusal to grant a divorce, or because Vronsky was cheating on you?

Tatiana Samoilova as Anna Karenina.

Tatiana Samoilova as Anna Karenina.

Anna: First of all, there’s no proof that he actually was cheating on me. So there’s that. And it’s true, everything just got to be too much. I mean, even if I get a divorce, I’m out of society, and I’m done for. I couldn’t have gone to the balls or the races, I had no friends, and I obviously couldn’t hang around with peasants all day. It was horrible—if I had gotten the divorce and then Vronsky had left me, it would have been the end of me. I don’t know—I think the morphine was messing with my head, too, but I honestly didn’t see any way out.

Lucy: But what about your children, what about Seryozha and Annie? Didn’t you think of them?

Anna (stares at Lucy): Annie didn’t like me anyway, and Seryozha. . . well, obviously, I didn’t want things to work out like they did. I killed myself—I’m not proud of it!

Lucy: But why not just demand a divorce, get the alimony and take the kids to Moscow? You could get a job! What were you good at?

Anna (to moderator): Who is this bitch?

Zero: Let’s bring in Juliet Capulet, who killed herself at her dead lover’s side. Would you do it again, knowing what you know now?

Claire Danes as Juliet

Juliet: What do I know now? My one true love is still dead. What did I have to live for?

Emma: That totally makes sense to me. If Rodolphe had died in my arms, I would have killed myself, too.

Anna: Me, too. You go, Juliet!

Emma: Right, better to get it over with early. No offense, but if he had lived, Romeo would probably have turned into a jerk like every other man.

Juliet: What! Take that back, you fusty baggage!

Zero: All right, let’s keep this civil. Lucy, did you ever think of killing yourself for love?

Lucy: Well. . . (thinks). . . not really. I mean, it was sad that Peter was in that coma, and then when he woke up. . .and Jack found out about everything. I mean, I quit my job—does that count?

Anna (bewildered): Quit your job?

Emma: This bitch doesn’t know anything. She has a job, she can sleep with anybody she wants and nobody cares, she can have a kid by herself, get divorced and remarried and divorced. What the hell does she know about love?

Juliet: That’s right! My family would have slain me in an honor killing if I had slept with Romeo out of wedlock, and then they would have killed Romeo and half his family. Marriage and sex and fidelity obviously mean nothing to you!

Lucy: Hey, that’s not fair. All I ever wanted was to be married.

Sandra Bullock as Lucy Moderatz

Anna: Sure, but you have choices. You can vote. You can sleep with that guy down the hall and who cares? No one ostracizes you from society, if a peasant like you could be said to have a society.

Lucy: You know, just because you lived in different times, that doesn’t give you a right to judge my feelings. I feel just as deeply about love as all of you did.

Juliet: Oh yeah?  (withdraws a dagger from her skirts and offers it to Lucy) Prove it.

Emma: Yeah, prove it.

Lucy (recoils): But I’m not going to kill myself. I’m happily married.

Emma (to moderator): Why did you invite her? What does she know about anything? (turns to Juliet) Give me that dagger!

Lucy: I’m getting out of here! (jumps up and runs away, followed closely by Emma, Anna and Juliet)

Zero: I guess we’ll have to resume this discussion at another time. Until then, let me leave you with this final question: Would you kill yourself for love?

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Does Romance lead to Marriage? Turgenev’s Spring Torrents

Thursday, February 11, 2010 @ 01:02 PM  posted by Mark

Several of you took issue with my Valentine’s Week post about Pride and Prejudice, saying that I was unjustly dismissive of Austen only because the romances in P&P lead to happy marriages. Isn’t that where romance is supposed to lead, to a happy marriage? What’s wrong with a happy ending?

There’s nothing wrong with happy endings. Personally, I like happy endings. But Romance does not lead to happy marriages (at least, not in literature), and if you see a happy ending, you’ll know that something other than true Romance is really happening.

Romance in literature is, by its very nature, against marriage. In fact, even the “romantic” stories that end happily in marriage end with the wedding: these “happy ending” novels and plays and movies have no interest whatsoever in the married couple or their happiness, since there is no drama in marriage, no ideal of longing—all these stories care about is the obstacles to love. The happy ending wedding brings characters who have been in defiance of community morals back into line with accepted codes. We don’t go to romances for happy endings, because that’s not what they’re designed to deliver: we go to romances because we want rapturous longing that doesn’t care about society’s rules, the superiority of noble feelings to everyday morality, and the exaltation of the individual over the community. When they end happily in marriage, these stories reaffirm a basic covenant that they’ve spent their entire length contradicting.

Nastassja Kinski played Polozova in a 1989 film of Spring Torrents.

Great romances always make their protagonists contend against arranged or loveless marriages, hypocrisy, duty and necessity; they are in favor of a transcendent emotion that cannot be contained by society. When a great romance ends in marriage, the great romance itself ends and the lovers are absorbed back into society; when a great romance ends in death or exile, the great romance lives on past the lives of the lovers, as a grand, swooning ideal of love superior to the mere laws of the community (or physics). In the story of Romance, the lovers must die so that Romance itself can live.

Ivan Turgenev‘s curious little novel Spring Torrents is an excellent example of the great love that refuses to end in marriage. It’s especially telling that there are no good reasons in the story of the novel for the protagonists not to have a happy ending—the main character, Sanin, simply chooses not to marry his beloved. This choice is represented as an unhappy one, made seemingly against his will, but in fact he must choose not to marry his beloved in order to prolong his romantic feelings for her and not ruin them with the less dramatic comforts of marriage.

As Jane Austen captures the plight of middle class Englishwomen with wit and clarity, Turgenev describes the stranger in a strange land with insight and sympathy. The protagonist of Spring Torrents is Sanin, a minor Russian aristocrat traveling abroad for the first time, having adventures and falling in love. (Here‘s a clip of Timothy Hutton as Sanin in the 1989 film, doing a Russian mating dance for Gemma). Through a series of mishaps, he is stranded temporarily in Frankfurt, where he falls in love with Gemma, a clerk in her family’s pastry shop. Gemma is already engaged to another man, Herr Kluber, but Sanin falls instantly in love with her, anyway (why not?). In the course of events, Sanin saves Gemma’s brother’s life; and, more importantly, when a soldier insults Gemma, Sanin defends her honor when her fiance will not. Eventually, Gemma rejects Herr Kluber and agrees to marry Sanin. Sanin is overjoyed, the family is happy, Gemma is happy: cue music, roll credits.

Not so fast! Jane Austen might have Sanin marry Gemma, now that the obstacles to their love have been examined and exorcised, but Turgenev is not interested in affirming the basic structure of marriage or society’s rules. He’s so interested in keeping his Romance between Gemma and Sanin alive that he subverts it with a ruinous, unmotivated, even cruel plot twist. In order to pay for the wedding, Sanin agrees to sell some land in Russia to an aristocratic Russian woman, Polozova, who is sojourning in a nearby town. While away from Gemma transacting this business, he has an affair with the woman (who is married!), and then he abandons Gemma and follows Poozova and her husband to Paris. There, he is tormented by both Polozova and his love for Gemma and ultimately returns to Petersburg a broken man. In a coda, we learn that Sanin loved Gemma for the rest of his life; in his old age, he travels back to Frankfurt to find her and learns that she is happily married. Gemma forgives him for abandoning her.

If we didn’t understand that Romance is about eternal longing rather than happy marriage, the plot of Spring Torrents would be incoherent. As an instance of Romance, though, it’s perfectly realized. Sanin himself doesn’t even understand why he chooses to undermine his great love for Gemma, but we as readers know it is because, in the myth of Romance, great love is always opposed to marriage. Sanin chooses to desperately desire Gemma forever rather than have her because by doing so he may pine for an ideal that is always alive in his heart rather than live in an untranscendent reality.

Despite the fact that I’ve just spilled the plot to Spring Torrents, I would still recommend it, because, like all great literature, its value is not in its plot, and there is one sublime extended scene near the end of the book that will stay with you long after you finish reading this slender volume.

Romance is an ideal of passionate desire. Marriage is a reality of devotion. Romance places the lover’s own satisfaction above everything—God, family, law. Marriage places the partner’s well-being above one’s own. Are these two kinds of love mutually exclusive? Maybe not in life, but in literature?

If you know a passionate novel of romance whose main couple is already married to each other at the beginning and stays together through the end, please let me know.

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