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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Ondaatje’

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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