Happy Valentine’s Day one and all! I couldn’t resist a post on romance, call me a sentimental fool if you will. Only, in literature as in life, authentic, goosebump-raising, heartbeat-skipping kind of romance is very hard to find. There’s a landfill site of trashy schmalz out there, that’s for sure, but for me you can’t call it romance if you know what you’re going to get. Romance is about not knowing; it’s about weaving a fantasy or cradling a fragile secret. Roland Barthes, the French theorist, wrote a strange yet beautiful book called Fragments: A Lover’s Discourse, in which he declared himself astonished that lovers did not simply dissolve in the aftermath of a first kiss, because up until then the romance of the relationship had been grounded in the complete absence of the other person. Their real, corporeal presence, face to face with one another, was going to mean a total overhaul of the shared dream that has so far driven the couple together. Hence effective romance is about the careful construction of the delightful daydream, it’s about exploring the landscape of a fantasy world, its about toppling the barriers to understanding that grind relationships down in real life and embracing instead a pure, instinctual, primal knowledge of the loved one. And for me as a reader, to be really good, it has to be surprising.
I’ll give you an example of a literary moment that I found affectingly romantic in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. In this encounter, Laurence Selden has come across Lily Bart in a moment of trouble, and seeing her anxious and concerned has altered his evaluation of her superficial but charming beauty:
‘His attitude had been one of admiring spectatorship, and he would have been almost sorry to detect in her any emotional weakness which should interfere with the fulfilment of her aims. But now the hint of this weakness had become the most interesting thing about her. He had come on her that morning in a moment of disarray; her face had been pale and altered, and the diminution of her beauty had lent her a poignant charm. That is how she looks when she is alone! had been his first thought; and the second was to note in her the change which his coming had produced. It was the danger-point of their intercourse that he could not doubt the spontaneity of her liking. From whatever angle he viewed their dawning intimacy, he could not see it as part of her scheme of life; and to be the unforeseen element in a career so accurately planned was stimulating even to a man who had renounced sentimental experiments.’
Ah now what really works for me here is Selden’s sudden cry ‘That is how she looks when she is alone!’ Lily enters his fantasy space here, but not as a beautiful image, that would be too trite, too obvious, too unconsidered; no she enters it when she is human and flawed, when her weakness appeals to him as an unexpected encounter with her intimacy. He detects a private side of her not displayed to her other acquaintances, and this sudden gift of something spontaneous and real, something that transgresses the rigid restraints operating in their society transports them to this utopia we call romance. It’s the turning point in their relationship; from now on they are doomed to fail each other because of the romance each holds for the other, where social knowledge might be more useful, but that’s a story for another day. That Selden should fall in love with Lily when she is most vulnerable is something I find tremendously appealing.
For a woman (and I hope you’ll forgive me if I make a generalisation here on my own experience; you know where to correct me if I’m wrong), there is immense appeal in witnessing tenderness of thought or deed in the otherwise spark plug, vinyl flooring and sports statistic-obsessed male. There’s another example I’d like to share with you, and this one comes from Stegner’s glorious Crossing to Safety. In this passage, Sally and Larry Morgan have come for a year’s writing fellowship to Florence. In the middle of the night, Larry wakes up to hear a strange noise; turns out it’s the locals coming to market, forming a dreamlike procession with their donkeys, carts and swinging lanterns. Not wanting Sally to miss out, Larry carries his polio-crippled wife out onto their balcony to watch the unlikely parade.
‘My feet were getting cold, and were punctured by the gravel embedded in the roof.’
“Have you seen enough? Want to go in?”
“Oh not yet! Let’s see how long it goes on.”
“Sure you’re not cold?”
“Not a bit.” Then her hand went up and down my back, pressing the cold cloth of my pajamas to my skin. “But you are! You’re freezing. Come under the quilt.”
My feet were killing me, but she was so enchanted by what was passing below us that I couldn’t have admitted to it. Anything she was enchanted by she was entitled to. I came under the quilt.’
Oh. I don’t know why that tugs at my heart every time. ‘Anything she was enchanted by she was entitled to.’ How could you not love a man who thought that about you? I suppose I think that romance is about infinite generosity, about a steady outpouring of concern, delight, fascination, courage, selflessness, all these things and more. Relationships can tighten a couple up, make them count what goes in and what comes out, causes them to keep a watchful eye over the balance of transactions, whereas the spirit of romance is a joy in giving that knows no constraint. That’s what Stegner shows so superbly in this novel of profoundly romantic, married love that knows how to last a lifetime.
Of course the literary beauty of these two passages comes from the fact that as readers we are privy to the workings of minds that would be concealed from view in real life. That’s part of the reader’s romance; to be intimate with characters on the page in a way that is foreclosed to our frustratingly separate selves. People could be thinking these thoughts around us all the time in reality, and we’d never know. It’s probably what Le Rochefoucauld was getting at when he declared that no one would ever fall in love if they hadn’t read about it first. But that’s what literature does so well, when it gets romance right; it takes us to the hidden, yearning places and expresses them with that extraordinary combination of delicacy and power you can’t find anywhere else. It shows us how we might surprise ourselves and others, by being momentarily, inexplicable spectacular, how we might find new depths of tenacity and patience to silently support what ought not to be endured. At its best romance reminds us that not knowing ourselves, and weaving delightful mysteries around attractive strangers, is one of those silly, joyful miracles of being alive that can have an unexpectedly profound impact. It transforms never knowing what will happen next into one of our most delightful advantages.