Literary passions

In honor of Valentine's Day, relationship expert Maggie Scarf puts some red-hot fictional love affairs on the couch.

Topics: Author Interviews, Books,

Maggie Scarf’s books — in particular, “Intimate Partners: Patterns in Love and Marriage” and “Intimate Worlds: How Families Thrive and Why They Fail” — are among the very few literary gems to be found in the “Relationships” section of bookstores. Although not herself a therapist, Scarf combines the ideas of family therapy with intensive interviews; the result is the genre of the case study elevated to art. In “Intimate Partners,” her exploration of how couples wind up at loggerheads and how they can be brought back into harmony, Scarf makes the lifting of a coffee cup, a brief glance or a jiggling knee speak volumes. The people she describes seem to come clamoring out of her books and into her reader’s living room in all their exasperating, baffling and touching humanity.

Scarf is also an avid reader of novels, that other kind of writing in which mere words on a page create a sense of real people intimately known. For Valentine’s Day, Salon telephoned Scarf to talk about what the famous romances of literature are made of.

Although the stories you fashion out of your lengthy interviews with couples feel as rich and involving as novels, I’m struck by how seldom the relationships in classic fiction resemble the real-life marriages you explore.

A lot of literature has to do with social issues, the social position of women — for example “Anna Karenina.” It’s a love story, but it’s also a story of a woman trapped in a society where she has no place to go. She loses her child, she’s isolated in a way that Vronsky isn’t. Of course these novels deal with universal themes, but they’re also very accurate depictions of a certain society.

But if you look at a novel like Henry James’ “Washington Square,” there the father is coldly disapproving of his daughter, Catherine. The mother has died in childbirth. He adored her and finds Catherine awkward and unlovable; there’s nothing about her that pleases him. He doesn’t recognize her worth at all. So Catherine finds Morris, a man who wants her money. She manages to find a man who doesn’t love her in the way her father didn’t love her.

One of the themes of “Intimate Partners” is the way the past and the present converge. I see that carried out over and over again in the intensive interviews. Some family theme is being repeated in the marriage. It’s an updating of something that nobody’s thinking about, but it’s the past being repeated in the present.

But the repetition of themes from generation to generation — where is that in literature? It’s hard to see.

I can think of one at least, “Wuthering Heights.” In that novel the second generation is overtly made by Heathcliff to do penance for the violence of what happened among their parents.

The way we love is so much determined by the way we were loved as children. What happens when we’re very young sets up a template for loving. Does loving always involve pain? Now, in “A Tale of Two Cities,” the daughter is so caring and involved in love for her father, who is a stable and pure person, and she sets up the same love with her husband. And Sidney Carton sacrifices his own life to maintain that ideal when he says, “It is a far, far better thing that I do now …”

The originator of marital therapy is named H.V. Dicks. He says the marriage partnership is the nearest thing to the child-parent relationship. There’s something familiar that you sense, maybe some unfinished business you need to play out with someone else.

But many, many novels start — take “An American Tragedy” or “Madame Bovary” — with the main character orphaned or abandoned or totally unappreciated, as in Dickens. In novels like “Madame Bovary” or “The House of Mirth,” these are women where there’s been no input. They don’t know how to connect. They don’t know how to be loved and cared for. They’re heading for disaster because the earliest messages were not learned.

Many novels end in marriage as well, so we can only speculate about what their lives together will be like. Speaking of orphans, there’s “Jane Eyre.”

She’s in a daughterly relationship to Rochester in some ways. He’s a distant, parental figure. In a way, the purifying act of burning down the house is a punishment for love and intimacy, too. There’s a catastrophic end.

He’s also blinded. Which means that she can now take care of him.

Since he’s lost everything including his sight and she becomes his guide, you can also see it as the resolution of a male-female power struggle. I write in “Intimate Partners” about caretakers and wounded birds, which is a very common type of relationship. At the beginning of “Jane Eyre,” he’s definitely the caretaker, he’s given her the job, and as is the case with parents, she can’t quite understand the mystery of him, just as we all can’t understand the mystery of these distant figures who have all the goodies. Then in the end there’s almost a generational reversal, but certainly a power reversal. They never work out what I’d consider an ideal relationship, which is to say that sometimes she’s in the driver’s seat and sometimes he’s in the driver’s seat. That’s when relationships work the best.

Let’s try another favorite book about a courtship and see what we can make of that relationship: “Pride and Prejudice.”

Again, we’re talking about social circumstance, women who were defined by class and fortune. The wonderful beginning of that novel says it all. Who Elizabeth Bennett becomes is very dependent on who she marries. It’s a novel about female integrity, as I see it, and the curious part of that is that integrity is not punished, it’s honored and rewarded. It’s definitely not a modern novel. These people are in an elaborate mating dance that has nothing to do with sexuality. There’s no sex in it. It’s not “War and Peace,” where Pierre looks down Elena’s dress and sees her cleavage. Or Lydgate with Rosamond in “Middlemarch,” where he sees an alluring piece of female pulchritude and his senses swim. “Pride and Prejudice” is a very asexual book. It’s a wonderful novel as a comedy of manners, but the passion is not there.

There are literary couples who seem to be nothing but passion though, like Romeo and Juliet.

Poe said that the only proper subject for poetry was the death of a beautiful woman. Romeo and Juliet were young teens, and this is the first blush of pure and perfect love. In “Intimate Partners” I talk about the Golden Fantasy and say, “Falling in love has to do with the recognition of a haunting melody, a series of notes that one once knew, reincarnated in the being of another.” In Proust, in “Swann’s Way,” there’s literally this little bit of music that Odette plays, and for Swann it’s perfect, it’s rapture, and it’s what makes him pursue this rather coarse courtesan and makes him desperate for her love.

People in my racket talk about this being the re-evocation of Eden, the awakening into consciousness in the loving embrace of the caregiver who is everything. Nobody will replace her or him. There’s no sense that you end somewhere and mother begins somewhere else; it’s fusion. It’s the dream of the prince on the white charger, the person who will be all-loving, all-caring, where you’re rocked in the arms of love. That’s awakened in its greatest intensity in first love. And in a sense, if first love is ever to last, you better die.

Unlike the Jane Austen novels, though, both “Romeo and Juliet” and “Swann’s Way” are about people obsessed with the erotic, swept away by it.

Self and other are merged. But the baby eventually recognizes that the mother won’t necessarily always be there when it cries. So the young lovers die before any sense that Romeo could cast an eye on someone else or Juliet could nag him or have a bad cold. Swann is eventually disappointed when he marries Odette. The beauty of this kind of love is in its yearning perfection, its longing, its ineffable power. The love of attraction and the love of a long relationship are not necessarily disconnected, though, because people in long relationships still have reawakenings of those passionate raptures.

Then there are those people who chase that high from one partner to another.

That’s Don Juan. That’s the person who can’t get past the letdown. In men, I always think of that as a symbolic way of killing women. To utterly destroy their vision of themselves. Don Juan sets up a beautiful reflection for the person, then leaves, cracking the mirror, and the person is left often not even knowing what happened. It’s a psychic serial killer.

Something similar is Jean Rhys, whose female characters are the opposite number of the Don Juan. She’s the eternal loser. She’s always in some kind of triangle where she’s being treated like a lump of you-know-what. It’s a vision of life where we have assumptions about what will happen next. People set up these scenarios and they entice other people to play out their script.

It’s interesting, though, that the cad is the kind of character who seems to show up in real life much more often than in literature, maybe because literature tends to conspire with the idea that the first, rapturous bloom of love is the only part that matters.

Most drama, including TV and movies, is about the trials and tribulations of a couple getting together. And then it ends. After the consummation is when it gets complicated. One of the things I write about in “Intimate Partners” is what attracts people to each other. And often what you like the most about the other person, what you’re really attracted to, is what’s going to be the problem later on. The warm and outgoing woman who comes to seem like a loudmouth who doesn’t focus enough on you or the stable guy who comes to seem like a bore.

In “Middlemarch,” Lydgate picks Rosamond because she’s so ornamental, and then when they marry she drags him into debt with her expensive tastes and otherwise can’t be a partner to him because she is just that — purely ornamental.

She is what he bought into, although if the purpose of all this is reproduction, those ornaments can be pretty important.

The other disastrous marriage in that book is between Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon.

She marries him because she admires his scholarship and then that looks different after the marriage. He’s dry as dust. The grand illusion is the romantic fantasy in the beginning, and the second part is disillusionment. It’s probably in the second year that most people bump down.

Like a plane landing?

Exactly, but on three wheels instead of four! There comes a point when the marital conversation moves from bed to social situation to table to coming home at night, where people are trying to work out not his or her scenario of what life will be like, but a joint scenario. And if they can’t work it out and their scenarios are too radically different, then we see why the divorce rate is so high. Voltaire said that marriage is the only avenue of adventure open to the cowardly, but if you thought that every time you went out on the highway you had a 47 percent chance of a crackup, you wouldn’t do it, so you have to be very brave to do it.

Or deluded.

Or deluded, and so we’re back to romance.

So what you’re saying is that the most challenging part of love, the part where people hash out the business of actually living together for the rest of their lives, isn’t really the stuff of a great novel.

No, I think it’s the stuff of a great biography.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is a senior writer for Salon. She is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia" and has a Web site,

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