Love by the book

An anti-romantic's guide to the delightful and difficult truths of the heart to be found in great literature.

Published February 14, 2001 8:25PM (EST)

My parents were married on Valentine's Day. On that date, my mother believed, my father was unlikely to forget their anniversary. The downside is that their anniversary falls on a day on which it is very hard to surprise your sweetheart with a dozen dewy red roses. It's kind of like having your birthday on Christmas. So they quickly abandoned both their anniversary and Valentine's Day as occasions. Nevertheless, without any of the props of romance, they're rearing up on a 50th wedding anniversary.

Next to 50, my 20 years with my husband are not so impressive, especially since we've actually been married for only 12 of those years. During our unusually long courtship, we basically tried in every way imaginable to break up, including a 2,500-mile commute and some in-your-face Seeing of Other People. I would call our story anti-romantic. Our courtship was like a violent session of product testing, at the end of which we discovered that the relationship we thought was flimsy was, in fact, shockingly sturdy: not a knapsack, but Samsonite.

I tell you all this only to acknowledge that I am not the person Hallmark would hire to dispense Valentine's Day advice. If anything, I am a Scrooge of romance. Organized romance is about exactly as dangerous and misguided as organized religion, and for pretty much the same reasons. Love, unlike romance, is gnarled, not terribly flashy or photogenic -- and furthermore mostly private, which is why we read fiction, because fiction best clues us in on the parts of the heart that don't show up on camera.

Yet when I teach fiction workshops, I often notice gaps in the writers' love smarts. They get the outsize, florid gestures of passion, disaffection and jealousy -- the "throwing the beloved on the kitchen counter to fuck her" kind of moments and the "boiling the other woman's pet" moments -- more than they get the tender, enduring stuff of love, or even the more knotty psychiatric issues that, in what is called real life, wreck most relationships. So I wind up trying to thrust at students the books from which I've learned the most about matters of the heart -- including a fair amount of nonfiction.

I think it is fair to say that I would not still be with my husband without "Intimate Partners: Patterns in Love and Marriage" by Maggie Scarf.

With clarity and compassion, Scarf explains the underlying dynamics of courtship and marriage. "Love at first sight," she contends, may be a matter of instinctively recognizing someone who will allow you to continue in comfortingly familiar -- and often destructive -- patterns learned in childhood. Through a series of case studies that read like good detective fiction, Scarf shows how marriage counselors use a device called a "genogram," a complicated family tree of emotional issues, to trace the similarities in partners' pasts. Even pairs who seem like radical opposites find themselves startled by spooky coincidences and shared traumas. It's not just alcoholism that tends to run in families, but things like infidelity (see the Kennedys' genogram), suicide (see the Fondas), even unemployment.

From Scarf I learned to understand the concept of "projective identification," in which one person in the marriage pawns off on a mate whatever traits he or she can't quite admit to -- anger, depression, neediness, inadequacy. In projective identification, a couple in essence splits up emotions as well as chores. One partner will always be weak, the other always strong. The logical, cool-headed man with an explosive wife is one such division of labor. Perhaps the most common form of projective identification is the marital model Scarf calls "pursuer-distancer," where one partner (almost always the woman) cries out for closeness while the other demands distance.

Soppier sorts might call this "finding your better half," but Scarf explains why such relationships almost always fail. The notion of projective identification is at once alarmingly simple and surprisingly complicated. Understanding that dynamic has profoundly influenced my writing as well as my marriage, because novelists fall in love with their characters in very much the same ways that they fall in love off the page -- choosing alter egos who are nicer, smarter and sexier than their creators or, conversely, bolder and badder (as Milton just adored Satan).

Scarf argues that a healthy marriage gives its partners both closeness and autonomy. Balance is everything. You don't want to be lost in space, and you don't want to be smothered either. Poet Rainer Maria Rilke understood this almost a century ago: "At bottom no one else in life can help anyone else in life; this one experiences over and over in every conflict and every perplexity: that one is alone."

Cheerful, no? That from Rilke's "Letters on Love and Other Difficulties." Auden didn't call Rilke "the Santa Claus of Loneliness" for nothing.

Despite the fact that Rilke was a basket case and his own love life a train wreck, his prose on the nature of love is magnificent. He contends that "a good marriage is that in which each appoints the other guardian of each other's solitude."

A togetherness between two people is an impossibility ... But, once the realization is accepted that even between the closest of human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole and against a wide sky!

It's hard to make the case for peace and privacy in a marriage. Maybe those quiet qualities are simply not dramatic enough. Literature abounds with failed love affairs and failed marriages. The last straw for Emma Bovary was when she shuddered, repulsed, at how her dolt-hubby Charles clicked his spoon against his teeth while he ate his soup.

For a how-not-to of marriage, "Madame Bovary" can't be beat, especially when read in conjunction with "Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet, Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert's Muse" by Francine du Plessix Gray.

Louise Colet, who was the model for Emma Bovary, was an older woman. She and her boy toy Gustave (still living with his mama) were so hot and heavy at the beginning of their commuting relationship that Gus kept one of her beguiling little slippers with him while she was away, to scratch and sniff and -- well, one does not want to contemplate what else. But then Louise got whiny about commitment, he loped off to explore the great syphilis-bestowing mysteries of the whores of the Orient and then, after she frantically banged on his door one night in an attempt to get what heartbroken women everywhere are still calling "closure," he proceeded to pen what may well be the nastiest kiss-off letter in the proud history of kiss-off letters.

Madame: I was told that you took the trouble to come and see me three times last evening.

I was not in. And, fearing that your persistence might provoke me to humiliate you, wisdom leads me to warn you that I shall never be in.

I have the honor of saluting you.


Then he gleefully burned all of her letters.

She kept his, however, thus giving us one of the most fascinating records literature has of a creative process. You want projective identification à la Scarf's "pursuer-distancer" model, try your ex-lover publicly mocking you in print, in a wildly unflattering portrait that all of your mutual friends can tell is you, and then declaring, mistily, Madame Bovary, c'est moi.

Suicide soul sisters Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina are not, perhaps, the best spokeswomen for the joys of romantic love. Not the gals you want to book into hotels with heart-shaped waterbeds or smear with edible chocolate.

"All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." The first line of Leo Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" is widely quoted -- and widely misunderstood. Because Tolstoy means, partly, that happiness looks easy and predictable only from outside, to observers. Inside, it's far more Byzantine and engrossing.

Unlike the relentlessly grim "Madame Bovary," "Anna Karenina" offers not only the story of a tragic affair but an encyclopedia of thought about every possible kind of love -- marital and parental as well as sexual.

At almost 1,000 pages it's constructed as intricately as a trick box or a Russian nesting toy, so structurally perfect it's infuriating (to another writer, at least). Every scene has an echo or refrain, so that the magnificent bit in Chapter 15 when Levin proposes to Kitty and pulls an all-nighter, in wigged-out bliss, to await her answer is replayed, almost to the letter but in a very different register, at the novel's end, before Anna K. hurls herself in front of the train.

When I first read the novel, I was still in my 20s, in heavy dating mode. Every time Kitty and Levin interrupted the story of Anna and Vronsky's steamy affair, I was irritated by their domestic minutiae. Tolstoy's alter ego Levin himself irritated me -- all somber, pompous and philosophical. Only now, in middle age, do I realize how dead-on Levin was about almost everything. Here he is after three months of marriage:

He was happy, but having embarked on family life he saw at every step that it was not at all what he had anticipated. At every step he took he felt like a man would feel who, after admiring the smooth happy motion of a little boat upon the water, had himself got into the boat. He found that besides sitting quietly without rocking he had to keep a lookout, not for a moment forget where he was going, or that there was water under his feet, and that he had to row, although it hurt his unaccustomed hands; in short, that it only looked easy, but to do it, though very delightful, was very difficult.


By Lisa Zeidner

Lisa Zeidner's last novel was "Layover." She is a professor of English at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J.

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