By Carole Reedy
When we are in love, our love is too big a thing for us to be able altogether to contain it within ourselves. It radiates towards the loved one, finds there a surface which arrests it, forcing it to return to its starting-point, and it is this repercussion of our own feeling which we call the other’s feelings and which charms us more then than on its outward journey because we do not recognize it as having originated in ourselves.
From Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust
There are myriad ways to look at love. In his nine-volume tome Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust brilliantly describes many perspectives of this mysterious emotion so effectively that while reading Proust one is constantly reminded of feelings previously buried in the subconscious.
Most great novels are about some kind of love, beginning with what some call the first modern English novel, Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded, published in 1740 by Samuel Richardson. With the exception of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, few such novels end happily. Pondering famous love stories, Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and Pride and Prejudice come to mind. All have been made into movies, some more than once.
Outside this list, a plethora of love novels awaits your discovery this month. Most can be found tucked away on used bookstore shelves or free on your Kindle.
Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham (1915)
This novel of obsession, passion, and unrequited love is listed by Modern Library as one of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th century. Although Maugham has denied it, most readers and critics view it as a semi-autobiographical work as well as Maugham’s masterpiece. Both Maugham and the main character possessed physical handicaps and experienced humiliation by lovers. Maugham was one of the most popular writers of the 1930s and has written many novels that have been adapted for the screen. Other favorites are The Razor’s Edge and The Moon and Six Pence.
Adam Bede by George Elliot (1859)
In order to be taken seriously in a time where women were known to only write frivolous romances, Mary Ann Evans published her very successful novels under the name George Eliot, though another impulse may have been to protect her privacy as she carried on a long-term relationship with a married man. Her books were then recognized–and continue to be–as among the finest literature of the 19th century. Alexander Dumas called Adam Bede the “masterpiece of the century.” Eliot is known for her insightful depiction of the English rural countryside. In this novel of love, betrayal, and deception, she delves into the psychology of the local people. Adam Bede is a carpenter who becomes entangled in a love triangle leading to consequences far beyond the three main characters.
Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
Ishiguro won the Man Booker Prize for this (his third) novel about butler Stephens, the narrator, reflecting on his life while the action continues in the present. It is a novel of love, relationships, loyalty, and social constraints and is beautifully written in the 19th century style. Made into a movie in 1993 starring Antony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards.
Look at Me by Anita Brookner (1983)
The New York Times Book Review opines: “If Henry James were around, the only writer he’d be reading with complete approval would be Anita Brookner.” Quite a compliment and well deserved. Brookner’s poetic style is precise and descriptive, her characters unforgettable. In a nice symmetry, Henry James is one of her favorite authors. Brookner rarely gives interviews, but in 2009 she talked to Mick Brown from the Telegraph, listing her favorite authors as first Dickens followed by Flaubert, Simenon, James, and Proust. Brookner’s characters are unforgettable. Frances Hinton, the main character in this novel, is a shy yet clever woman who writes fiction at night while working in a medical library by day. If you read Anita Brookner, you may reach a point where you feel her books are repetitious and depressing or discouraging. But as she said in the interview with the Telegraph, “I think one keeps writing the same book over and over again.” Perhaps, but what a joy to read her beautifully concise prose, no matter how many times.
The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell (1957-1960)
Four novels make up this tetralogy: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea. Love in many forms is the focus of this famous work by one of the finest sculptors of the English language. The same story is told from four different perspectives, making it essential to read them in the order Durrell intended. One critic claimed this quartet “the deepest, clearest, and most wonderfully written consideration of the human phenomena of love that I think exists.”
A Heart So White by Javier Marias (1992 in Spanish, translated into English)
This novel, though of average length, encompasses so many topics and emotions it is difficult to describe. Rightly, Marias has been compared to Proust, Joyce, and James.
The novel begins with an unexplained suicide and then jumps forward in time. The main character is a translator, as is his wife (and as is Javier Marias, though he did not translate this work), making the subject of language and understanding one of the major themes. The relationships of wife and husband, father and son, and of ex lovers are instrumental in the human nature mystery at the center of the novel. There are innumerable references to Shakespeare, including the title, which comes from Lady Macbeth’s speech: “My hands are of your color, but I shame to wear a heart so white.” This may have been my favorite read of 2012.