Happy Anti-Valentine’s Day!

Some of the best modern fiction that I have read has been about ‘Love Gone Wrong’. Think, for example, of Richard Yates’ 1961 novel, Revolutionary Road. When it was first published in America, the book competed for awards with titles like Catch-22 and Yates was acclaimed as one of the finest of America’s post-war novelists and short-story writers. Revolutionary Road is about a young married couple, Frank and April Wheeler,  who live in the suburbs with their two children – and slowly, inexorably tear each other apart. 

Some of my friends in a book club argued for hours over Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach when it came out in 2007. The premise of the novel is that married love can come to grief as early as the wedding night: set in the early 1960s, in the days before the sexual revolution and the pill, On Chesil Beach details the collapse of Edward and Florence’s marriage under the pressure of very different sexual expectations and beliefs. My friends argued endlessly over their dog-eared paperback copies and several bottles of red wine. Was Florence frigid, a victim of sexual abuse or simply the product of  a time when sex was never openly discussed? Was Edward a monster of selfishness or someone to be pitied? And what – if anything, given their respective values and upbringing – could this couple have done differently?

Who else? Well,  D.H. Lawrence comes to mind as one of the most famous modernist authors to be identified with the idea of  ‘Love Gone Wrong’: he certainly had plenty to say on the subject. Whether he was writing about  the difficult mother-son relationship in Sons and Lovers (1913) or Gudrun and Gerald’s disastrous affair in Women in Love (1920), Lawrence was passionately advocating his ideal of equal and mutually dependent relationships between men and women. He was also an advocate of sexual freedom at a time of repressive morality in Britain; several of his novels were censored, most famously Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which went ‘on trial’ in 1959.

I’ll mention one more well-known author before inviting you to tell me about your favourite anti-romantic books and authors; I’m thinking of Graham Greene. Romantic love goes seriously awry for Greene’s characters when it comes up against the force of divine love; the complexities of Catholic guilt riddle his work. Think of the lovers in The End of the Affair (1951), torn apart by a religious vow. Then there’s poor Rose in Brighton Rock (1938), deluded by her Catholic values and her girlish infatuation, convinced that the gangster Pinkie can be redeemed by the love of a good woman. As well as reading the novels, you can experience Sarah and Rose’s torments in two brilliant films, produced in  1999 and 2010 respectively. Finish the evening with Kate Winslett and Leonard Di Caprio’s shattering performances in Revolutionary Road and you’ll have a perfect Anti-Valentine’s Day!

Let’s leave the last word to one of my favourite writers, John Fowles. This scene comes near the end of his sixth novel, Daniel Martin. I read it years ago and I’ve never been able to forget it:

They were reduced to what, in their two sexes, had never forgiven and never understood the other … not touching, not saying, not looking … {trapped} at the opposite poles of humanity, eternally irreconcilable. Silence fell on them, of the worst kind; of the blind alley, the nothing more to say.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Happy Anti-Valentine’s Day!

  1. Louise

    I loved ‘Revolutionary Road’! I wouldn’t say the same of ‘On Chisel Beach’, but I did admire it. Lately, I’ve read ‘Caribou Island’ by David Vann (recommended by Helen!) which was amazingly good and ‘The Amateur Marriage’ by Anne Tyler.