The Literary Lover: Great Contemporary Stories of Passion and Romance. Edited and with an introduction by Larry Dark. New York: Penguin Books USA, 1994. 368 pages. ISBN 0140171649.
From the young to the old, the sanctioned to the illicit, the mundane to the erotic, and the bored to the ecstatic, editor Larry Dark traverses the sometimes perilous territory of love, lust, and marriage in this collection of twentieth-century stories.
Dark deliberately progresses from the young to the middle-aged to the elderly. He begins with “Faces of Madness” by Rachel Ingalls, a tragic story of teenage love and adult lives destroyed by parents who are more concerned for their money and reputations than for their own children. Left to themselves and in their simplicity, William and Jean discover more about love than the adults around them have ever understood. When they are betrayed by those who claim to love them, they separately retreat into madness, wounded irrevocably.
While not as disturbing as “Faces of Madness,” Steven Millhauser’s “The Sledding Party” is haunting in its own way. Most of us will recognize Catherine’s adolescent perturbation and discontent as she struggles with her friend’s half-understood declaration of love. Millhauser captures the mixed, confused emotions of the girl on the cusp of womanhood — fear, longing, alienation, desire to belong, and the pull between the things of childhood and those of adulthood. During the course of one crisp winter’s night, a subtle transformation takes place that leaves Catherine’s future to the reader’s imagination.
At the other end of the spectrum is the calculating woman whose “Instruments of Seduction” (Norman Rush) include not only objects but a keen sense of how to manipulate her men earned through decades of practice. In “The Habit of Loving,” Doris Lessing shows how even an older man with a lifetime of experience can mistake basic sympathies for love in his quest for something wonderful and greater than himself. “Letter to the Lady of the House” by Richard Bausch outlines what can seem to be the natural course of a long marriage. “People start out with such high hopes,” the letter writer’s aunt tells him after revealing that “whatever she had once loved in [her husband] she had stopped loving, and for many, many years before he died, she’d felt only suffocation . . . only irritation and anxiety when he spoke.” The letter writer begins his epistle after “another one of those long, silent evenings after an argument . . . We had been bickering all day . . .” but asserts that, “. . . whatever our complications, we <i>have</i> managed to be in love over time.” He concludes, “And if I could, I would do it all again, Marie. All of it, even the sorrow. My sweet, my dear adversary. For everything that I remember.”
Some stories, such as “Morning” by Joyce Carol Oates, seem strangely uninteresting given the topic. Caught between her safe, predictable husband and her married lover, Lydia makes the obvious choice, which somehow works out — at least for the near term, with a hint of what is to come.
As a contemporary tale from 1988, “Graduation” by Andre Dubus is dated. Even with its deep South setting, the story’s focus on virginity, the effects of its loss on a 17-year-old girl, and the lie she tells her future husband seem overstated. “Safe Houses” by Nadine Gordimer is dated by its historical context, but is nonetheless a compelling story of a political enemy whose “safe house” is that of a woman too rich, insulated, and bored to realize or guess at his identity or his nature. Theirs is the relationship of people who do not want to change their lives, but who seek opportunity and the passion of the moment. “Yet of course he had feeling for her — hadn’t he just made love to her, and she to him, as she did so generously — he should not let himself dismiss the relative sufferings of people like her as entirely trivial because it was on behalf of nothing larger than themselves.”
“Innocence” by Harold Brodkey, 34 tedious pages of the student-narrator’s detailed analysis of his attempts to bring his girlfriend to climax, does not improve with a second reading (I had read it before in another anthology). By contrast, the gem of this collection is William Kotzwinkle’s beautiful, moving, sizzling “Jewel of the Moon.” The older bridegroom of the arranged marriage begins as his wife’s slave and, through months of delaying and building up to the consummation, completely masters her and her desires to their mutual ecstasy. “Jewel of the Moon” is both loving and highly erotic, a combination that is rare in this anthology.
The Literary Lover has its moments, but there are surprisingly few insights into relationships. Even John Updike’s “Love Song, for a Moog Synthesizer,” while more original and interesting than the Oates story with a similar theme, falls short, as does “Houses” by David Leavitt, in which a man is torn between life with his wife and the emotional home and future he has imagined for himself and his male lover. By the time I came to the end of The Literary Lover, I was afraid that perhaps all that can be said about love in its many forms has been and that there is nothing left. I hope I am wrong.
27 January 2008
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf