There are three ways in particular in which novels deliver their assistance:
As cautionary tales:
They give us early warnings. They alert us to dangers that we’re not adept at recognising: where envy might lead us, what indifference can do to a relationship, where lust can drive us… They trace the links between apparently minor errors of personality and the monumental catastrophes they can unleash, in the hope that by showing us the pitfalls, our own tendencies to disaster and folly may be curbed.
As maps of progress:
Fiction provides models of development, demonstrations of triumph over difficulties, case studies in maturation and the acquisition of wisdom. We are carefully taken through ways in which certain people have learned, perhaps over many years and with much pain, how to cope with problems which are, in some ways, also our own.
There are many good things which we may have not known close-up but which we would benefit from experiencing – and which fiction can create for us. It can show us a couple who have understood how to resolve their difficulties with grace and humour, a father who can be at once authoritative and kind; a politician who has overcome vanity and tribal interests. It’s not simply that we need to know there are such people at large. It’s that by spending time in their company, the more admirable sides of human nature have an opportunity to rub off on us a little.
Unfortunately, there are too many bad novels out there – by which one means, novels that do not give us a correct map of love, that leave us unprepared to deal adequately with the difficulties of being in a couple. In moments of acute distress in relationships, our grief is too often complicated by a sense that things have become, for us alone, unusually and perversely difficult. Not only are we suffering, but it seems that our suffering has no equivalent in the lives of other more or less sane people.
Our attitudes to our own love lives are in large part formed by the tradition of the Romantic novel (which nowadays is advanced not only in literary fiction but in video, music and advertising). The narrative arts of the Romantic novel have unwittingly constructed a devilish template of expectations of what relationships are supposed to be like – in the light of which our own love lives often look grievously and deeply unsatisfying. We break up or feel ourselves cursed in significant part because we are exposed to the wrong works of literature.
If this ‘wrong’ kind is to be termed Romantic, then the right kind – of which there are so few – might be deemed Classical. Here are some of the differences:
Romantic novel: In the archetypal Romantic novel, the drama hinges entirely on how a couple get together: the ‘love story’ is no such thing, it is merely the account of how love begins. All sorts of obstacles are placed in the way of love’s birth, and the interest lies in watching their steady overcoming: there might be misunderstandings, bad luck, prejudice, war, a rival, a fear of intimacy, or – most poignantly – shyness… But in the end, after tribulations, the right people will eventually get into couples. Love begins – and the story must end.
Classical novel: This wiser, less immediately seductive genre knows that the real problem isn’t finding a partner, it is tolerating them, and being tolerated, over time. It knows that the start of relationships is not the high point that Romantic culture assumes; it is merely the first step of a far longer, more ambivalent and yet quietly far more heroic journey – on which it directs its intelligence and scrutiny.
Romantic novel:The characters may have jobs but on the whole they have little impact on their psyches. Work goes on somewhere else. What one does for a living is not thought relevant to an understanding of love.
Classical novel: But here we see that work is in fact a huge part of life, with an overwhelming role in shaping our relationships. Whatever our emotional dispositions, it is the stress of work that ends up generating a sizeable share of the trouble lovers will have with each other.
"The longing for a destiny is nowhere stronger than in our romantic life" we are told at the outset of Alain de Botton's On Love, a hip, charming, and devastatingly witty rumination on the thrills and pitfalls of romantic love.
The narrator is smitten by Chloe on a Paris-London flight, and by the time they've reached the luggage carousel, he knows he is in love. He loves h"The longing for a destiny is nowhere stronger than in our romantic life" we are told at the outset of Alain de Botton's On Love, a hip, charming, and devastatingly witty rumination on the thrills and pitfalls of romantic love.
The narrator is smitten by Chloe on a Paris-London flight, and by the time they've reached the luggage carousel, he knows he is in love. He loves her chestnut hair and pale nape and watery green eyes, the way she drives a car and eats Chinese food, the gap that makes her teeth Kantian and not Platonic, her views on Heidegger's Being and Time - although he hates her taste in shoes.
On Love plots the course of their affair from the initial delirium of infatuation to the depths of suicidal despair, through the (Groucho) "Marxist" stage of coming to terms with being loved by the unattainable beloved, through a fit of anhedonia, defined in medical texts as a disease resulting from the terror brought on by the threat of utter happiness, and finally through the nausea induced and terrorist tactics employed when the beloved begins, inexplicably, to drift away.
Alain de Botton is simultaneously hilarious and intellectually astute, shifting with ease among such seminal romantic texts as The Divine Comedy, Madame Bovary, and The Bleeding Heart, a self-help book for those who love too much. He is schematically flawless, funny, funky, and totally engaging.
Filled with profound observations and useful diagrams, On Love displays and examines for all of us the pain and exhilaration of love, asking, "Can we not be forgiven if we believe ourselves fated to stumble one day upon the man or woman of our dreams? Can we not be excused a certain superstitious faith in a creature who will prove the solution to our relentless yearnings?"...more
Paperback, 194 pages
Published January 6th 2006 by Grove Press (first published November 1993)