The Marriage Plot

According to Anthony Trollope, “There is no happiness in love, except at the end of an English novel.” The marriage plot is considered one of the oldest narrative structures in literary history, originating with the troubadour poets and extending to contemporary novels and modern popular culture.

A line from Francois de La Rochefoucauld: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t ever heard love talked about,” forms the epigraph of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot. Similarly, Alain de Botton quotes the same epigraph from de La Rochefoucald in a recent New York Times article, using “that brilliant observer of human foibles” to strengthen his point: our style of loving is, to a significant extent, determined by what the prevailing environment dictates.

The complexities of marriage have provided ample fodder for novelists from Austen to Knausgaard. Here are some of them.

1: The Course of Love by Alain de Botton
The Course of Love is a very welcome return to the subject of amour. De Botton first put it under the philosophical microscope in the mid-1990s with Essays on Love, a delightful mixture of novel and non-fiction that forensically examines the nuances and subtexts of a date, from the initial delirium of infatuation to the lows of suicidal despair brought on by a relationship blip. In The Course of Love, Rabih and Kirsten are a very believable pairing for De Botton to subject to his philosophical and psychological microscope. Rabih is half-Lebanese, half-German, a little dreamy and insecure and through his job as an architect shakes hands on a construction site with the feisty Scottish Kirsten. Romanticism has influenced Rabih and over coffee with Kirsten, Rabih feels certain “that he has discovered someone endowed with the most extraordinary combination of inner and outer qualities… someone with whom he wants to spend the rest of his life.” Throughout the novel, de Botton explores what it means to stay together over time, the continual need to feel wanted in a marriage and the dangers of sharing the contents of our sexual imagination. He also examines all too common fraught emotions inadequacy, guilt and love encountered in parenthood, which reveals “another thing about love: how much power we have over people who depend on us and, therefore, what responsibilities we have to tread carefully around those who have been placed at our mercy.” In a recently published article in The New York Times titled ‘Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person’, he writes that romanticism has been unkind to us and this harsh philosophy has made a lot of what marriages entails seem appalling and wrong. De Botton preaches an accommodation to “wrongness,” striving always to adopt a more forgiving, humorous and kindly perspective on its multiple examples in ourselves and in our partners. Interviewed recently by Richard E. Grant for a Penguin book podcast, de Botton makes the point that fiction usually concentrates on the obstacles to finding love and only explores long term love if something dramatic or tragic occurs in the marriage. The Course of Love is an attempt to redress this imbalance and look at a relationship over many decades – one that is a “good-enough ordinary” one, but no less colourful for being so.

2: The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
“To start with, look at all the books.” From the opening line of The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, it is clear that this novel is about other novels, the people who read them and seek life’s truth in them. The novel is as much about books as it is about marriage; as much about literary criticism as it is about coming of age.
The first paragraph introduces us to the female protagonist Madeleine Hanna by an omniscient narrator, bringing us on a forensic tour of her library: “There was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty first birthday; there were the dog eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot and the redoubtable Brontë sisters.”
It is clear that Eugenides is illuminating Madeleine’s character by showing us her reading material and setting her up as a devotee of the old traditional novel, as yet unscathed by the forces of twentieth century literary criticism. These traditional novels had their genesis in the 18th century novel Pamela or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson, who avoided an episodic plot by basing his novels on a single action; that of a courtship. Ian Watt’s The Rise of The Novel attributes the growth of Pamela and similar novels to the demand for entertainment by women, who had been freed from the tyranny of domestic chores and had leisure time to fill with reading.
Madeleine is like an Austen heroine. She has spent her college years in pursuit of The One, engaging with marriageship: “the cautious investigation of a field of eligible males, the delicate maneuvering to meet them, the refined outpacing of rivals, the subtle circumventing of parental power (his and hers), and the careful management, which turns idle flirtation into a firm offer of marriage with a good settlement for life.
Madeleine’s relationship with biology major Leonard Bankhead has recently broken up, but she hasn’t given up hope of reconciliation as she had been planning on moving to Cape Cod with him where he has a fellowship to study. As befits a woman of Madeleine’s sensibility, she briefly contemplates giving up on the exhaustive plan of trying to win Leonard back and moving home to her parent’s house and becoming a ‘spinster, like Emily Dickinson, writing poems full of dashes and brilliance’. She has also alienated her male fan Mitchell Grammaticus, whose old-man attire, stability and obvious interest in her makes him a lot less alluring than the brooding, enigmatic Leonard.
Eugenides has set the stage for a romantic tussle between Leonard and Mitchell in a contemporary novel which has at its heart a marriage plot, in a world where Madeleine’s professor Saunders declared that ‘marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel.’ The character of Mitchell is imbued by the author with the values and mores of the Old World and is pitched by the author against the post-modern gothic figure of Leonard. A battle is begun between the old vanguard of traditional literature and the new forces of deconstruction theory.

3: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
In The Marriage Plot, Madeleine’s Professor Saunders complains that contemporary life has been a disaster for the novel. He argues that “in the days when success in life had depended on marriage, and marriage had depended on money, novelists had had a subject to write about. The great epics sang of war, the novel of marriage. And divorce had undone it completely. What would it matter whom Emma married if she could file for separation later?” The Emma that he refers to is Emma Bovary from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. This novel sustains de Botton’s theory that love stories affect our relationships and colour our expectations of married life.
Emma Bovary spent her childhood in a convent immersed in heady Romantic fiction, which made her expect that her husband would be a transcendent soulmate, a source of constant intellectual and sexual presence. This sets her up for a fall when she marries the very human Charles, has her first child and finds herself bored senseless by the routines of married life and by the demands of domesticity. Emma is convinced that her life has gone profoundly wrong because of the huge gulf that exists between the actuality of her life and the romantic novels that she gorged on in adolescence.
In an effort to bridge this gulf Emma embarks on an affair with Rodolphe, a louche landowner who is her superior in terms of class and wealth. He is initially full of ardor, but, Flaubert tells us: “Eventually, sure of her love, he stopped making any special effort to please her, and little by little his manner changed. He no longer spoke to her in words so sweet they made her weep, and there were no more of those fiery caresses that threw her into a frenzy. Their great love, in which she lived totally immersed, seemed to be subsiding around her, like the water of a river sinking into its bed, and she could see the mud at the bottom. Refusing to believe it, she redoubled her tenderness; and Rodolphe hid his indifference less and less.”
After this affair ends, Emma again embarks on another misguided affair, neglects her child and eventually commits suicide. Flaubert’s wry wisdom lends the book a didactic air, that to be guided by the falsehoods of romanticism can only lead to unhappiness in a long term partnership.

4: Emma by Jane Austen
In a typical Austen marriage, the heroine must examine, study and know her suitor rather than trust her own feelings – or worse – give in to her passion. Among Jane Austen’s many artistic achievements is her adaption and development of the simple marriage plot into a more variable pattern, which allowed her to show the growth of her heroines. In Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility she used the marriage plot as a convenient structure to showcase her character studies and theme. By the time she wrote Emma she had the skill to subvert the marriage plot and add extra layers of nuance and depth. Emma, when compared with all the other heroines – Elizabeth Bennett, Fanny Price, Anne Elliot and Catherine Morland – is the most complex, subtle and best portrayed. She is “handsome, clever and rich” and at 21 will be enmeshed in Austen’s web of wrong-headedness, remorse and repentance until she emerges at the end of the novel enlightened with the wisdom of self knowledge and the prospect of “perfect happiness” with Mr. Knightley. Intelligence matters to Austen’s heroines because they crave, above almost everything else, conversation; the kind that requires mutual understanding.

5: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Elena Ferrante is one of Italy’s best known contemporary novelists, who remains an enigma as she refuses the glare of publicity, preferring her fiction to represent her. In the first of her four Neapolitan novels, the heroine Elena Greco writes of Nino (her soon-to-be husband) that “he said things that I could never have thought, or at least said, with the same assurance, and he said them in strong, engaging Italian.” A reader of these novels will be able to study the changing landscape of the heroine’s marriage, the cooling of her ardour with time as she develops her own confidence and career. Ferrante explores the dilemma of marital crisis. “What could I do to keep my life and my children together?” asks Elena, a quandary faced by many women in the throes of a marital breakdown.

6: My Struggle: Book Two by Karl Ove Knausgaard
The beauty of Knausgaard’s fiction is its ability to imbue the ordinary with fascination as he recounts life’s minutiae and domestic drudge and as Jeffrey Eugenides said, “Knausgaard breaks the sound barrier of the autobiographical novel.” Knausgaard is heavily influenced by the romantics when he describes his first encounter with his current partner Linda, whom he met at a writer’s convention. “I looked at her, and there was something about her I wanted, the second I saw her, it was there. A kind of explosion.” For Knausgaard, the process of falling in love has nothing to do with being seduced by the woman’s mind , instead her sheer presence has a powerful and mysterious effect on him. In this regard his attitude to love has more in common with Emma Bovary than the more realistic entreaties of de Botton on the fallacy of the romantic ideals.

7: Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk
Professor Saunders from Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot felt that the availability of divorce and sexual equality was bad for the novel. He hadn’t predicted the rise of the divorce memoir, especially Rachel Cusk’s feminist take on the collapse of her marriage. Aftermath draws on references to Oedipus and Agamemnon as well as wry observations about having a toothache on the day her husband moved his possessions out of the marital home. In the course of the memoir Cusk writes that “marriage is civilization and now the barbarians are cavorting in the ruins” and that “people overthrow their governments and then they want them back,” which shows the difficulty for a woman of losing an old identity and moving into a new reality.

8: Gone Girl by Gillian Walsh
Gillian Walsh’s Gone Girl explodes the myth of perfect coupledom that central character Amy finds oppressive. “We’re so cute I want to punch us in the face.” Nick and Amy Dunne co-narrate this thriller and the novel opens on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, when Nick realises that Amy has disappeared. Walsh’s portrayal of a descent from a seemingly perfect marriage into chaos is emblematic of the simmering resentments and betrayals that are constitute the topography of betrayal, failure and revenge. What follows is a baffling, disturbing but ultimately delightful read with its terrifying conclusion.

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The Literature of Death

Woody Allen famously quipped “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” This resonates with all of us who live in a culture that promotes eternal youth through scalpel or scientific miracle and cold shoulders the icy certainty of death. Kafka stated that “the meaning of life is that it stops” while Anais Nin, a daily diarist, wrote that “people living deeply have no fear of death.” Freud recognized that people sometimes did express fear of death, a condition referred to as thanatophobia. Freud felt that it was not actual death that people feared as our own death is quite unimaginable, and in our unconscious we are all convinced of our own immortality. Beckett wrote that “they give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” Joan Didion wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Lately there has been much written about death, narratives and stories that aim to help us negotiate the emotional landscape of grief and death. The novelist Julian Barnes is a self –confessed thanatophobe who sometimes is “roared awake” and “pitched from sleep into darkness, panic and a vicious awareness that this is a rented world.” In his memoir on the fear of non-existence Nothing to Be Frightened Of Barnes writes an elegant meditation on death and attempts to address his thanatophobia. As an agnostic Barnes doesn’t believe in an after-life and writes that “I don’t believe in God but I miss him.” He believes that the Christian religion has lasted because it is a “beautiful lie… a tragedy with a happy ending,” and yet he misses the sense of purpose and belief that he finds in a Mozart Requiem or the sculptures of Donatello.

There is a trend over the last few years for a new type of fiction, a genre that molds memoir with biography to form a literature that feels fresh and hyperreal, a type of reality fiction for the modern reader. David Shields presaged this new trend when in his 2010 publication called Reality Hunger he advocated a return to the “real” in literature and he railed against conventional plot-driven fiction in favour of the lyric essay and the memoir. A memoir of illness and dying is always an emotional read and the pages pulse with life, strife and the emotional intensity of the author’s feelings and predicament. None more so than the recently published In Gratitude by Jenni Diski, who died last week of inoperable lung cancer. Diski wrote a series of essays in The London Review of Books about life after her diagnosis with its frailties and sudden fragilities which have been published as this memoir. She writes that she feared the oncologist would find her response clichéd after he gave her the prognosis and she turned to her husband and suggested that they’d better get cooking the meth like Heisenberg in the television series Breaking Bad. Diski’s talon-sharp prose has never harboured a platitude and this memoir touches on her peripatetic early life, abandoned by neglectful parents and in and out of psychiatric hospitals, “rattling from bin to bin.” She was also adopted by the literary giant Doris Lessing for four years as a teenager and shared family dinners with Alan Sillitoe, R.D. Laing and Arnold Wesker and listened to late night intellectual discussions about philosophy and psychotherapy which she describes as “a dream come true, but I had to work out how to live it.” Diski with her unique sense of directness and humour writes that she makes an ideal candidate to play the role of a cancer patient as her lifelong favourite places are bed and sofa and she lives like one of those secondary characters in Victorian literature who constantly languish on the fainting couch. Jenni described herself as being “contrary-minded,” delighted in breaking taboos and pushing boundaries. Controversial to the end she likens having cancer to “an act in a pantomime in which my participation is guaranteed, I have been given this role ….I have no choice but to perform and to be embarrassed to death.”

Christopher Hitchens was on a book tour for Hitch 22 when he experienced the first health crisis that was the beginning of his demise. However this pugnacious and witty writer was able to channel his experiences into his end of life memoir Mortality which begins with the line “I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death.” When the emergency services arrive to collect him Hitchens feels a psychogeographical shift taking him “from the country of the well to the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.” Hitchens concedes that he has become a finalist in the race of life and quotes from T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock:
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker / And I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat / and snicker / And in short / I was afraid.

Hitch decided to live dyingly and extolled the consolation of friends who came to eat, drink and converse with him even as these earthly delights become impossible for him as the cancer progressed. His memoir is life affirming, punchy and rich with morbid humour noting that when one falls ill that people tend to send Leonard Cohen CDs, he doesn’t experience rage at a terminal diagnosis as he feels that he has been taunting the Reaper into “taking a free scythe in my direction “and that he has now succumbed to “something so predictable and banal that it bores me.” His wife Carol Blue in the afterword to this memoir writes of the man she admired and loved and ends with the lines that Christopher has the last word, in death as in life Hitch still has the last word.

Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, begins with the death of her husband of forty-four years, the writer John Dunne, and brings the reader on a journey through the land of grief that she entered in the aftermath of his loss. In the opening lines of this poised but passionate memoir she writes that “life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.” She writes on the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event and writes that when we are confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how “unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell.’’ Didion gives the reader an unflinching account of grief in the year when the shock of Dunne’s death “was obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.” Despite the unshakeable reality of her husband’s death Joan’s thinking enters the realm of the magical and she writes that “we do not expect to be crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes.” Zadie Smith wrote that Didion is essential reading on the subject of death and I have bought many copies over the years for grieving friends who have found comfort in its reading, recognition of their suffering in its pages.

The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke is an unstintingly honest memoir about the loss of her mother Barbara from colorectal cancer. Meghan is an award-winning poet and she writes about the consolation that she finds in reading Hamlet. Shakespeare’s hero holds up a mirror to O’Rourke’s own duality of emotion; emptiness and anger, despair and longing for relief. O’Rourke can understand why Hamlet who has just lost his father is angry and cagey. He is told that how he feels is unmanly and unseemly, his uncle greeting him with the worst question to ask a grieving person “How is it that that the cloud still hang on you?” O’Rourke felt a resonance with Hamlet in her grief state when she felt that to descend to the deepest fathom of it would be unseemly and was somehow taboo. She writes that nothing prepared her for the death of her mother, even knowing that she had terminal cancer did not prepare her. There is a stark unearthing of truths in this memoir. “A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky, unimaginable.”

Doctors face death daily and Doctor Paul Kalanithi became a neurosurgeon because with its unforgiving call to “perfection, it seemed to present the most challenging and direct confrontation with meaning, identity and death.” When Breath Becomes Air opens with a description by the author of a CT scan that he was examining where the lungs were matted with innumerable tumours, the spine deformed and a full lobe of the liver obliterated. This scan though similar to scores of others that he had examined over the previous six years was different, different because it was his own. Paul Kalanithi wrote his memoir in the aftermath of this discovery fusing his medical knowledge with his love of literature to produce a work that is more than a memoir, it is a philosophical reflection on life and purpose. Kalanithi and his wife have a baby Cady who was eight months old when her father died. His memoir will be his legacy to his little girl as “words,” he writes, “have a longevity I do not.”

The Iceberg: A Memoir written by Marion Coutts tells of Coutts’ partner Tom Lubbock’s death from a malignant brain tumour. This account of illness and decline is told with an artist’s eye and in poetic prose that is both razor sharp and suffused with emotion. Coutts writes that there is a filmic quality to their life, a friend suggests that the director is Bergman, “shot flat without affect but deeply charged, with a fondness for long shots, no cuts, ensemble scenes, dark comedy and the action geared always to the man in the bed even though he is frequently off camera.”

Death is the inevitable full stop in the essay of life. Christopher Hitchens quotes this poem by Kingsley Amis in his memoir Mortality: Death has this much to be said for it/ You don’t have to get out of bed for it/Wherever you happen to be/ They bring it to you-free. The writer Katie Roiphe wrote The Violet Hour; Great Writers at the End in part to sate her curiosity about death and dying. It is an account of how the writer found beauty and comfort in the stories of how her literary heroes faced up to dying. To Katie religion has never been consoling and feels like a foreign language. She, like many book lovers finds comfort in novels and poems. As a child recovering from serious illness Yeat’s Sailing to Byzantium resonated with her. She becomes ambushed by the beauty in the deaths of her literary heroes, Dylan Thomas, Susan Sontag, Freud and Sendak. Susan Sontag “fought her death to the end, believing on some deep irrational level she would be the one exception.” Roiphe feels that writers and artists are more attuned to death, that they can put the confrontation with mortality into words in a way that most of us can’t or won’t. The last taboo has been dealt with by memoirists, essayists and poets. If, according to F.R. Leavis, literature is the supreme means by which you renew your sensuous and emotional life and learn a new awareness, then these publications are a gateway to enlightenment.