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What books taught me about love

Posted in Life & Love

War and peace
The Italian poster for the Hollywood version of “War and Peace”

My first love had a dead wife and a dark secret. Max was followed by a dashing officer, a tad too pretty for his breeches but it wasn’t until Scarlett drove home the point that “tomorrow is another day” that I woke up to the realization that a life without a man could still be worth living. 

As much as psychology has rammed into us that our relationship with our parents, especially our fathers for us girls, will define our romantic relationships forever more, I am also convinced that, for precocious readers like me, our first forays into love are very much defined by our first literary encounters. At 16, Count Vronsky made me believe that any relationship worth embarking on had to be tortured (but without the unhappy ending of throwing myself under the train at Tottenham Court Road, further ensnaring the already beleaguered Northern Line). Luckily, I didn’t start on Jane Austen until later in life, or I might have spent my 20’s tracking down the marrying type. George Eliot got to me first and, terrified of ever becoming another Dorothea, I kept marriage well at bay, at least until literature was done influencing my romantic life.

Laurence Olivier as Max de Winter in Daphne DuMaurier's "Rebecca"
Laurence Olivier as Max de Winter in Daphne DuMaurier’s “Rebecca”

Still, it was all Vronksy’s fault that I kept on falling for difficult or unattainable men – there was no passion to be had with the solid, predictable and brainy Karenin.

In college, it was Fitzgerald who taught me that, behind the pretty boy facade, there is often a straw man to be found. And Hemingway gifted me a long-life dislike for the macho types: to this day, anyone interested in guns, wars, whisky, bull fighting or the sea stands little chance with me. Much more than matinee idols, it was fictional heroes (or losers) who made me swoon and for whom I developed steadfast crushes. And, if the works were translated to films, “my men” never had the faces of the Hollywood actors chosen for the part. Rhett couldn’t be as unctuous as Clark Gable  nor could  Max de Winter sport Laurence Olivier’s silly mustache.

Aaron Johnson
Aaron Johnson as Vronsky wins the award as the most miscast actor in the latest “Anna Karenina”

That works of literature written many decades, and sometimes hundreds of years, before my birth could take hold of a teenager’s imagination with such force, attests to the universal power of words and to how little feelings and emotions have evolved over time, at least in the love department.

As I would rather take life lessons from Tolstoy before resorting to Dr. Phil, “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” are proof of how we, and our notions of love, change over time. Countries have gone through wars and revolutions; women don’t wear corsets nor need they be trapped in unhappy marriages anymore; most men, and not just peasants, now work for a living, and so do their princesses, but we still go through life looking for our perfect love, often blinded by who shines the most – in the end, though, or in later years, we end up with the one we are really suited to be with. Pierre marries Natasha after all and Kitty comes to her senses and falls in love with Levin. And even poor Karenin maybe found a woman who deserved him, after all was said and done. I would like to think that.

Jude Law
Nothing wrong with this Karenin

Then again, the travails that take place in between, are just as much fun in life as they are on the page. It wasn’t bad to kiss all those Vronskys before getting to my Levin.

Hope you had a good Valentine’s day – away from mass-produced chocolates and wilting roses but close to a good book. Or a good man.


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  1. Great post Too true how Hollywood’s silver screen with all its money and technological trickery can’t hold a candle to what paper and ink can render so powerfully. I spent too long searching the moors for the Heathcliff of my dreams!

    February 15, 2014
    • The only time I got close to a Heathcliff was when a great Dane showed up on my doorstep early one morning, apparently lost. His name tag read: Heathcliff. Unable to locate his owner for a day, I considered keeping him. The name was just too romantic!

      February 17, 2014
  2. silvia

    I like to think that literature forges our education sentimentale, ours for sure.
    And I’m grateful for that, when a book still today can make me sob like a teenager I owe it to the transfusions of fiction of those endless afternoons – which I truly miss – with my nose stuck in a book. By the way this is my plan for my retirement days, a good sofa and a pile of past and new books.
    And the best part is that often what we read is exactly what we find in real life. Sometimes even better because it involves all our senses. And I’m not only referring to happy events.
    More than once I found myself thinking this could have been a good story to be written, at least a short story.
    And I’m sure that sofagirl and you know what I’m talking about.
    Only once in my life, long time ago, I tried to write but then was to lazy to carry on.
    Sorry I changed the subject from love to the love of writing and where plots come from. Or didn’t I?

    February 15, 2014
    • Perfectly fine. Feel free to opine in this forum as much as you like. About anything!

      February 17, 2014
  3. Fiction is stronger than reality in most cases (probably because the author spent so much time on revisions to get it right).
    Hope springs eternal as far as love goes, but isn’t it nice to know that marriage is not the be all and end all for a woman?

    February 15, 2014
    • Absolutely. And that that realization came early in my life changed my path completely. For the better, I would like to think.

      February 17, 2014
  4. Happy Valentine! I dont have much to comment about beside the fact that your words always resonate. I could have written most of this post, especially the final line on Vronsky and Levin. I salute you camparigirl:)

    February 14, 2014
    • Thank you. And did you have a fine Valentine? Mine was spent watching “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” at the movie theatre, with a box of chocolate that stood in for dinner.

      February 17, 2014

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