Writing about doomed literary loves isn’t really in keeping with the spirit of the day, as everyone loves a happy ever after, but sometimes it has to be acknowledged that the really great literature lives elsewhere. With that in mind, and with Valentine’s wishes to all readers, here are ten million hardback’s favourite star-cross’d lovers…
1. Anna and Vronsky – Anna Karenina (Penguin Classics) by Leo Tolstoy
The fairytale prince (though really a Count) escapes his destiny to marry the sweet-as-sugar Princess Kitty and skips off with the more captivating Anna instead. Russian society at the time taking its cues from Paris, they might have been forgiven for carrying on behind her husband’s back. Yet it is when the pair decide they can’t breathe without the other in the room and decide to throw career (him), family (her) and sanity (both) on the bonfires of love and lust that all hell really breaks loose.
Anna watching her lover fall from his horse mid-race and having to contend with his possible death under the suspicious eye of her husband is one of the finest scenes in the book, or possibly ever written. And while the parallel story of Kitty and new love Konstantin provides a more realistic portrait of the early years of a marriage as well as acting as counterpoint, it is the raging, ultimately destructive, passions between Anna and Vronsky that linger long after reading.
2. Helene and Jean – The Blood of Others by Simone de Beauvoir
Few things are more tragic than the discovery of crucial knowledge too late to do anything useful with it. Witness reluctant hero Jean Blomart’s night of remorse and reflection as he only realises how deeply he cares for on-off girlfriend Helene after she has taken a bullet helping her ex escape from the Nazis.
The long vigil allows him the chance to reflect on the choices he has made in his life, politics and behaviour towards Helene – while wrestling with the decision over whether to send others out on a similarly dangerous mission – all in a suitably existential manner, of course. But the philosophy never detracts from what is a cracking tale of betrayal, deceit, love, and ultimately, death.
3. Jake and Anna and Hugo and Sadie – Under The Net (Vintage Classics) by Iris Murdoch
Not since A Midsummer Night’s Dream have the forces of love got it so spectacularly wrong, with emotions in Murdoch’s first novel entangling to such a degree that no-one seems likely to get what (or who) they actually want. Perfectly capturing the often comic choices of still-young-but-old-enough-to-know-better hero Jake Donaghue as he attempts to sort his chaotic life out enough to get the money, the acclaim and – of course – the girl he deserves.
His continuing mis-steps on that path to contentment, made due to his unvarying misconceptions of his world, are handled with such a light touch that it is impossible not to sympathise, even while desiring to give him a good shake! A scene where he trails Anna through Paris, seeing her without her ever realising he is there, is beautiful in its longing and sense of loss. This is another philosophical novel which never betrays the humanity of its central characters. The inadequacies of language in conveying our perspectives – the ‘net’ of words we are all caught in – will resonate with anyone who has ever tried to tell someone they love exactly how it is and how it’s going to be.
4. Robert and Maria – For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
The whispered conversations, while curled in his sleeping bag, their hopes for their life together, the brutal intrusion of their final goodbye. It is a short yet grand passion, full of idealism and beauty, despite – or perhaps due to – the death and horror that surrounds them. The earth even moves.
Yet, like the Republic they are fighting for, it is not destined to last. As with The Blood of Others, Fascist bullets ultimately prove too strong for even this perfect love to overcome.
5. Winston and Julia – 1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin Modern Classics) by George Orwell
What else could it be?
Boy meets girl, boy hates girl, boy realises that is because he wants girl really, boy gets girl, boy convinces girl to join him in overthrowing a ruthless dictatorship.
Your standard love-gone-wrong romance tale for the times we live in.
Looking back over my choices I realise that perhaps there is a common theme to my favourite doomed literary loves, that love can’t survive in a world bedevilled with totalitarian regimes, Fascist atrocities and the stern disapproval of a rigid society. Those structures will always be incompatible with such deep feelings because, as noted by Jonathan Carroll, in his excellent tale of un-doomed love, White Apples:
…real love is always chaotic. You lose control; you lose perspective. You lose the ability to protect yourself. The greater the love, the greater the chaos. It’s a given and that’s the secret.
The idea of love as anarchy works better for me than all the diamonds and flowers and chocolates paraded at this time of year. Perhaps Saint Valentine, himself killed for his opposition to the Roman Emperor, would approve.
Storm picture by Breno Machado via Unsplash