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My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead – Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro

Edited by Jeffrey Eugenides

This wide-ranging and eclectic anthology of twenty-six short stories on the theme of love embraces its subject in many of its various forms: romantic, erotic, impossible, unrequited, undying and exhausted. However, conspicuous by their omission are happy love stories, or at least those with happy endings.
As editor Jeffery Eugendies, author of the wonderful The Virgin Suicides and the even more brilliant Middlesex, taking his cue from the Latin love poet Catullus, writes in his playful introduction in response to his own writerly recasting of Cole Porter’s famous question, ‘What is this thing called a love story?’: ‘…my subject here isn’t love. My subject is the love story…When it comes to love, there are a million theories to explain it. But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims – these are lucky eventualities but they aren’t love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.’ Or, as Catullus, ‘…the first poet in the ancient world to write about a personal love affair in an extended way’ would have had it, given the brief trajectory outlined from poem II to poem III of the many he penned in honour of or frustration with his mistress Lesbia, in each of the stories here ‘…either there is a sparrow or the sparrow is dead.’ In other words, as far as eros or desire is concerned, we generally proceed from voyeuristic longing to disenchanted entanglement. It is only in agape or friendship, Eugenides seems to suggest, ‘When the body is no longer desired, when beauty has faded, when possessiveness has been relinquished, (that) real love shows its face.’

 

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Our editor indulges himself in a rather ropey two sentence history of western philosophy to arrive at this insight. Personally, I can find little evidence of ‘...the earthiness of Judaism, a sense of the body and its sexual appetites as inherently good’ in Leviticus, for example, and his declaration: ‘Asceticism, abstinence, monasticism – you can blame it all on the Greeks’ is fatally compromised by blaming Plato for Neoplatonism. Let’s not even start on what that zealous revisionist, St. Paul, did to Christianity. Rather than looking for those culpable for perpetrating the excesses of the mind/body duality, maybe there is a more fundamental reason why there are no happy love stories: love is hard because life is.
Eugenides is on far surer ground as a literary critic. Having gone through all the stories gathered here, from classics of the genre like Chekhov’s delightfully ambivalent ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ and Maupassant’s ‘Mouche’ to rather more gritty contemporary fare like Raymond Carver’s arbitrarily inconclusive ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ and Denis Johnson’s ‘Dirty Wedding’, via contributions from Milan Kundera, Robert Musil, Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore and Richard Ford, plus our own William Trevor and two from Harold Brodkey (the only writer so favoured), it is hard for this reader not to agree with this judicious anthologist’s equally bold assertion, ‘…rereading ‘Spring in Fialta’ reminded me how much better Nabokov is than everybody else.’ The lush lyricism seduces, the pencil is in hand to mark those incomparable phrases that will be savoured again. But however much the aesthete may propound his doctrine of art for art’s sake, the showiness is never for its own sake: a heartbreaking narrative of loss is unfolded here.
Not every entry is a hit: Gilbert Sorrentino’s ‘The Moon in its Flight’, which manages to be both retro and postmodern in its depiction of a pair of teenagers constantly thwarted by fully-clothed sex, is too annoyingly telegramatic in style to be truly affecting. Similarly, Eileen Chang’s ‘Red Rose, White Rose’, despite its length, is too telegraphed and simplistic to ever really get inside its central character’s motivations. That said, as with any anthology, this is hardly for reading from cover to cover, but is best dipped into from time to time, to discover a new voice, or revisit an old one.
This assemblage is being marketed as the perfect St. Valentine’s Day gift, and it is indeed an elegant package, replete with dedication box inside the flyleaf. Caveat emptor, however, for the irony is that these often tortuous and sometimes tragic tales are as far from the fluffily reassuring, cosy complacencies of ‘chick lit’ or ‘rom-com’ as it is possible to imagine. The guy rarely gets his girl, or the woman her man, or if they do, it doesn’t work out quite as they thought it would. Just so you know…

First published in The Sunday Independent


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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