Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Spring 2010: On Conjugal Love

By James Marcus

Visitors to Critical Mass will recall that, last spring, we canvassed the membership (as well as former winners and finalists) about which works in translation had the biggest impact on their reading and writing. This time around, we’ve opted for a slightly more domestic approach. We put the following question to the same group: Which work of fiction or nonfiction has the smartest things to say about conjugal love? (A bit of clarification. We interpreted the phrase in its broadest sense–i.e., no marriage license required.)

We heard from about sixty people, all of whom we thank for their thoughtful, often surprising responses. As usual, there was a wide range of opinion. Some members discussed books whose treatment of the topic has clearly made them into personal touchstones—the sort of thing you would incorporate into your vows or have engraved on the inside of your wedding band.

Bob Minsesheimer of USA Today fell into the latter camp: “One vote for Annie Proulx’s lovely quirky novel about improbable love, The Shipping News, with that wonderful last line: ‘And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.’ That was read at my wedding 14 years ago.” Others, such as 2009 NBCC fiction finalist Marlon James, seemed confident that pain and misery would come along in their own good time: “I have never read a single book with anything major to say about conjugal love. Unrequited love, certainly. Perverted love, of course, even passive-aggressive detachment with hints of resentment. But this conjugal love business, no. The closest I’ve ever come to being moved by conjugal love was when a certain character said, ‘I’ll never desert Mr. Micawber.’ ” (And she never did, did she?)

While we’re on that Dickensian note, Susan McCallum-Smith of Belles-Lettres testified on behalf of David Copperfield: “Copperfield falls for a pretty face and meekness only to discover later on that a fulfilling marriage is as much about a meeting of the mind as the body.” She added an additional vote for George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “What happens when we marry people for the wrong reasons? What happens when we find ourselves in a trap of our own making?”

She was seconded by Lia Purpura, who argued that Eliot’s novel was a masterful exploration of the “multiplicity of being and the challenge of being with another,” and by 2008 NBCC biography finalist Brenda Wineapple, who grouped Middlemarch with Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady for “the complications therein for women.” Which is putting it mildly.

A few other Victorians also got their due. MacCallum-Smith recommended a double dip of Anthony Trollope. She characterized Can You Forgive Her? and He Knew He Was Right as “odes to stubbornness and bloody-mindedness, [which] remind us that relationships require forgiveness and compromise and a willingness, now and then, to turn a blind eye.” Jamie Brown spoke up for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. And 1999 NBCC criticism finalist David Shields suggested two roughly contemporaneous delights from the other side of the English Channel: Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain (“dying of syphilis, has a saint for a wife”) and Stendhal’s somewhat earlier On Love, whose treatment of romantic passion he puts on par with the same author’s Charterhouse of Parma.

Steve Kellman, meanwhile, discussed that great anti-Victorian Gustave Flaubert, who cast a very cold eye on the institution of marriage from the safety of his bunker in Croisset. “Conjugal Loveis the title of the marriage manual that Justin, an adolescent apprentice to the pharmacist Homais, is caught reading on the sly in Madame Bovary,” Kellman notes. “The master, an officious prig, castigates his young assistant for sneaking such lascivious matter into the Homais household. Itself the object of official scorn, Flaubert’s novel was prosecuted for obscenity in 1857, but it is in many ways an Anti-Conjugal Love, a case study in marital failure. Emma, the eponymous protagonist, is defined and confined by the matrimonial epithet, Madame Bovary, that yokes her to the dolt of a husband she loathes. After Charles Bovary’s death, a physician performs an autopsy on him, but, we are told, ‘found nothing.’ He is a nebbish so self-absorbed he is oblivious to his wife’s erotic adventures and financial extravagance. In her futile pursuit of narcissistic gratification, Emma sabotages the possibility of genuine marriage.”

For the most part, though, members looked to the modernists and their latter-day progeny for the best fiction about conjugal life. One way to summarize James Joyce’s Ulysses, wrote Jim Ruland, “is to call it the story of an affair. Molly’s escapade with Blazes Boylan is no secret, so Bloom skulks around Dublin hoping to avoid it, and fails spectacularly. Often overlooked is the reason for Molly’s infidelity: the Blooms haven’t enjoyed conjugal love since the death of their infant son, Rudy.”

David Shields cited the author who is in some ways Joyce’s opposite number, calling Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time “the greatest book ever written,” not the least for its excruciating anatomy of the relationships between Swann and Odette (boy meets girl) and Marcel and Albertine (boy meets boy in a highly androgynous wardrobe).

Robert Huddleston nominated one of the more taciturn modernists, Ernest Hemingway. “In The Sun Also Rises,” he argues, “we have true love never consummated, and in A Farewell to Arms, the lovers are doomed. As for nonfiction, I suggest both the original A Moveable Feastand the recently published ‘revised’ version. Here one learns that marriage (love?) is but a temporary arrangement, with a replacement taken on following a successful tryout. Three of [Hemingway’s] four marriages prove the point.” (Brenda Wineapple directed our attention to the woman who taught Hemingway much of his subtractive craft: Gertrude Stein. “For a wholly different story, partly tongue-in-cheek, and certainly charming,” she said, readers should check out both Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Janet Malcolm’s recent study of that celebrated ménage, Gertrude and Alice.)

Gary Giddins, a 1998 NBCC winner in criticism for Visions of Jazz, noted that “a lot of Salinger is portended in the writing of Nathaniel West, particularly the penultimate chapter of Miss Lonelyhearts, when the Christ-addled advisor to the lovelorn, having learned that he has impregnated his virginal girlfriend Betty, falls sentimentally in love with her in her blue party dress: ‘He begged the party dress to marry him, saying all the things it expected to hear, all the things that went with strawberry sodas and farms in Connecticut.’ As in Salinger’s stories, conjugal love is a dangerous fantasy that ends in an early grave…. Salinger ultimately lost himself in blue dresses and other tokens of innocence. Maybe that would have happened to West, who with his bleaker, more savage temperament, saw marriage as an impossibility borne on fantasy, disappointment, betrayal.”

Moving into the postwar era, there was a little more consensus about particular authors. Gabriel García Márquez, for example, got multiple votes for Love in the Time of Cholera. Steve Paul of the Kansas City Star wrote: “Although it’s been quite a few years since I’ve read it, I’d find it hard to think of a more convincing and glorious portrayal of love.” He was seconded by 2000 NBCC nonfiction finalist Laurie Garrett and (in passing) by Ellen Heltzel, who called the novel “Márquez’s second-best book.”

Anne Tyler was another favorite. Jamie Brown mentioned both Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist. Susan McCallum-Smith lobbied for The Amateur Marriage: “It seems unfair that we can’t have a trial run to iron out the kinks before entering the most important relationship of our lives.” And Patrick McNees bought up yet a fourth title, for its insights into the post-conjugal world: “Don’t forget Anne Tyler, who captures domestic life in all its ordinariness and comfort, but also, in Ladder of Years, catches what it must feel like to be the runaway wife, stripped of all the usual encumbrances of expectations, labels, and compromise.”

For Robert Moyer, there was no more incisive investigator of conjugal life than Valerie Martin. “Each of her best works goes straight to the essence of the many struggles ensuing when a man and a woman attempt a life together,” he asserts. “She has explored the strain of religion in A Recent Martyr and breaking up in The Great Divorce. In her latest, The Confessions of Edward Day, she captures the nuances of the creative life that affects a couple of actors from the Seventies through the present.” Mary McWay Seaman agreed, calling The Great Divorce a “compelling probe of individual differences and eroding commitment.”

Seaman also praised Mary Gordon’s The Shadow Man, adding that “almost everything by Gordon explores the conjugal relationship from many angles: emotional, financial, familial, and legal.” And Kevin Clark, who teaches at California Polytechnic State University, raised his hand for the same author’s Spending.

Not surprisingly, Evan Connell rang up some votes for his matrimonial diptych, Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge. “Taken together,” wrote Meghan O’Rourke of Slate, “the novels have got to form one of the most brilliant, devastating portrait of a twentieth-century upper-middle-class marriage. Connell is unflinching but never manipulative.” Susan McCallum-Smith concurred, calling the latter book a “portrait of a woman married more to convention than her husband, going through life with her eyes closed.”

David Shields, already quoted a couple of times above, got the nod from Michael Lindgren, who admired his earlier excursion into old-fashioned narrative, Heroes. Among the book’s many strengths, wrote Lindgren, was “its finely-wrought depiction of the tottering marriage of Albert and Deborah Biederman, ex-jock and professor, respectively. By turns heartbreaking, sexy, infuriating, and comic, their relationship is so accurately and lovingly drawn that it makes your teeth hurt.”

Sarah Courteau of The Wilson Quarterly displayed a similar, molar-massaging enthusiasm for Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, calling it a “sensitive and extremely shrewd novel about the path not taken in love.” The plot, as she explains, revolves around the relationship between Irina, a children’s book illustrator, and a think-tank wonk named Lawrence. While the latter is away on business, “Irina is tempted to kiss their friend Ramsey Acton, a professional snooker player. In alternating chapters, Shriver explores the consequences of both choices, and addresses passionless sex, impotence, jealousy, the pleasures and pitfalls of long-established habit, and so on.” (Special bonus, according to Courteau: “There’s a lot to be learned about snooker.”)

You might have expected Blake Bailey, who won the NBCC award in biography in 2009 for Cheever: A Life, to select one of Cheever’s numerous snapshots of the woe that is in marriage (particularly the suburban variety). Instead he opted for his previous biographical subject, Richard Yates. “You can hardly beat Revolutionary Road,” he wrote, “for a pitilessly incisive portrait of a certain kind of marriage–the kind where one must find constant excuses for romanticizing one's spouse lest one kill the spouse or, as the novel would have it, oneself.”

For a “nicer view of marriage,” Bailey recommended Joshua Ferris’s The Unnamed, a preference shared by Michelle Kerns, who also noted that books on the subject can have a strangely goading effect on the reader: “If the couples are happy, I get irritated. If they’re falling apart, I get defensive, as if every fault and vice they have is specifically designed to highlight my own shortcomings. It can get pretty tiring.”

Sara Paretsky, a 2007 NBCC finalist in autobiography, had no hesitation about which novel taught the most effective lessons about conjugal life—or about nearly anything else. “These days,” she confessed, “my answer to almost every question about books is Wolf Hall. I think this novel is extraordinary in its depth, its reach, its historical accuracy and its timelessness.  Conjugal love–Henry and the Boleyn sisters–drives the history and the novel, but the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, has many days and nights of thinking about his own marriage, and about his lack of awareness of the passions of the members of his own household. I wish I had written this book.”

Most of these contemporary works have been novels. But David Haglund stumped for the short story: “For reasons I can’t fathom, when I jog my memory for works of fiction that depict conjugal love with particular insight, only short stories come to mind; no novels. For reasons I probably can fathom, these stories are all by women: Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, Grace Paley. If I have to choose one, I’ll pick Paley, and two stories in particular: ‘Love’ and ‘Wants.’ The latter seems to imply an analogy between marriage and checking out a book from the library–then failing to return it for 18 years.”

Still other respondents suggested that poetry, not prose, was more instructive when it came to this particular topic. Jim Schley recommended a brace of poets: Sharon Olds, Galway Kinnell, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Harden Carruth, Maxine Kumin, and Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language. Hans Ostrom, who teachers at the University of Puget Sound, spoke up on behalf of specific poems, including Alan Dugan’s “Love Song: I and Thou” and Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Bean Eaters.” And Beth Gutcheon voted for Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, a genre-straddling examination of love gone bad that the poet, a 2000 NBCC finalist, calls “a fictional essay” and (further muddying the waters) “29 tangos.” But can you dance to it?

According to Julie R. Enszer, Marilyn Hacker’s Love, Death, and the Changing, a novel in sonnets published in 1986, is “one of the smarter books on conjugal love. [It is] hot, sexy, and erotic at the beginning as the narrator and her new lover come together–and heartbreaking as the relationship ends. Hacker's poems are gorgeously constructed with her sharp and smart diction; the story is both specifically lesbian and universally human.”

Enszer also mentioned Donald Hall’s Without. Her praise for the book, which Hall wrote in the wake of his wife Jane Kenyon’s death, was echoed by Chelsey Philpot. The poems in the collection, she wrote, “capture both the comfort of long-term companionship and the holes love can leave in the mundane day-to-day when it’s gone.”

Darcy Cosper voted for Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Conjugation of the Paramecium.” Meghan O’Rourke praised Louise Glück’s Meadowlands and Gregory Corso’s “Marriage.” And Susan Stewart, reaching much further back in literary history, cited that hexameter-wrangling Dr. Ruth of the heroic age: Homer. “In its depiction of a lover’s vacillation between unrecognizing wonder and the certainty of an attachment built in time,” writes Stewart, “nothing is more realistic than Book XXIII of the Odyssey. All marriage beds in literature are rooted in that great bed rooted in the earth.”

That leaves nonfiction, which came up relatively short. But Fred Bortz drew our attention to Helen Fisher’s Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, with its lucid discussion of “the species-survival value of both fidelity and the roving eye.” He had an additional kind word for Mary Roach’s Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, in which the author “manages to persuade her husband, Ed, to make love while their genitals are imaged by ultrasound.” (The high-tech machinery nearly caused Ed to lose his erotic pep. These days, of course, the couple could simply use the appropriate iPhone app.)

Martha K. Baker nominated The Bitch in the House, an anthology of essays about “courtship, marriage and women’s rage.” In particular, she praised Hope Edelman’s essay “on her husband's not doing his share,” as well as a pseudonymous piece on “choosing a good companion over a passionate lover.” But Baker also cited a less kvetchy work on the deep virtues of companionship, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which was an NBCC finalist in autobiography in 2005.

Tim Gebhart felt the same way. “In exploring how she copes with the year following the death of her husband,” he writes, “Didion's reflections often go to the heart of rewarding marriages.” Gebhart particularly admired what the author calls “the vortex effect”—a Proustian mingling of the past and present that may be triggered by the humblest of cues. “A memory of her husband is set off by something as simple as walking down a hallway,” he notes, “or seeing something on television. That memory spontaneously leads to another and yet another.” Marriage is memory, Didion herself tells us, and marriage is time. It is also, quite apparently, the highest-grade literary mulch on the market.