My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro
by Jeffrey Eugenides
Reviewed by Michael Dirda
Washington Post Book World
When it comes to love," writes Jeffrey Eugenides in this wonderful, if upsetting, collection of stories, "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."
The poet Howard Moss once summed this up perfectly: "The truth is that what is interesting about love is how it doesn't work out." Yet what is just as interesting is how we keep on trying anyhow. Boy, do we ever.
My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead -- the title derives from Catullus -- is being published to coincide with Valentine's Day. But this is far from a collection of Hallmark card sentiments in woozy prose. Just look at the cover: an anatomically detailed painting of a human heart, all blood vessels and muscle. This is an organ that pumps hot, red life, not the sort of cutesy thing you'd draw on an envelope with a Cupid's arrow sticking through it. In these stories an old maid sleeps with a corpse, five men share a single mistress, and a European couple play out highly erotic pick-up games. We're not in Georgette Heyer territory, that's for sure. There's a lot of yearning and regret in these pages, and heartache, of one kind or another, tends to be the prominent emotion. Better not to think about this when you're just starting out.
Still, what we like to read about when we read about love is suffering. We're almost all narrative masochists: We want pain. As Denis de Rougemont famously remarked in Love in the Western World, there just aren't many happy love stories in Western literature: "Unless the course of love is being hindered there is no romance; and it is romance that we revel in -- that is to say, the self-consciousness, intensity, variations, and delays of passion." Even when the affair is over, we still suffer -- from memories of what was and longings for what we imagine might have been. As Nabokov says in his great story of unfulfillment, "Spring in Fialta," (included here in My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead): "Occasionally, in the middle of a conversation her name would be mentioned, and she would run down the steps of a chance sentence, without turning her head."
Though every reader will grouse about overlooked favorites -- where is Laurie Colwin's "My Mistress" or John Cheever's "The Country Husband" or Irwin Shaw's "The Girls in their Summer Dresses" or Colette's "Gigi"? -- Eugenides has chosen splendid work. He includes what I and many others feel to be the greatest of all modern love stories, open to multiple interpretations, Chekhov's "The Lady with the Little Dog." Is it a tale of adultery or of true love? Of self-delusion or of self-transformation?
Chekhov's clear successor is William Trevor, who knows the hearts of lonely, ordinary people better than any other writer alive. In "Lovers of Their Time," an illicit couple can find nowhere to be alone together until they discover a sumptuous but little used bathroom in a grand hotel. There, in this unlikely hideaway, they consummate their love and indulge romantic dreams of travel and endless happiness together. But the married Norman can't actually afford such happiness, knowing that his wife would suck out every penny she could from him. And then what? "Poverty would destroy them. He'd never earn much more than he earned now. The babies Marie wanted, and which he wanted too, would soak up what there was like blotting-paper; they'd probably have to look for council accommodation. It made him weary to think about it, it gave him a headache. But he knew she was right: they couldn't go on for ever, living off a passing idyll, in the bathroom of a hotel."
From Chekhov to Trevor, these stories show that money can't buy you love, but its lack can ruin relationships. In Gilbert Sorrentino's "The Moon in Its Flight," a working-class Catholic boy from the Bronx falls in love with a middle-class Jewish girl. They live in different worlds, both economic and cultural. Yet even while their adolescent love burns white-hot, Sorrentino -- playing against readerly expectations -- refuses to allow them to satisfy their desires. He coyly asks, "Isn't there anyone, any magazine writer or avant-garde filmmaker, any lover of life or dedicated optimist out there who will move them toward a cottage, already closed for the season, in whose split log exterior they will find an unlocked door? Inside there will be a bed, whiskey, an electric heater....This was in America, in 1948. Not even fake art or the wearisome tricks of the movies can assist them." It is a heartbreaking story.
Many of the pieces in My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead are quite famous, including Milan Kundera's "The Hitchhiking Game," Isaac Babel's "First Love" and Bernard Malamud's "The Magic Barrel," this last the tale of a young rabbinical student employing a matchmaker to find a bride. But Eugenides also includes work by contemporary writers such as George Saunders, Mary Robison, David Gates, Miranda July, Richard Ford and Lorrie Moore (who writes the sad and quip-filled "How To Be An Other Woman"). The late Harold Brodkey alone is represented by two stories. Unlike many anthologists, Eugenides even includes some quite long stories like Robert Musil's early "Tonka," Eileen Chang's "Red Rose, White Rose" and James Joyce's celebrated "The Dead." Joyce's lyrical grace and haunting wistfulness remain as moving as ever.
A few of these stories do center on what we used to call "true" love, love that has lasted. See the bantering couple of Grace Paley's "Love," or the elderly husband and wife of Alice Munro's exquisitely poignant "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." Still, these focus on older men and women, and reveal the deep connections that grow between people who have gone down the years together. For at its best, marriage is a civilization of two, and its greatest joy is a conversation that goes on for decades.
But there's not much of this in My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead. In fiction, as so frequently in life, bipartisan unhappiness, cheating and divorce are the usual end products of marriage. In erotic relationships, the tears are more often tears of sorrow than of joy. Hearts keep on breaking. By now, after millennia, you would have thought that humankind would have evolved enough to make love somewhat less fraught. If it weren't for jealousy -- Proust's classic exposition "Swann in Love" was doubtless a little too long to include here -- one could imagine a world where men and women might openly have friends, lovers and spouses, and not require a single person to be all three of these until his or her nervous system breaks down from overload. But we seem to be simple creatures, incapable of living with anything more complicated than a binary on-off arrangement. So we just lurch along, assailed by pheromones and endorphins, temptations and regrets. Napoleon was surely right when he said: "The only victory over love is flight." Yet as the stories in My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead show, we often run straight into the arms of the enemy.
Michael Dirda's latest book, Classics for Pleasure, has just been published.