Wandering around the shops today I saw a man walking very fast, carrying a bunch of red roses.
Ah, Schmalentine’s Day.
Whenever I was single on Valentine’s Day I used it as an excuse to treat myself to all kinds of treasure – baskets of cats wearing bow-ties, a cinema date for one with an extra seat for my pyramid of Ferrero Rocher. (Then again, I use the flimsiest of excuses to treat myself. It is surely no mistake that Tuesday rhymes with new-shoes day).
I’m a little envious of people who don’t have a fuck to give about this schmaltzy holiday. I wish I could be so cold and unfeeling. I tend to go overboard with the paper heart bunting. I spend February reading books brimming with swoonsome romance, unchecked passion and creepy longings.
Whether you love Valentine’s or hate it, I believe there is a novel or a poem to help. There are novels and poems to explain everything, and of course nearly all of them have something to say about love, that most infuriating, intoxicating, uplifting and soul-destroying experience of all.
What kind of Valentines are you? Choose yours and find the love story that will help.
1. You have recently had your heart ripped apart and the very mention of Valentine’s Day makes you involuntarily sneer. You are living in a gloomy cave of hatred and despair. You are certain that life is meaningless. You need: Poem by Jill Alexander Essbaum
2. You are pining for someone who brushed you away like a fly. They seem unfussed but your life is now a wreck. You think about them constantly. You need: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
‘The girl raised her eyes to see who was passing by the window, and that casual glance was the beginning of a cataclysm of love that still had not ended half a century later’.
Fermina Daza rejects her first love, instead marrying someone else (under pressure from her family) for security and wealth. For five decades Fermina is too proud, or taciturn, or emotionally paralysed, to acknowledge what she has done. Florentino, her spurned lover, vows that he will wait. Fifty years later, they are allowed the most moving and surprising ‘at last’ I’ve ever read. This book won’t cure you, but it might make you consider whether waiting is the best idea.
3. You’re not quite sure if you’re in love or hell. You need: Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov.
This elaborate, hideous love story takes place in an alternative earth named Antiterra. On this planet, love is hell for anyone except Van and Ada. Infatuated and ferociously egotistic, they place their love above all else. Except we can’t help but see that it’s mostly made of cruelty, and never includes kindness. They are determined and demented; others suffer blindness or death so that Van and Ada can be together.
Much like Nabokov’s other immoral, love-lorn narrator, it’s almost tempting to believe Van that his unnatural love for Ada excuses everything. Nabokov portrays romantic love as madness disguising itself as paradise.
‘Van, sprawling, […] put his hands behind his nape and slit his eyes at the Lebanese blue of the sky between the fascicles of the foliage. Ada, her keepsake profile inclined, her mournful Magdalene hair hanging down (in sympathy with the weeping shadows) along her pale arm, sat examining abstractly the yellow throat of a waxy-white helleborine she had picked. She hated him, she adored him. He was brutal, she was defenceless’.
4. You are very keen to get some of the aforementioned romantic misery in to your life. You are bored and want some drama, preferably in the shape of dishy Ralph Fiennes. You need: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
The ugly truth is, I’ve read this book and watched the film so many times I’ve lost count. It has everything: love, war, dishy Ralph Fiennes. Literally that is everything.
I always thought this story was about the way grown-ups fall in love – mysteriously, guardedly, and then extremely, monumentally – but I still don’t think I’m grown-up enough to be one of these people. We can but live vicariously.
‘There are betrayals in war that are childlike compared with our human betrayals during peace. The new lovers enter the habits of the other. Things are smashed, revealed in a new light. This is done with nervous or tender sentences, although the heart is an organ of fire’.
5. You’re newly in love and you don’t care who knows it. You need: The Sun Rising by John Donne
Because why not swagger about a bit? Your brain is absolutely loopy with dopamine. You’ve a summer’s day inside you. In this poem John Donne lies with his naked lover and addresses the sun, ordering it to shine only for them, as they are all that exists, their bedroom the whole world. It’s a gorgeous uproar, supremely confident.
‘Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere’.
6. You’ve been going out with someone for a while now, and they’re scatty, and lose things, and forget to buy washing up liquid and toilet roll. They are just so annoying sometimes. You wouldn’t change them for the world, though. You need: The Quiet World by Jeffrey McDaniel
‘Rare bird / extinct color / you stay in my dreams in x-ray’.
8. You are in a long, long-term relationship. The shine wore off several centuries ago and right now you are no more than an exhausted warrior in a battle that makes absolutely no sense. You are still deeply, completely in love with your other half, but you honestly can’t explain how that is still the case. You need: Ulysses by James Joyce
Well you’ve got a lot of time to kill. (Kidding, kidding). Ulysses tells of one day in the life of an unremarkable man, one Leopold Bloom. At nightfall, he climbs into bed with his wife Molly and sees an imprint in the sheets – ‘male, not his’. We eavesdrop on Leopold’s worn-out, meandering thoughts about his wife’s infidelity. Notions circle in his mind, of blame, forgiveness, love, and context. He thinks of the inanity of virtue and links it with ‘the apathy of the stars’ – in the bigger picture, does it matter? He feels a little jealousy, and then brushes it away as prosaic and unimportant. He considers the ten years of celibacy between them after the death of one of their children. He loves her. He has already forgiven her. Bloom’s unspoken faith in his marriage is echoed later, when Molly has her say in the famous soliloquy that ends the book. As Leopold falls asleep thinking of inanity and stars, she is busy dreaming of the day he asked her to marry him. She repeats the word ‘yes’ that started their life together, revels in her love for him, despite everything, throughout it all. If she proves anything it’s that the world is a funny old place, and endless love is both possible and incomprehensible.
9. You are the problem. You just lose interest. Broken hearts are scattered behind you like so much confetti. You need: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
‘Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse, all pleasure satiety, and the sweetest kisses left upon your lips only the unattainable desire for a greater delight’.
Humans are tawdry creatures in this book. It’s cynical, fast and racy, just like you, no? Emma Bovary’s life is entirely driven by her insatiability; there is no meaning, no greater purpose than nabbing her next lover. Or as Julian Barnes puts it, ‘Madame Bovary is many things – a perfect piece of fictional machinery, the pinnacle of realism, the slaughterer of Romanticism, a complex study of failure – but it is also the first great shopping and fucking novel’. Emma is a terrifyingly empty being, and a danger to anyone who loves her. It does not end well. This book does an excellent job of espousing the comparative advantages of such things as sacrifice, financial budgeting, quiet nights in, thoughtful decision making skills, and commitment.
10. You think sexual relationships are strange and repellent and don’t know why anyone would consent to doing any of the things involved in love, cohabitation, or marriage. You need: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
‘Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts’.
There are characters in this novel so exceptionally good, so unfailingly courageous, that they make romance seem a crude pursuit. Atticus Finch cares about bigger things. He’s got children to raise and racist townsfolk to defeat. Valentine’s, schmalentine’s, indeed.