This month’s TBR challenge from Wendy the Super-Super Librarian (I say it twice because she is like Awesome Squared) was Paranormal/Suspense…Just in time for, (if you follow it) Halloween.
Confession: I’ve never followed it. That’s not to say I don’t believe in it – because, evidently it does empirically exist, but rather, my family, has never celebrated it, so it doesn’t really register on my life-scale. (I cite previous occasions referencing Puritanical-Baptist-Soul-Portion.)
But I was totally up for a Suspense (not a paranormal: adducing p-fatigue from August).
My choice was Alain De Botton – Essays in Love.
What? You don’t think a fictional non-fiction philosophical analysis of the nuances and subtexts of a relationship from meet-cute to ever-after not suspenseful??
Indeed Sir; I argue that it is.
Essays In Love has been mouldering away at the bottom of my TBR for at least the last 8 years.
Yes. I have been avoiding non-fiction for that long.
Someone found it in a second hand book store and gave it to me when cleaning out their shelves. They’d never read it. I thanked them rather superficially and tucked waaaay down the bottom of my TBR. And there it lay for the last almost decade-bar-two-years.
An ignominious end for such an interesting book.
For one thing, Essays in Love (or On Love, if you are from the Americas) is really quite original. Bridging the gap between a love story and metaphysical ramblings, it does what most fictional romances have to try and squeeze in between bedroom scenes: it ponders the core of what is love, how relationships are founded and why love exists in the first place.
In Romancelandia, it’s often difficult to make two characters have deep and emotionally tangential conversations about the wider conceptual nature of that incorporeal thing known as love.
They usually happen right after the sex, whilst they’re lying in bed, and one of the characters is noting the glistening sweat on another’s fevered brow…It can often seem stilted and shunted in; the conversations meandering and self-serving.
But EIL, because it sets out to be that very thing: an abstract musing on love cemented in a ‘real-life’ story, achieves this really well.
I will be completely honest here though. A lot of the time I felt like I was being dragged along behind this tidal wave of immensely cultured eruditeness. And I was the weaker link in this duo.
Yes. I am just going to say it: I was the Pinky to De Botton’s Brain.
The Narrater, meets Chloe on an aeroplane. Smitten by the time they land, he tumbles head over heels in love.
Their meet cute is clever enough to set up two characters you really want to root for.
‘God, I hate travelling,’ sighed Chloe, and bit the end of her index finger. ‘I hate arriving even more, I get real arrival angst. After I’ve been away for a while, I always think something terrible has happened: all my friends have come together and decided they hate me or my cacti have died.’
‘You keep cacti?’
‘Several. I went through a cactus phase a while back. Phallic, I know, but I spent a winter in Arizona and sort of got fascinated by them. Do you have any interesting plants?’
‘Only an aspidistra, but I do regularly think all my friends might hate me.’
What follows is a carefully defined, cleverly articulated contemplation on the real nature of love.
I can hear y’all pshawing. But it really is. Divided into specific elements, De Botton scrutinises each facet of the emotional, mental and physical angles of love, and tries to unravel the mystery behind it.
It isn’t always successful, and it isn’t always pleasant, but it IS definitely readable.
With references from Plato, to Madame Bovary, Albert Camus to Montaigne and Nietzsche, there is this delightfully light conversational tone that slides eloquently over big issues with ease.
Like all good philosophical cogitations it asks the BIG questions:
Does fate, in the form of love, really exist?
‘If the chances behind an event are enormously remote, yet it occurs nevertheless, may one not be forgiven for invoking a fatalistic explanation?’
Or is it simply something we create and assign to random happenings to comfort ourselves?
‘From within love…we insist that the meeting…has been prewritten in a scroll slowly unwinding in the sky. We invent a destiny to spare ourselves the anxiety that would arise from acknowledging that the little sense there is in our lives is merely created by ourselves, that there is no scroll (and hence no preordained fate awaiting)…’
And then kind of answers itself…but not really.
‘My mistake was to confuse a destiny to love with a destiny to love a given person…’
How do we fall in love?
‘Do we not fall in love partly out of a momentary will to suspend seeing through people, even at the cost of blinding ourselves a little in the process? If cynicism and love lie at opposite ends of a spectrum, do we not sometimes fall in love in order to escape the debilitating cynicism to which we are prone?’
Is it really love? Or hopeful self delusion?
‘Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over self-knowledge. We fall in love hoping we won’t find in another what we know is in ourselves, all the cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise, and stupidity….We locate inside another a perfection that eludes us within ourselves, and through our union with the beloved, hope to maintain (against the evidence of all self-knowledge) a precarious faith in our species..’
And then just when it all gets a wee to pompous and ponderific, the vignettes of the two characters are thrust back onto the page:
‘The search began badly.
607 9187 was not the beloved’s abode but a funeral parlour off Upper Street, though the establishment didn’t reveal itself to be one until the end of a trying conversation, in the course of which I learnt that After Life also had an employee called Chloe, who was summoned to the phone and spent agonizing minutes trying to place my name (eventually identifying me as a customer who had made inquiries into urns) before the confusion of names was cleared up and I hung up, red-faced, drenched with sweat, nearer death than life.’
Don’t get me wrong. It is a GOOD book. It is splendaciously (that really is the only word for it) written. It is also quotable. My copy started to look like the illegitimate love-child of a post-it note and a stegosaurus. It manages to be both riveting and thought-provoking. It covers the grandiose, and as well as the humble.
I wonder though, if The Narrator suffers from that malaise which seems to inflict so many philosophising academics: the inability to ever be happy in the moment.
He is always LONGING for something. To be more in love; to be less in love; to be better in love; to have someone else to love, or questioning the veracity of his love.
Love Fatalism; apparently a variant of General Fatalism and far more contagious. This communicable condition starts with fever and a suspicious rash, and ends with I-told-you-so’s and the smug relief of martyrdom at being proved right.
It is easy to catch. Antidote? A stiff drink and a Betty Neels, or in my case: 3 (of each). 🙂
Ultimately though, it is a BEAUTIFULLY written break down of the intricacies and foibles of what we (as individuals, and society at large) think of love, and how we process and react to it. Not just romantic love – but LOVE in general.
There is waaay to much time spent in the wallowing – but the outcome and the end result? Worth the wait.
And the suspense part??
Well, kind of like watching a collision in slow motion; you know what is inevitable, and you know there is no way to avoid, but the agonising slowness towards which you move to the denouement cripples you with suspense. Will the Narrator and Chloe avoid the calamity? Is their demise inevitable? Will there be a HEA? Gahh the tension!
The end is pretty damn hilarious. (And if you make it to chapter 19 – you will TOTALLY understand what I mean.)
Well, you’ll just have to read it to find out. You won’t regret it.
And you will have at least 55,000 quotable quotes:
‘There is an Arabic saying that the soul travels at the pace of a camel. While most of us are led by the strict demands of timetables and diaries, our soul…trails nostalgically behind, burdened by the weight of memory…Chloe…nearly killed my camel’
See? Useful in exactly no situation, but dang will you feel well read and smart.
I leave you with a intriguing thought (which I had never really pondered in-depthly before):
‘Certain areas and coverings of the body say more about a person than others: shoes suggest more than pullovers, thumbs more than elbows, underwear more than overcoats, ankles more than shoulders.’
I know right?
Valancy: Never thinking about elbows in the same way again. Ever.
Header Image: Vintage French postcard for April Fools, circa late 19th-early 20th century.