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Valentine's Day special: Love in Literature

What is this thing called love which has a hundred interpretations in Sanskrit, eight classifications in Greek, has inspired the greatest works of art and driven people to madness or murder? Author Nirupama Subramanian explores this feeling in works of literature.

books Updated: Feb 14, 2012 08:07 IST

It is Valentine's Day once again. Couples will once again be beguiled into newer and more effusive expressions of love. Flower sellers will do roaring business, chocolates or diamonds or fluffy stuffed animals will be exchanged and the social media will be flooded with love bytes. What is this thing called love which has a hundred interpretations in Sanskrit, eight classifications in Greek, has inspired the greatest works of art and driven people to madness or murder?  What is this addictive, messy, confounding, exhilarating, uplifting, maddening feeling?

The word might have become worn with overuse but it remains a fascinating subject. In the course of writing my second novel about difficult love between two unlikely people, I realized that I needed to know more about it. I had several interesting conversations on the topic and watched  some interesting films, all in the name of research. I also read and reread  several books on the theme of love, not  the typical romance novels but books that explored the idea in different compelling ways. The good part of this research was that I could plunge into a novel in the middle of a weekday and feel that I was working.  It was wonderful.

Here, in no particular order, are five of  the books that I enjoyed.

Love in the Time of Cholera- Gabriel Garcia Marquez

In an unnamed South American town, Florentino Ariza  falls in love with  Fermina Daza. She falls hesitatingly in love with him, then inexplicably out of love and willingly enters into a marriage of convenience with another man. Florentino waits for her for fifty-one years, nine months and four days and proposes to her on the day of her husband's funeral. In the intervening time, he has had several affairs but his heart has remained untouched. Florentino still holds out the promise of eternal love and everlasting fidelity. The language is gorgeous, the scenes are painted with manic vigor, the characters are flawed ,yet heroic. This is love with all its contradictions and confusions, a love that is almost spiritual and yet raw, real, earthy. Definitive,  delicious.

Atonement- Ian McEwan

The anticipation and dread he felt at seeing her was also a kind of sensual pleasure, and surrounding it, like an embrace, was a general elation - it might hurt, it was horribly inconvenient, no good might come of it, but he had found out for himself what it was to be in love, and it thrilled him.

Finally he spoke the three simple words that no amount of bad art or bad faith can every quite cheapen. She repeated them, with exactly the same slight emphasis on the second word, as though she were the one to say them first. He had no religious belief, but it was impossible not to think of an invisible presence or witness in the room, and that these words spoken aloud were like signatures on an unseen contract.

The lines blazed brightly on the page, reading them was a kind of sensual pleasure. Pitch perfect prose, vivid characters, masterful story telling, an ode to the transformative power of love..what is not to like? Atonement covers other grand themes of war, remorse , forgiving and art of writing but it is the steadfast love between Cecelia and Robbie that hovers like an invisible presence through the story.

The Museum of Innocence- Orhan Pamuk

Why would wealthy Kemal, engaged to elegant accomplished Sibel fall foolishly in love with the shop girl Fusun, young, poor and completely unsuitable? The Museum of Innocence is set in a fashionable neighborhood of Istanbul in the seventies, a society in transition much like India is today. Kemal's love for  Fusun is obsessive, illogical, selfish, all consuming and ultimately tragic. He has her, loses her and can never really have her. In an attempt to retain something of his beloved, he filches objects that have some connection to Fusun, objects that would ultimately find their way into a museum of innocence. The idea of a life that is defined by love however inconvenient, irrational and self destructive, is  alluring. In the end, says Kemal, 'let it be known that I led a happy life.' This is a long slow novel, to be savored with faith and perseverance.

Gone with the wind- Margaret Mitchell

Gone with the wind is the classic Bildungsroman , a rich varied tapestry of grand themes and ideas, set against the backdrop of  the American civil war. Scarlett O' Hara, the beautiful , willful, spirited heroine, believes herself to be  in love with Ashley Wilkes who chooses to marry the saintly Melanie Hamilton. Rhett Butler  loves Scarlett. " In spite of you and me and the whole silly world going to pieces around us, I love you" he tells her. Any other woman would have swooned but Scarlett remains unmoved. I had read the book earlier and seen the movie in my teens. The visual images had superimposed itself on my imagination. Still, I was drawn into the book. As a reader, I felt like giving   Scarlett a good shake  to jolt herself out of her foolish infatuation with Ashley. But it is  Scarlett  who has to traverse the rocky terrain of love to understand her own heart. Loving, we realize,  is  not only about discovering another person but also knowing your true self.

Sense and Sensibility- Jane Austen

After reading a slew of novels on the  melancholic or obsessive nature of love, I was hankering for a happy ending. I reached for a Jane Austen novel. The sisters, Elinor and Marrianne Dashwood, have different ideas of love. Marianne is the emotional one, open, reckless and generous in showing her love. "To love is to burn, to be on fire", she declares with feeling. Elinor loves and suffers silently. She remains practical, stoic in the face of the loss of her love. "In such a case, it is better to use one's head." she believes. Both sisters find fulfillment in unexpected ways. All ends well in the gentle English countryside.

This is not a comprehensive list, it is more of a top of the mind recall. I have read more books that have spoken of love; many have stirred me, some have  caused me to pause wonderingly in the middle of a page, most have left me with more questions than answers.  I may have become more knowledgeable but I cannot claim be any wiser about the nature of love. I have completed my book, but the research will go on. Perhaps, like the Matrix, no one can tell you what exactly love is, you have to feel it for yourself.

Nirupama Subramanian's forthcoming novel 'Intermission' is about difficult love in suburban India