A Fine Romance: On Cristina Nehring
The End of the Novel of Love is a collection of loosely related essays on the development of literary love since the late days of the nineteenth century, when George Meredith published Diana of the Crossways, one of a number of striking novels of the period in which the heroine, at the exact moment when she "should melt," suddenly hardens her heart against the novel's hero. In this novel, as in Mrs. Dalloway, Daniel Deronda and The House of Mirth, the moment of reckoning signals a break not only with the hero but with the tradition of the novel of love as articulated by its greatest writers: Balzac, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Stendahl; I would add the Brontës and Austen, among others. At this moment, sentimental love "becomes a thing of the past. Which is not to say the marriage will not take place; half the time it will. It is only to say that in these novels this is the point at which the story begins."
Gornick shows how, with each generation of writers, the power of love as the activating force of the novel has waned, and how the metaphor of love has become, for writers such as Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Jane Smiley, "an act of nostalgia, not of discovery." The difference between these later books and the old novels of love is not in the numbers of marriages made or happily ever afters accomplished--certainly it did not end well for Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary--but in the power of love to make or break the life of the protagonists, socially, physically and spiritually:
When Emma Bovary was loosening her stays with a man other than her husband, or Anna Karenina running away from hers, or Newland Archer agonizing over whether to leave New York with Ellen Olenska, people were indeed risking all for love. Bourgeois respectability had the power to make of these characters social pariahs. Strength would be needed to sustain exile. Out of such risk taking might come the force of suffering that brings clarity and insight. Today, there are no penalties to pay, no world of respectability to be excommunicated from. Bourgeois society as such is over.
In Gornick's formulation, the great novels of love were written in an era when marriage, pregnancy and adultery were matters of life and death. The novels hinged on a love that was constrained by society; now that these constraints have been all but eliminated, the great novels of love are no more, and we are increasingly less confident in love's existence beyond their pages. Many suspect it was a ruse all along, and who can really blame them?
Gornick does not enjoin us to mourn the passing of bourgeois society, and she seems to suggest that love's exhaustion as a literary theme will find itself replaced, eventually, with something else, just as love had superseded the previous great themes, nature and God: "We are cast adrift, radically 'alone' now, in literature as in life, groping in the books we write to find the metaphoric elements that will achieve new power." It is unclear what those elements are, or even that they must exist and will reveal themselves to us in good time. What we do know is that "the very meaning of human risk" is no longer "embedded in the pursuit of love"; as an ingredient in our literary concoctions, love "might dilute the strength of a good novel rather than gather in it." Meanwhile, she who has abandoned love's refuge finds herself profoundly alone in her "drama of the self," her "astonishing effort to climb up out of original shame--and the awful, implicit knowledge that love, contrary to all sentimental insistence, cannot do the job" for her. "For better and for worse," Gornick explains, "that effort is a solitary one, more akin to the act of making art than of making family."
Gornick, were she asked, might deem Nehring's desire "to dive down into feeling and come up magically changed" atavistic. It appears to be the last, reactionary gasp of an era that Gornick suggests has passed with our grandmothers, who, had they loosened their stays, had all the world to gain, or lose.