How to Read a Love Story

In my quest to exorcise the thoughts of my beloved from my mind, I started some months ago to read all the books that he raved about. I thought that once I finished them all, I will finish with him too.

First I read the English Patient. Perhaps I was not in love with the imagery and language as he was. He said he usually read it slowly to savour it, and always went back a few pages to re-read them when he dipped back into it. However, I did relate to the brokenness of love and heartache. I fully understood it on an emotional level.

Next I read  “An Equal Music” by Vikram Seth. My beloved is a musician, or at least a former musician, and he shares some common traits with the protagonist of the book. It is true that they play different instruments, but they are both of working class background, and hail from the northern parts of England. The book character also finished his music studies at the Royal Academy of Music in my love’s hometown. Without even reading the story, I suspected that he also related to the character on an emotional level, in the tragic and besotted way he fell in love.

The book was never a bestseller. Perhaps it did not find a large audience because chamber music is a part of its plot. But strangely enough it was one of the books I owned. One that survived the cull of several moves, from Johannesburg to the Eastern Cape, to Cape Town to New York until it finally settled on a bookshelf in Nairobi. It was still on my To-Be-Read (TBR) list, when he mentioned it me, as one of his favourite books. I was amazed that we managed to agree on this obscure title too, one of many subtle connections we shared.  Please stop here if you intend to read the book because I will speak about it next, and might spoil the plot for you if you read any further.

In a nutshell it is a love story. One that does not have a happy ending. The protagonist, Michael Holme, meets the woman he loved and never managed to forget. The chance meeting happens ten years after they part ways and lose touch with each other. Next comes the resurrection of their love, which is a bittersweet interlude that threatens to unsettle both their lives. Julia is married, and is trying to conceal the fact she is going deaf, a terrible ordeal for a pianist who relies on her sense of hearing for enjoying music and presenting it to the world. Micheal himself is an accomplished violinist in a chamber music quartet, but I got the sense that he was still drifting aimlessly in his artist’s life, when he found Julia again. I accompanied him on his journey and understood its suffering and inevitable resolution.

Some books take you on a journey of knowledge and discovery, others on a roller-coaster ride of nonstop action, and the third type are the ones that invite you to accompany the characters on their emotional journey. This book is one of them. Since I discovered my own emotional intensity, I can appreciate and commiserate with the feelings of similarly broken characters. Michael and Julia are not perfect, each of them is flawed in his way, yet their responses are raw and real. Michael especially struggles with accepting Julia’s decision to stop seeing him, and this drives him into self-destruct mode, with a few tantrums thrown in for good measure. The book does not end in total disaster, there are small measures of joy, acceptance and redemption in Michael and Julia’s life. They survive, in their separate lives.

It was quite interesting that both love stories my Englishman recommended featured a forbidden love affairs that ended tragically or miserably. In both stories, the emotional bond survived separation or even death. At a previous point in my life I might have mocked either or both narratives. But today I know that those who wrote about love from first-hand experience never lied. The genuine descriptions of love whether in poems, songs or novels always speak to human feelings, and go on to become bestsellers. Love is essential to our lives. It is shared and expressed universally across cultural, spatial and temporal divides. At its best it is like an internal sun, that illuminates from within, lends glow to the eyes, and gives lightness to the steps. At its worst, It is a heavy piece of flint carried under the ribs, or a giant’s fist wrapped around the throat. Days, months or years might pass where the offending objects diminish until they are almost forgotten. Then, something shifts and the flinty stone would expand, hot and sharp to stab your insides and stop your breath. The fist would tighten its grip to choke the throat. Anybody who has ever grieved a lost love would relate to this pain, as I related to the heartache in the English Patient and An Equal Music, and to the emotional turmoil in half a dozen other love stories I read since I was similarly afflicted. The scars will always remain.

Such is the sentiment of a poem quoted in An Equal Music. You part from the one you love but they always leave their mark:

But never either found another
To free the hollow heart from paining –
They stood aloof, the scars remaining.
Like cliffs which had been rent asunder;
A dreary sea now flows between,
But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,
Shall wholly do away, I ween,
The marks of that which once hath been.*


 

* Fare Thee Well by Lord Byron.

 

 

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