by Erich Segal
Love means never having to say "this book is contrived".
Love. Ah, L’Amour. Love, that elusive eel of an emotion, forever slithering free of our best attempts to understand it, describe it, define it. One need only look at the media to be assured that love is among our chief concerns as a species. On the covers of magazines, headlines crow promises of finding it, while inside, people post adverts for themselves, trying to attract it. Films depict it perhaps more than any other subject – the yearning for love, the quest for love, its acquisition, its loss, its struggle to survive through the banality of the years.
When we all want it, need it, crave it and revolve around it, why is it that love remains the most difficult subject to effectively put into words?
Attempting to put the entirety of love into words has been the hope, desire and often abject failure of writers worldwide. The difficulty is no new or unknown phenomenon, either. Take the title of Raymond Carver’s 1981 book of short stories – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Even within that title, we find an acknowledgement of the need for further elucidation. I want to refrain from rhapsodising, and gushing about cultures that have a trillion words for snow and yet we have too few for love. And yet, our language really does limit us.
What DO we write about when we write about love? Approaches take different shapes, and more often than not, fall short.
There are romance novels, which are enormously popular and never go out of style. But they focus almost exclusively on the procurement aspect of love. Two people meet, generally one of them longs for a domestic embrace while the other has eyes that flash dangerously and a refusal to be tamed. Eventually, after a series of misunderstandings, obstacles and teary episodes are smoothed out, the sigh of contentment and falling into each other’s arms is accomplished, and the story ends there, with the happy silhouettes against a sunset backdrop, and the promise of a forever future of liplocked bliss. The stories end just as we realise the two lovebirds have found each other.
Romeo & Juliet
by William Shakespeare
Tragedy? Definitely. A Love Story? Debatably.
There are the racier ones, which blur the line between romance and erotica
. But they are chiefly concerned with the sex aspect of love, the tantalising agony that occurs when people are still dressed and prefer not to be. Entire novels are written as a slow tease, a torturous dance of lip-biting and flushed faces, and again, the eventual climax (sorry, sorry). But even then, the stories end just as we realise the two lustbirds have found each other.
But what of love? Enduring, affectionate, friendly, ongoing, mutually admirable love? Where do we read about it? The stories stop too soon. Love isn't just infatuation, isn't just anticipation, and isn't just lust and sex. Then what? If you ask people to name famous love stories, Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo & Juliet
will undoubtedly be mentioned. Good God, why? Two barely post-pubescent teenagers meet, become infatuated with one another, are married urgently and in secret, spend almost no time together (“Say...what’s your favourite colour?”), and die horribly amid misery, grief, rivalry and misunderstanding. Is this love? Yikes.
Love is private jokes, and subtle shared eyerolls across the table at a dinner party. It is undoubtedly butterflies in the stomach (and other places!), but more than that it is the glorious intimacy of knowing how another likes their eggs cooked. It thrills us and relaxes us, all at once. We know what love is when we feel it. It is the most beautiful part of life, which doubles our joys and halves our grief.
said “Affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives,” and surely that sums up the heart, the root, the flowering bud of what love really is. But it is difficult to encapsulate, describe, or represent via the written word in any way that does it justice. When it is accomplished, it is to be applauded and celebrated.
To my mind, there is no such thing, yet, as the perfect love story, or an entire book that gets it quite right. Perhaps that’s the most intoxicating part about love, after all – it’s too magical and enormous to pin down, and continues to wriggle just out of our reach, refusing to be defined, but letting us enjoy it.
With that in mind, here is a selection of books I put together, some iconic classics, some lesser-known choices, that I think come close – whether just in a passage or two, or the overall tone, or the chemistry between characters – to having enough words for love.