Three Books to Get Over an Affair

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Perhaps you have just ended a blistering affair. Perhaps you have just discovered your significant other’s blistering affair. Perhaps you are contemplating embarking on one – or ejecting from one. These three books will help.
If it is your own affair you are concerned with, consider turning to A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century by Christina Nehring.  Nehring looks at love in its myriad forms through the lives and creations of writers, poets, philosophers, and artists, many of whom were rather badly – or let us say unconventionally – behaved.
Start with the chapter “Love as Transgression,” which helps explain how and why love often arises “out of obstruction and illegitimacy.” Think Romeo and Juliet, the antagonists in Les liaisons dangereuses, Madame Bovary, and, of course, Anna Karenina. But “Love as Transgression” tells the story of the mythological 12th century lovers Tristan and Iseult. Kept apart by marriages to other people, imprisonment and self-imposed exile (Tristan was a knight after all) they kept finding ways to come together anyway – through disguises, secret trysts, an escape to a nearby forest, and, finally, a deathbed reunion. They knew that love “is about breaking boundaries between people and about breaking boundaries of propriety.” And that love “is always against something as ardently as it is for somebody.”  But after all that passion, all that breakage, sometimes you are left with only wreckage.  And that is the time to read the chapter “Love as Failure.”
You might also read “Love as Failure” if you find yourself on the losing end of an affair. “Most great passions, in some sense, are failures,” Nehring writes. Consider Dante, Petrarch, Madame Butterfly, Carmen. Or Abelard, the medieval scholar who made love with his student Heloise (“My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts … Our desires left no stage of lovemaking untried …”) until he is castrated by her enraged uncle, joins a monastery, and persuades Heloise to enter a convent. After twelve years of silence between them, Heloise writes him a letter, and a new chapter of their spectacularly failed love begins – “Abelard responds to her in a way he has never responded to another human being in his life … with intimate reflections and ambitious theories, hymns and precepts, prayers and sermons … [and] Abelard’s dying wish was to be buried near Heloise.” Who knows what will spring from catastrophe?
This question is nearly impossible to answer when the catastrophe is fresh. Emma Straub’s tart new novel, The Vacationers, is a very different sort of book – a potential beach-read as much as a primer on affairs and their recovery – where we learn on the very first page that Jim Post has transgressed. Packing for a two-week family vacation on the island of Mallorca, he wishes he could leave out “the last year of his life … the way Franny looked at him across the dinner table at night; the feeling of himself inside a new mouth for the first time in three decades … the emptiness waiting on the other side of the return flight, the blank days he would have to fill and fill and fill.” Details of his affair are revealed slowly, as are the affairs of nearly everyone else in the book: Jim’s son Bobby, Franny’s best friend Chuck, and Jim and Franny’s daughter Sylvia’s traitorous best friend.
There is temperance and understanding – “Marriage is hard. Relationships are hard … We’ve all done things.” – as well as raw anger and blunt perspective – “Yes, we’ve all done things. I’ve done things like put on thirty pounds. He’s done things like put his penis inside a twenty-three-year-old. Don’t you think one of those is significantly worse?” Read The Vacationers if you want your tragedy leavened with a bit of farce, your compassion enlivened with a bit of acid, your lack of forgiveness tempered with an abiding love. “The human heart [is] a complex organ at any age,” Straub reminds us, and then guides us through its chambers.
And then there is Anna Karenina. Of course there is Anna Karenina. There is also Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair or Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County (remember that craziness?).  But if you really want to get over an affair, to see an affair clearly from start to finish, to see what wind fills its sails and what trash lies in its wake, surrender yourself to 817 pages of gorgeous, harrowing, revelatory Tolstoy.  
We all know the shorthand version: girl meets boy, girl (thinks she) loses boy, girl meets train. But that is only one layer of this matrëška of love and loss. Before we meet Anna, before we meet Vronsky, on the very first page and in the very second sentence we are plunged into a family’s chaos because of an affair: “The wife had found out that the husband was having an affair with their former French governess …” And thus begins Anna’s sister-in-law Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskya’s story of anguish, disappointment, resignation, and transcendence. Anna’s story begins soon after, when she meets Vronsky, who provokes in her “a strange feeling of pleasure” as well as “a fear of something.” She is right to be both pleased and afraid, for she and Vronsky will embark on an affair that leaves more than a few casualties in its wake: an abandoned spouse, two abandoned children, a ruined career, a tarnished innocence, two suicide attempts (one of them successful); at least six hearts bruised, broken, shot at or run over. Orbiting around this dark sun are the lesser affairs of Anna’s brother Oblonsky, Levin’s brother’s relationship with a former prostitute, Levin’s own dalliances before his marriage to Kitty, the delicate dance that leads to Kitty’s friend Varenka’s almost-proposal, and various flirtations and trysts in their social circle.
What Tolstoy does so beautifully is show all the ups and down of an affair, from the childlike glee that illuminates a woman in love (“‘It’s late now, late, late,’ she whispered with a smile.  She lay for a long time motionless, her eyes open, at it seemed to her that she herself could see them shining in the darkness.”) to the strange internal transformations obsessive love can bring (“What is that on the armrest – a fur coat or some animal?  And what am I?  Myself or someone else?”).  
Whatever state of an affair you are in – the electrical beginning, the increasingly complicated middle, the bang or the whimper of the end, the terrible discovery of someone else’s affair or the arid time that comes before the next, the lovers in Anna Karenina will walk with you, teach you, warn you, encourage and console you.  If you want to read how artists and their creations navigated these treacherous waters, try A Vindication of Love.  But if a Spanish beach or private pool is more your speed, kick back with The Vacationers. For an acute case, read all three.
Image via rvoegtli/Flickr

A Hybrid, Trapped: On Being a Writer in the Classroom

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Sixty pairs of eyes follow me for four months. Then another 60, for another four. Then — at last — summer, when I am free from those staring eyes, the eyes half closed by sleep, even the eyes that are illuminated with sudden understanding — all those eyes that squint as they fill out student evaluation forms, the empty bubbles steadily becoming the dark cannonballs that determine my fate.

The system by which we are evaluated is Byzantine in its complexity and medieval in its outcome. The teachers in my program have to meet certain thresholds for certain questions, the number varying but always high. If we fail to meet these thresholds we fail to keep our jobs. So for eight months of the year, I have these numbers pressed into my brain like a brand. They steam and smoke and blacken there, waiting for me to make or miss them.

But then one summer I walked out of my last day of class and left almost immediately for a writing residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

I drove south on Route 29 with all the windows open; I didn’t speed (like I usually do) but instead I looked out the window, noted each county I passed through, considered what it would be like to live in Culpepper, wondered how to pronounce “Fauquier;” I let all the cares of the semester shear off and blow away in the rush of wind. I drove to the middle of the state and then took a winding single-lane road up a grassy field. I found an envelope with my name on it that gave me the number of the room I would sleep in and the key to the studio I would write in. I followed its directions and walked away from the residence, past a gazebo and a row of unopened peonies, along a fence that marked a cow pasture and then came to the studio barn. The barn was shaped like a U and my studio was in the right arm of it. Its one door was on the cove side, and its four windows looked out onto woods. To the right was an overgrown field that had a faint path curving away into the unknown. Later I would look at that path and think, that’s what writing is like.

I settled in and got to work. I wrote all day and late into the night when the wind swelled in the trees and I walked back to the residence through this rustling dark. There was something magical about this time. I was suspended, insulated, cared for, and writing — all in the privacy of the Virginia countryside. My teaching job and the staring eyes of my students seemed very far away. I started to feel like the wood-nymph Daphne, transformed into something that would confound my pursuers.

Daphne was the daughter of the river god Peneus. While her father wished for children and grandchildren through her, Daphne begged to “be like Diana,” and her father let her run wild through the woods. Then Apollo caught sight of her. Maybe he was shot by Cupid’s arrow, maybe his love for her was all his own, but he pursued her through the forest and she ran from him. He yelled out his name, his lineage, and his love, but none of it made any difference to her. As he got closer and closer, Daphne saw her father’s river before her and cried to him for help. In answer, she was changed into a laurel tree. Apollo was dismayed, but he honored the woman he lost by honoring the tree. According to Edith Hamilton’s version of the myth, he vowed, “With your leaves my victors shall wreathe their brows. You shall have part in all my triumphs. Apollo and his laurel shall be joined together wherever songs are sung and stories told.”

I am not as cold towards my pursuer as Daphne was. Daphne renounced love for the freedoms of the woods, but as much as I want to be free from teaching, I’m not renouncing it entirely. I don’t despise teaching — not at all. It’s pursuit that I flee from. Competition, perfection, unattainable causes. It’s this hot breath on the back of my neck that I want to escape at nearly any cost.

But instead of being fully transformed, I am like Bernini’s statue of Daphne — a hybrid, trapped. Bernini has caught her right at the moment of transformation — hands reaching to the sky, fingers unfurling into branches, leaves rising towards the sun. Bark has sprung up and encased one leg and her hair flashes in a spray of branches. She looks like frost skating across a windowpane, roots spreading deep into dark soil. Her face is discomposed, eyes and mouth open — in fear, anticipation, surprise. The marble she is made of tumbles from her body. She springs. She crackles. She lifts and is lifted. Her voice — now — would shriek. But she is beyond words. She fears the viewer, her pursuer. She will fear fire, drought, the axe blade, the hurricane. But that’s later.  Now she wants to flee a different kind of fire — at any cost. She wants to continue what she’s begun, in private, alone.

Instead of swaying and rustling by the riverbank for all the decades a laurel tree has to live, I have only the summer. Soon I will be faced again with 120 pairs of new eyes, but this time with my hair filled with leaves, my fingers branching, my body half-encased in bark instead of collared shirts and dress shoes. What will those eyes see now?

When I was a graduate student I gave a talk to fellow graduate-student instructors about being a writer in the classroom. I used Aesop’s fable “The Bat, the Beasts, and the Birds” to show how I felt like a bat, trapped between being an academic (with the beasts) and a writer (with the birds). I felt too intellectual to be a writer, too creative to be an academic, and was pained by Aesop’s moral: “He who is neither one thing nor another has no friends.”

But now, leafing through a volume of Aesop’s Fables, I can’t find “The Bat, the Beasts, and the Birds.” Instead I find “The Bat and the House-Ferrets,” which has a similar story but quite a different moral. A bat is caught by a house-ferret and pleads for her life. The ferret says that she can’t let her go because ferrets are the enemies of all birds. The bat replies that she’s not a bird, but a mouse. She escapes, but is later caught by a second ferret. This second ferret claims to be the enemy of all mice. But the bat says that she’s not a mouse but a bird. A moral was added by a later collector of Aesop’s fables: “[I]f we are adaptable to circumstances we can better escape danger.”

Was Daphne adaptable? Instead of being one thing — a bat who could be seen as two things: a beast or a bird — Bernini’s Daphne is two things at once: a hybrid. But Daphne, at least in Bernini’s imagination, is stunning in her transformation. She is caught between two worlds, two identities, and although her transformation appears painful, there is still beauty in it. Perhaps this is where the artist comes in.

Bernini made the grotesque Daphne beautiful through his sculpture and I have seen in her a metaphor to help my own transformation. It doesn’t always seem comforting to imagine myself a tree, but when I think of escaping the fever of pursuit (in this case my own pursuit of perfect student evaluations, a higher merit score, my colleagues’ support, my department’s respect) and imagine myself rooted in something more fertile (a riverbank’s soil, the ground of my own ferocious imagination) I can see the beauty in a simple tree. The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts uses a tree — a woodcut from one of its artists — as their symbol. I have a print of it hanging over my desk to remind me of my time there and what it can ultimately lead to.

Chuck Wachtel, writer and teacher of creative writing (years ago mine), once told me: “I am an ornithologist, but I am also a bird.” He was reminding us, his students, that although he spends much of his time reading our writing, he is also writer himself and needs the time and space to practice his own craft. I, too, am a bird when I write. I am also an ornithologist, a studier of birds, when I teach creative writing, and a zoologist, a studier of beasts, when I teach academic writing. Sometimes I wear a leather glove and carry a jess, sometimes I wield a whip and a chair. I am a kinestesiologist and a runner, a pedagologist and a teacher, a dendrologist and a tree, a hybrid of all these things, but foremost a writer — always, always a writer.

Image Credit: Wikimedia