In Katherine Mansfield’s exquisite long short story At the Bay, Beryl, a middle-aged woman still fantasising about the young girl she once was and the lovers she could have captured then, stands in a darkened room half-imagining someone is out there in the dark, desiring her. So much of fiction is about desire, a yearning of some kind or another … the love of reading itself a sort of intense affair.
These thoughts and more were whirling around in my mind when I wrote my own novel about unrequited love, Caroline’s Bikini, the story of middle-aged Evan’s great love for his landlady, the desirable but always just out of reach Caroline Beresford.
My book is a comedy: Evan and his friends make me smile. And the way Emily, a lowly part-time copywriter and only-once-published short-story author, has written Evan’s story makes me smile, too – her endless diversions and asides, her writing’s dependent clauses straining for inclusion within the main structure of her narrative. But these amusements are underpinned by some serious thinking about love stories and the meaning of fiction in our lives, with the following titles topping my list of inspirational work on that subject.
1. The Canzoniere by Petrarch
For a start, I had Petrarch in mind, and his great love for the 14-year-old Laura, who the poet glimpsed coming out of church in 1327 and spent the rest of his life thinking about in the sequence of poems he wrote for her. He never knew Laura, or even spoke to her, but the sonnets in The Canzoniere chart his feelings of love as a life’s work that is as large and passionate as any other love story.
2. The Divine Comedy by Dante
Dante follows hard on his heels, of course, and was writing before him – his Divine Comedy a kind of early novel, as I think of it, in three parts, that was inspired by a similar kind of experience. Dante never knew his Beatrice either, yet the idea of her propelled his great work about visiting Hell and Purgatory and Heaven, to be met there by her: another fantasy made true in words.
3. The Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney
Medieval and early Renaissance literature is full of similar knights who woo their ladies with little or no expectation of love being returned. Of all the stories from this era, the one that stands out for me is Sidney’s Arcadia, with its excruciatingly detailed story of four star-crossed lovers who half-manage an idyllic version of their passions, but succumb anyhow to the world’s craziness and disorder.
4. Middlemarch by George Eliot
Whirring away like the great engines of intelligence and imagination that they are, are the novels riven through with love that is never quite fulfilled because of the way life and chance get in the way. First, Eliot’s great novel, with the wonderfully wilful and misguided Dorothea and the man who she is barely aware loves her, the ever hopeful but ultimately disappointing Will Ladislaw, who flits away at her back trying to woo while she chooses another suitor before him.
5. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Another book I go back to, rereading and finding yearning represented there by such quiet force and sense of elegy that sometimes I can hardly bear it. War and Peace is, alongside its many other stories, about the love of Natasha for her Prince Andrei. The way this is drawn out, rendering a love that seems to wear itself out with time and circumstance, is one of the finest pieces of writing about loss that I can think of. So subtle, like life, that we barely notice the size of its devastation until it has passed us by.
6. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Woolf does a clever, clever thing with the same theme here, in the section titled Time Passes. In her story, about a family and its extended circle that seems to radiate from the charismatic centre of Mrs Ramsay, Woolf sets down what she called a “corridor”: that strange, leaf-swept, desolate and empty stretch set down in the middle of the book where Mrs Ramsay is not, because she has died. Unrequited is the very tone, the sound, of this novel.
7. The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
Frankie Addams is, at 12 years old, a member of “no thing”. Her pangs of grief and jealousy and bitterness and anger are all contained in the feeling of unrequited love she has for the wedding of her brother to his bride. The whole novel is a veering, crazy passionate thing of words, a study of adolescence that is also a construct of clanging sentences and non sequiturs that all add up to an understanding of the deepest order. There is nothing this writer doesn’t know about the fierce, vibrant energies of yearning.
8. Kin by Eudora Welty
Welty’s perfect short story draws the lines of unrequited love in similarly abstract and concrete ways. Here, we’re brought close in to the intimacies of family life without ever quite being fully included. There’s a corridor in this story too – a place like Woolf’s, called a “breezeway” – and it’s a metaphor for the same kind of absent centre to a story. Unrequited love speaks to places, too, as much as to people and their relationships with each other.
9. I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
Much more recently, the thrillingly wicked and feted – many years after its original publication – this book employs its author’s clear and professed biography as part of its narrative trick to have the reader be let in and also kept out of various secrets. Kraus cuts out a freshly exposed version of unrequited love that can’t ever capture as much as it reaches for.
10. Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark
“Words are ideas,” said Spark, who I would end with here. All of Spark’s novels are unrequited in that their strange sentences carry no expectation that they will be gathered up into a neat ending. But this one might describe her project best: a tale of love and loss that is composed of nothing but ideas for stories and films that seem to disappear off the page as we read. Spark’s end is not an end at all but suggestion that the true love story is yet to come – a mystery that we spend our time on earth yearning towards.