There are many ways to arrive at the station of the unrequited lover. Sometimes there are class concerns. Sometimes there are religious, racial or physiological forces at work. Then there is the sadder, darker brand of unreciprocated love. It is a land populated by the true believer. The person of faith, whose feverish eyes and affection starved bodies hold an impossible line. These last sorts do not always concern themselves with the love of an individual.
It can be a way of life. Think of Willy Lohman (whose belief in a dream-world America was misplaced and deluded) and Don Quixote (whose unrequited love was chivalry). Neither's faith was placed in something that could return favor. Yet there they were. Plugging along the road of life swearing to uphold their visions.
Faith is the essential trait. Faith and duty. The unrequited believe in notions of fate, alignment and the way things ought to be. They remain incredibly loyal to their visions and stubbornly do so despite the failure for the vision to manifest a return.
Though a fool, the unrequited lover is often noble and sometimes finds a special brand of heroic essence in their steadfast world-view. This is the breed of sad hero that can teach us that perhaps their vision isn’t a reality, nor do they exemplify our societal aspirations, but instead they stand in mute accusation. These last sorts aren’t necessarily anti-heroes. They can in fact be expounders of a somber philosophy unrealized by their fellow man. In some cases, it would be a better world if it were.
Let us start with something of that sort.
Last Night At The Lobster by Stewart O’Nan. Penguin Books. $13. ISBN: 9780143114420. 146 pp. Buy it here.
Manny DeLeon is a hero. In the old time sense of a hero being someone who exemplifies the moral aspirations of a society. Manny dots all of our moral i’s.
Manny DeLeon is the manager of a Red Lobster somewhere in a poor New England town. The Lobster is closing due to diminished sales (maybe, he’s not really sure they had a down year). The entirety of O’Nan’s novel is set on his last day.
How many employees will show up for a last shift at a Red Lobster? How many will be willing to work as hard as they normally do? How many will be honest? There is a blizzard too, that Manny will have to reckon with. There is his gentle and sentimental nature as well, that will hinder his abilities as every bit of routine looms before him like the last rites being read at his recently deceased abuela’s funeral. His grandmother was his closest family.
Then there is the matter of Jacquie and Deena. Jacquie, the woman he loves, is a waitress at the Red Lobster and their relationship is all but over. For months they have been separated and yet he cannot let go of her, despite her being newly involved. He can’t let go but he has to because there is Deena to reckon with. Deena is the woman carrying his child.
Jacquie does not love the man she’s with and that allows for too many openings for Manny to cling onto their previous love, and yet he knows he can’t hold on. He doesn’t have the luxury. He must be responsible to Deena. He must do the right thing. Through this wonderful, tender novel Manny always does the right thing despite how absurd it might be considering the circumstances. Yet always, no matter how hard he tries, his love for Jacquie manifests over and over again.
The thing that makes this novel masterful is that it awakens pity in the reader. It makes you feel sorry for Manny and his seemingly declining life. The masterful part is that eventually you come to realize that Manny does not require pity. He is a strong man of principle and despite the aspects of his life that might strike the reader as being “small” he stands taller than many would in any circumstance. Not just when there are chips on the table.
Manny is a leader in every sense of the word.
Love hurts Manny, but he keeps moving. Ever dutiful, Manny stomachs his anguish and trudges on despite the pointlessness of the situations put before him. A job’s a job, after all and he’s being paid to do it. He’s practically a John Henry of the food service industry.
After reading this book you’ll find yourself wanting to stop at a Red Lobster for some Captain’s Biscuits (yes, the cheddar ones) and to take a look for Manny doing his job. Afterwards, you’ll remember why you haven’t been to a Red Lobster in years.
Victoria by Knut Hamsun. Translated with an Introduction by Sverre Lyngstad. Penguin Classics. $13. ISBN: 0143039377. 82 pp. Buy it here.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked listlessly.
O, Victoria… What if Joahnnes had answered this question truthfully? What then would you have done in turn?
This story makes the others on the list blush with guilty decadence. Hamsun is a master and deserving of his Nobel Prize (1920). There are terrible aspects to his biography, namely his being a supporter of National Socialism and Germany in both World Wars. His early writings (Victoria included) contain no hint of these leanings. Instead they are arguably the most psychologically complex novels of the last century and perhaps…ever written. This led Isaac Bashevis Singer to dub him “The father of modern fiction.”
Published over a hundred and ten years ago, this slim offering has lost none of its punch. Dealing with subjects like class distinction, envy, pride and the score of insecurities bred within such concepts, Victoria truly is a pioneering work and its relevance is unsettling.
Like all classic tales of love it centers around two youths. Johannes is the son of a miller and Victoria is the daughter of an impoverished lord whose land the miller and his family live on. The role of servant and master become blurred as Johannes is allowed to join in the upper class children’s play. His loyalty to Victoria, and indeed budding love, is easily hidden behind the nature of his station. He obeys her every whim, both out of propriety and adoration.
The miller’s son grows up tall and strong, much to the chagrin of Victoria’s wealthy suitors from the city. Victoria admires his strong limbs and poetic existence. She is also all too aware of the class distinctions and when pressed by Johannes’ love she lashes out at him, pointing to his lower status. She knows their love would be difficult and so chooses push him away.
Much of the novella goes on like this. Johannes becomes educated and in time he achieves fame as a writer and poet. The two lovers (for they both love each other foremost) meet in passing whenever Johannes comes home from abroad. The walls of society serve as barrier and keep Victoria from being able to express her emotions for Johannes and he in turn honors her requisite distance. Honor essentially keeps them apart. Every word Johannes writes is dedicated to her.
This novella bleeds but does not gush. There is only the occasional “high romantic” outburst and generally they are fully believable because something simply has to be released. The anguish and wounding all happens on the inside, kept out of sight by notions of propriety, honor and class. This only adds to the confusion of the two parties, as the suddenness and volume of the emotion shown is previously unrealized. The confusion leads to deliberation, which too much of can be a bad thing.
This book will not cheer you up. It will teach you about how precious love is. Basically, if you love someone then don't come up with excuses to avoid difficulty. Better to have loved and lost and all that stuff...
Sunflower by Gyula Krudy. Translated from the Hungarian by John Batki. Introduction by John Lukacs. New York Review Of Books. $14. ISBN: 9781590171868. 232 pp. Buy it here.
I’m not really sure if a story with a happy ending can be considered unrequited. Actually, by definition it cannot be considered such, but when 99% of a novel consists of anguished half-steps and quiet love-filled desperation I think there can be an exception. Exceptions, after all, are the bread and butter of the unrequited lover.
Sunflower was called to my attention at my old bookstore by the writer of the book’s introduction, historian John Lukacs. Lukacs in fact owns what is generally considered the largest collection of Krudy’s works and manuscripts. Many of these works are unavailable in languages other than the author’s Magyar, and Lukacs hinted at the fact that some of them were unavailable even then.
Krudy, like many great European writers of the last century’s first half, is somewhat lost in the English-speaking world. Think of a literary landscape where Kafka was never canonized and you will understand Krudy’s legacy in translation.
The comparison with Kafka ends there. Krudy’s writing closer resembles that of Proust. That is if Proust was a gambling, hard drinking womanizer with an ironically preserved notion of romanticism. In Sunflower we learn of a Hungarian expression that states that, “Every Hungarian man worth anything will at sometime develop the gout.”
Ah, the painful beauty of hedonistic melancholy. Proust never reminisced about the good old days quite like that.
Sunflower is a dark book. There is nothing sinister about it per se, but at times it can seem strangely macabre, as though it shouldn’t be but somehow is capable of violence. It is a hypnotic work, where sophistication and dignity both wear a double-face of madness and propriety melting passion. Essentially it is a matter of secrets. No matter how reserved the character might seem, Krudy populates their inside with a conflagration of desires that can and will spring forth when given opportunity.
This combination of comportment and passionate longing (both taken to drastic ends) makes for surreal and uneasy humor. The book can literally be dizzying at times and one begins to suspect Krudy capable of actual magic. Sunflower is literally intoxicating.
The protagonist is young Eveline, from a well to do family, who has left city-life to return to the countryside to flee a former lover, the devilish, thieving Kalman. Once in the country she encounters an old friend of her family (who is older than she) who has always carried a torch for her. His name is Almos-Dreamer and he is cut from wonderfully absurd cloth.
Almos-Dreamer is a paragon of Krudy’s vision of Hungarian country gentility: nostalgic, listless, romantic and above all, loyal. It is the last two traits that lend the novel its sense of danger. Loyalty and romanticism can lead a man to many dark ends.
Krudy doesn’t leave this point (likely the novels essential point) to implication. He populates the novel’s last half with his most entertaining character, Mr. Pistoli. The ageing Pistoli takes all of the above traits and takes them all to a fevered extreme, where each one could and should be fatal.
The mustachioed old troublemaker is the kind of melancholic figure that seems alone even when he is carousing. He laments the new men of Hungary and how much of the old ways are lost. Pistoli adds a wonderful quixotic element to the book and like Quixote, his true love is “the way” and it shall never return his adoration if for no other reason than it does not exist as he believes it to. Thus his lonely disposition is evident to all who know to look for it.
Sunflower is a strange and beguiling story where foreign archetypes become familiar. It leaves you desirous of Tokay wine and a full moon, coldly awaiting your anguished howls. Okay, so maybe you won’t necessarily desire the last part.
You’re supposed to though, according to Krudy, and the occasional howl feels good. You should try it.