Bittersweet Sorrows

  • If you are someone who believes that the relationship narrative is central to much of great literature, then you, gentle reader, are suddenly spoiled for choice. In the unhappy-families category, autobiographical division, British novelist and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi bares all about his decision to leave his partner in the fictional Intimacy (Scribner; 118 pages; $16), while New York City journalist John Taylor skips the novelizing but tells a strikingly similar story in Falling: The Story of One Marriage (Random House; 225 pages; $22.95).

    Both authors offer elegantly literary tales of disintegration and the irretrievable alienation of affection, putting their relationships under the equivalent of a fluorescent bulb that makes every detail off-color, a little bit dirty--but very, very visible, for better and for worse.

    Any woman who has ever lived with a man will be particularly dismayed by Intimacy. A claustrophobic little trap of a novel, it recounts one night in the life of a screenwriter named Jay as he prepares to abandon Susan, his partner of six years and the mother of their two young sons. As Jay goes through the rituals of an ordinary evening at home, he also meditates on the history of their relationship and waits until Susan goes to sleep so he can pack his bags. "It is the saddest night," the novel begins, "for I am leaving and not coming back."

    Yet sorrow seems to play little part in Jay's decision; sadism and selfishness are more like it. In between bouts of intense sexual nostalgia for another woman, he thinks, over and over, This is our last evening together, and she doesn't know. When a tender thought creeps in, he instantly stomps on it. Going upstairs to watch her sleep, he thinks, "I can make out your hair in the jumble of blankets and pillows. I stand looking at you. I wish you were someone else."

    The language is cruel; the effect, disquieting. Despite Jay's determination to expose himself in all his naked ugliness, his earnestness dissolves into an almost comical self-obsession, which is quite different from self-knowledge. He decides, for instance, that he must keep a record of his departure so that he can understand it. "I want an absolute honesty that doesn't merely involve saying how awful one is," he explains. "How do I like to write? With a soft pencil and a hard dick--not the other way around." One wonders why Susan didn't leave first.

    But that, of course, is neither Jay's, nor Kureishi's, concern. Instead, Kureishi succeeds in creating a vivid portrait of one particular man's experience with one particular woman--a portrait that bears a striking resemblance to the author's own life. The reader does not have to like Jay for this to be powerful, if not exactly joyous, reading.

    Kureishi's ambitions and concerns seem modest, however, when held up against those of John Taylor. Though Taylor's milieu is as precious as Kureishi's--middle- to upper-class professionals and intellectuals, this time of the Manhattan variety--Falling, about Taylor's own divorce, manages to embrace, if not resolve, some of the questions gripping many Western societies: Is staying married always good? Is divorce always bad? What's best for the children? How, in the face of personal unhappiness, does one set one's moral compass?

    Like Kureishi, Taylor begins at the moment before separation, then works backward through the marriage and its turning points, which also include the author's adultery. In Taylor's case, however, the decision to split up is mutual, and his writing, lucid and lovely, creates a sense of intimacy with the reader that Intimacy fails to do. We get a clear view into Taylor's windows, but we are not disgusted by what we see. "At what precise point does the breakdown of a marriage become irretrievable?" the author wonders. "While it requires will to make a marriage work, it also requires a horrifying act of will to bring one to an end."

    Despite his best efforts to explain what brought him and his wife Maureen to the point of divorce, the reasons are not completely satisfactory. Were they never, in fact, properly in love? Did they both just run out of energy? Nevertheless, Taylor's searing pain at the separation from his wife and daughter, from what he calls "the best of myself" and "what was intended to be the central experience of my life," is convincing--and strangely affirming of that very experience. "But marriage is beautiful," as one character in Intimacy says. "A terrible journey, a season in hell and a reason for living." It is also something that, in the right hands, can be fodder for art.