It was usual for protagonists of medieval European poetry to fall asleep while reading a “romance” and enter the world of the book in their dreams. Such surreal escapades conveyed to them an important truth about their lives—a gift of self-knowledge that only fiction can bestow.
The wish to step into a story is a primal one—not because humankind cannot bear much reality, but rather because it expects to be understood and vindicated by stories. We seek out stories that will complete our own stories, be a witness to our lives. The finest writers of love stories—Raymond Carver, Mavis Gallant, Jhumpa Lahiri and Alice Munro—are among those who invariably put my heart in peril; they are also those who can respond, with a mysterious intuition, to our most closely guarded secrets.
While happy love stories are usually all alike, every unhappy love story is unhappy in its own way. No wonder the pull of the latter is more enduring. My favourite love story, however, is one that dwells in an eternal twilight, between fulfilment and frustration, the real and the make-believe: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 masterpiece, Vertigo.
Recently voted as the greatest film ever made, Hitchcock described it, with his trademark facetiousness, as “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again, boy loses girl again”. While the plot of Vertigo resembles this pattern superficially, it is notoriously complicated in its unfolding. Detective Scottie (James Stewart) is struck by acrophobia, a fear of heights, as he sees his colleague fall to death from a high-rise. Riddled with guilt, he quits his job, spends time with his ex-fiancée Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), before reluctantly agreeing to take on the strange case of Madeleine Ulster (Kim Novak), who is supposedly possessed by a spirit. Inevitably, he falls in love with his beautiful charge, but tragically, cannot prevent her suicide as she plunges to death from the bell tower of a church. There is a distinctly funereal quality to their brief liaison; Scottie begins to grieve for the end of their relationship before it is over.
A year later, he runs into a shop assistant, Judy, who is a lookalike of Madeleine, and becomes obsessed with her. But it is Madeleine, not Judy, he is in love with, so with single-minded devotion he sets out to transform her into his lost love. In the end, in an uncanny mirroring of the earlier tragedy, Scottie loses Judy as well.
Without getting into the labyrinths of plot or revealing its sinister twists, it is possible to read into Vertigo a version of the Freudian theory that love has a certain structure to it: of perpetual seeking after the unattainable, the need to be needed, and an endless loop of mistakes and replication. There is a dizzying doubling of perspectives as Madeleine returns as Judy, Judy becomes Madeleine, the magic of fiction makes the living alive, only to be snatched back by the cruel grasp of reality. It is only fiction that can comfort and crush us at once, taking us to the brink of happiness before pushing us into the abyss that is its obverse. When it comes to love, we can all benefit from a bit of chastening.