My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead | Jeffrey Eugenides
If English-speaking readers were to be polled and asked to name their favourite love story, which one would win? There would be many contenders, but my guess is that O. Henry’s warming story The Gift of the Magi, first published in 1906 and much anthologized thereafter, would be high on the list.
Henry’s story shows us an impoverished young woman, Della Young, agonizing over how to buy her husband Jim a Christmas present with her meagre savings. Finally, because she possesses a fine head of hair (one of the two treasures of the household, Henry tells us, along with Jim’s gold watch), she has it cut off and buys Jim a beautiful platinum chain for his watch with the proceeds. When Jim returns home that evening, he is stunned, because his present for her is a set of beautiful combs for her hair. On being presented with his chain, Jim discloses that he sold his watch to buy Della’s combs. Their Christmas presents are of no use to each other.
Love birds: A still from the animation film Romeo and Juliet (2006), a story that fits into the author’s definition of true love.
Henry’s story is so popular not just because of the twist at the end, but also because it seems to encapsulate a sense of both the pleasures and confusions of requited love. Working individually in order to surprise each other, husband and wife end up with nothing, yet it is a very meaningful nothing.
The Gift of the Magi finds no place in the best-selling novelist Jeffrey Eugenides’ new anthology, My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro, which, on the whole, takes a darker view of what makes for a successful love story. “A love story can never be about full possession,” argues Eugenides. “The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims—these are lucky eventualities, but they aren’t love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.”
One of the ways in which love stories give love a bad name is because they involve adultery. The thrill of an extramarital affair seems to duplicate the elevated feeling of being in love and invites the question, “Is this love?” One of the greatest stories of adultery ever written, Chekhov’s The Lady With The Little Dog, carries the charge it does precisely because the protagonist finds himself answering this question in the positive when, till then, he has never believed in love.
My Mistress’s Sparrow Is Dead: Harper Perennial, 539 pages, Rs595.
Chekhov’s hero, Gurov, is a middle-aged bank officer who is a serial philanderer. He needs women, but also lives in contempt of them, thinking of them as the “inferior race”. On a visit to a seaside resort, he has an affair with a young married woman, Anna Sergeyevna. Soon, it is time for them to go their separate ways. Gurov believes that he will soon forget Anna but, as the months pass by, he is perplexed to find that this is not the case. He decides to search for Anna in the provincial town where she lives. Chekhov’s long, spiralling sentences dramatize both Gurov’s agonized search and his complete loss of self-control—and this upsetting of one’s settled sense of self is one of the definitions of love. Chekhov’s story ends with Gurov and Anna wondering how they can find a way out of their simultaneously happy and unhappy predicaments.
Of course, it is not necessary that a good love story should actually mention the word “love” or involve some direct consideration of it. Yet, it seems that although Eugenides’ selection includes classics such as Bernard Malamud’s The Magic Barrel and Vladimir Nabokov’s Spring in Fialta, some stories are actually about lust, or erotic tension, or just about man-woman relationships. All of these can happen without love having any part in the matter.
Eugenides’ selection is too narrow to make for a representative collection; his anthology seems one of convenience, rather than one of striving. More than half the writers he has chosen are American, and the one Chinese writer in the anthology, Eileen Chang, was recently published in America. Also, it seems surprising that an anthology of love stories in the 21st century has no stories about same-sex love. The limitations of Eugenides’ view of what makes for a successful love story, and his unwillingness to sift through unfamiliar material while making his choices, make this anthology a little too narrow and too Yankee in its view of love to be a classic.
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