Recently I’ve been thinking about love stories. Perhaps it’s because I am myself in love. I am no longer young and have been in love before, so maybe that’s why it feels as if all the love stories we most love are either incomplete or overly complete – they either stop when love is attained and before life begins, or they stop when someone dies or flies away from a misty airfield with the letters of transit.
The best-loved love stories aren’t about ways to live with love, they’re about tragic loss and noble sacrifice. These stories no longer inspire me. I don’t want to lose things or sacrifice things for love; I want a love that lets me live and work and be happy and make someone else happy. The problem with love stories is that they’re about love, rather than life.
Agatha Christie married her first husband Archie on Christmas Eve 1914. He became a war hero but in 1926 fell in love with another woman. Agatha’s deserted car was found beside a still pool in a wood and for eleven days England searched for her. She was found in a Yorkshire hotel, checked in under the name ‘Teresa Neele of Cape Town’. She claimed to be suffering from amnesia brought on by the trauma of losing her husband. A recent biography claims it was an ill-conceived plan to win Archie back. It claims this disparagingly, as though this were sign of a lesser grief.
In 1928, Agatha travelled alone to Baghdad to visit an archaeological excavation at Ur, where Leonard Woolley believed he had discovered remnants of the biblical flood. It turned out to be a much older flood. Agatha was nearly forty. She met a young archaeologist named Max Mallowan, who was twenty-five. They had adventures in Iraq. They were stranded in the desert and rescued by Bedouin, and spent a night in adjoining cells in Karbala where a policeman recited poetry to them. In Agatha’s memoirs, she remembers Keats’s ‘Ode to a Skylark’. Max remembered ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ in Arabic. He proposed marriage. She worried about the age gap. He worried whether she would mind spending her life with someone digging up the dead. She replied: ‘I adore corpses’.
When they were separated by the war they wrote letters every day, arguing about the theatre and archaeology and literature and geological formations. He told her his theories. She ran plot ideas past him. She told him she missed him with ‘a kind of corkscrew feeling’. He told her he missed her with ‘a sort of emptiness, like being hungry’. Every winter after the war they caught the Orient Express to resume archaeological digs at Nimrud in Iraq. She was the official photographer of each excavation. She used her Innoxa face cream to clean the dirt from excavated ivories and had a gift for piecing together pottery shards. Max became one of the eminent archaeologists of his generation. Each year, until she was seventy years old, Agatha made the trip to Iraq and also each year produced a novel, a play and a collection of short stories. She saw their marriage as being like the parallel tracks of a railway line, each needing the other near, never converging. Perhaps they would each have been just as happily productive had they not been married, or had their marriage been worse, but it doesn’t seem a speculation worth making.
Agatha described her marriage as ‘blissfully happy’. So did Max. A recent biography claims that Max had an affair with Agatha’s good friend Barbara Hastings Parker, whom he married after Agatha’s death at the age of eighty-six. There are claims that Agatha was for a while infatuated with the archaeologist Stephen Glanville. These allegations are made as though to make them is to counteract the claim that their marriage was blissfully happy.
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have very good names, names that work even better together. It must feel gratifying to enter a cocktail party and hear the low euphonious rumble of people murmuring, ‘There’s Pevear and Volokhonsky.’ Since 1990, Pevear and Volokhonsky have translated Bulgakov and Pasternak and Gogol and Chekhov into English. They have also translated the complete works of Dostoyevsky and of Tolstoy. It took me two months just to read War and Peace.
In 1990 they were living in Manhattan where Pevear supported them by making furniture. They received a grant to translate The Brothers Karamazov and used it to move to Paris, where they live in rue Villa Poirier in the 15th. When they learnt that their Anna Karenina was an Oprah’s Book Club choice, Pevear thought she was a country and western singer. They work alone, in separate offices. Volokhonsky writes out a hyper-literal translation of the original text and when she has produced enough pages Pevear begins to polish it into English. Her written English isn’t good, and he has no Russian. She feels a great responsibility to the original language; he wants his translations to revitalise English literature.
I know nothing of their personal lives. After forty years of marriage, perhaps they are sarcastic with each other and deliberately leave the cheese on the kitchen table instead of putting it back in the fridge. Perhaps they grow bored of staring into the Russian soul together, or she grows irritated by his constant sniff in winter. Perhaps each complains to their children about the other when the other is out the room. But together they have translated 150 years of Russian literature into English. They have handled some of the most beautiful thoughts ever expressed and delivered them safely to new generations. They have done together what neither could have done alone. With her he is more than Pevear, and with him she is more than Volokhonsky. Together they are Pevear and Volokhonsky. I have no idea if Pevear and Volokhonsky are happy, but I think they must be.
I rented an apartment in Paris in April and on the bookshelf I found a 1973 first edition of Portrait of a Marriage by Nigel Nicolson. It describes the marriage of his parents, Vita Sackville-West, the writer and poet, and Harold Nicolson, the diplomat and author. One night it rained and I was too happy to sleep, so I stayed up and read till morning beside a black window and a lamp with a yellow shade.
Theirs was a passionately loving marriage, although it wasn’t very sexual. Vita’s romantic preferences were for women, most famously Violet Trefusis and Virginia Woolf, who wrote Orlando about her. Harold’s interests turned to young men. They never concealed their own activities or judged their partner’s: they believed the only betrayal was dishonesty, and they never betrayed each other. Theirs wasn’t a marriage of convenience; it grew closer and closer and their love became more intense through the years. When they were apart they pined for each other and wrote passionate daily letters that were funny and vital and heartbreaking. They made great gardens together and raised children together and were good company for each other.
When I packed to come home I put the book in my suitcase, then took it out, then put it back in. It wasn’t my book to bring home. But on the other hand, it felt as though it had become mine through the night and to leave it would be like leaving a part of myself. But then I didn’t want my partner to see me steal the book. But then I thought: she wouldn’t judge me. But then I thought: I don’t want her to have to not judge me. I would quote something from the book, but it is on a shelf in an apartment in Paris.
When Mark Twain married Olivia Langdon, he asked her to improve his manners and his writing. He was half joking, but there was a large part of him that believed he was responsible for every bad thing that happened, that his laziness or wickedness would cause unending failure or tragedy if not counterbalanced by her industry and good taste. After each day of writing he would give her what he’d written to edit and approve. The safety net of her censorship made him feel free.
Sometimes when he was feeling confident he would deliberately write scenes of pornography or blasphemy for the pleasure of startling her. She could tell him when he was being funny and when he was straining for effect. She urged him to return to Huckleberry Finn after he’d abandoned it. Together they were very rich, and then they were very poor. He lost his money and hers trying to develop and patent a typewriter that never worked. She became ill with one of those vaguely diagnosed nineteenth-century illnesses that require rest cures. Whenever she was looking better, Twain and his two daughters would hold hands and chant the German word ‘unberufen’, a talisman for good luck, in case their raised hopes were tempting fate. For fear of tiring her or taxing her emotionally, doctors forbade Twain from seeing her. He was allowed five minutes once a day at 9 p.m. to say goodnight. It was a genuine suffering for him not to see her. On Sunday, 5 June 1904 he snuck into her room when the doctors weren’t looking and stole an extra half hour early in the evening. They laughed and kissed and she looked better than she’d looked in months. Reading this, I paused and thought to myself: Good man!
I called to my partner, who was in the next room: ‘If you had nervous prostration, I would sneak in to see you all the time.’
‘Thank you,’ she called back.
Twain left Olivia’s room and went downstairs to play plantation spirituals on the piano until it was time for his five minutes at 9 p.m. When he reached her room she was dead.
He was stricken with grief and guilt. He was convinced it was his fault. Without Livy to read his pages, he never wrote anything of significance again. This story doesn’t have anything to teach us. I include it as a kind of talisman for good luck, lest such a thing ever happen to me.
6 June 2013