Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Love? Actually?

Dan Jacobson's All for Love

"I long to talk with some old lover's ghost,
Who died before the god of love was born."

- John Donne Love's Deity.

On the surface, Dan Jacobson’s All for Love sounds more like a penny romance than a serious work of fiction – fare more suitable for teenage girls [1] than the judges of the Booker. Consider the plot. The scene is Vienna, at the end of the 19th century. A young and dashing Croatian officer, a virtual nobody by the feudal standards of the day, falls in love with a princess – the married daughter of the King of Belgium – and discovers that his love is reciprocated. The two lovers then begin a daring affair, unmindful of the forces of propriety and political correctness that are brought to bear against them, giving themselves utterly to each other and embarking on a heroic and extravagant adventure that leads inevitably to their mutual ruin. Parted and imprisoned by the forces of moral order, the lovers survive and are ultimately re-united through a series of reckless escapades, only to continue the course of their doomed passion. The whole thing could be straight out of Daphne Du Maurier.

But All for Love is not a romance novel – it is something far braver and infinitely more intelligent – a novel about Romance. The spirit of Romance is the key character here – it is he who is the main actor (the other characters being merely his agents), he who we get to observe most closely, learn the most about. Complete with sexual intrigue, duels, infidelity, passionate embraces, discreet love letters, midnight rides, daring escapes and even a balcony seduction scene, All for Love is a novel about two people living the Romantic ideal in an age when Romance is already beginning to become a thing of the past.

But the reigning spirit of the book is not so much Byron as Browning [2]. This is a deeply subversive book – one of its chief joys is the way that Jacobson slips easily under the surface of Romance, exposing its frail, human underbelly. Consistently refusing to idealise his main characters, Jacobson chooses instead to treat them with the indulgent whimsy that one usually reserves for little children – exposing their ‘grand passion’ for little more than the mutual egoism of two immensely selfish individuals. In the beginning, each lover’s participation in the relationship is motivated by a desire to advance his or her own agenda – each is using the other person (the young officer to win himself a prize well above his station, the princess to force a confrontation with her family). If these two come to be loyal to each other later, it is not so much for the rather thin affection that exists between them, but rather out of a sense of duty, the lack of honourable alternatives, and a fatalistic sense of being locked into a particular course of action. In a telling passage, Jacobson writes:

“Will the years preceding their death be calm and happy? No. No. No. Not a chance. They are incorrigible. Such an existence will always be beyond them. All they can do with their partnership is to try to resurrect the idle yet unflinching way of life that had brought them together. Inevitably the results will be what they were then – bankruptcy, flight, the lot.”

The point is that All for Love actively deconstructs the myth of lovers who choose to give up everything for the sake of their passion; if the princess and her officer are stuck in a rut it is only because they lack the imagination and maturity to get out of it; they are not so much Byronic as they are Flaubertian. There is no heroic choice here, there is only the failure of personality to rise above itself.

The true brilliance of the novel is that Jacobson does not limit this assessment to this one particular case – there is the definite suggestion in the novel that such falseness is true of all great romance – that all grand passions have feet of such base clay. This makes All for Love a delicious, if extremely sensitive, satire, the title of which is meant at least as sarcastically as it is seriously.

If all this makes the book sound overly cynical, two things redeem it from that fate. First, the key characters here may be deluded, but they are not, at least in their dealings with each other, deliberately false. Within their own heads they see themselves as wronged and noble spirits – the last bastions of true nobility in a scheming, underhand world. The sheer unfairness of this assessment, its incredibly delusional nature is often starkly on display, but for all that you cannot help feeling sorry for the two protagonists. You feel a twinge of compassion for them even as you laugh at their antics, much as you do for the characters in Gogol or Chekhov – and this saves the book from seeming too bitter.

The real saving grace of the book, though – both literally and figuratively – is the character of Maria. A peasant woman who falls in love with the young officer through the stories she hears about him and goes ahead to single handedly obtain his release from prison, secure herself a place in his life and even (eventually) help plan the escape of her rival, the princess, Maria is the novel’s one true lover; and easily its most interesting and genuine character. Maria’s love for the officer is the two things that the affection between the two main lovers is not – selfless and pragmatic. Where the two lovers are driven by their own self-absorbed motives, Maria is driven by a genuine desire to do what’s best for her man, to be of service to him. Not that she’s entirely self-sacrificing – it’s just that she recognises that part of being in love with someone is making them happy. And where the two lovers live their grand, impractical lives, never thinking of the future and tumbling inevitably to ruin, it is Maria who gets things done – who is practical and efficient and proactive, and who ultimately manages to live a reasonable and contented life despite what could easily have been a genuinely fatal passion. Maria’s love is true, but it is not blind.

Jacobson’s incredible point here is not just that Maria’s is a truer love, but that being a truer love, it is by nature less exciting, less demonstrative. In the ‘history’ that Jacobson constructs for his lovers, Maria’s role, so pivotal to the real story, is mostly ignored; and even in Jacobson’s novel, she only emerges towards the last quarter of the book and remains, even here, a more or less peripheral character. Part of this is of course because of her lower social standing, but a large part of her anonymity stems from the way her love refuses to fit the Romantic ideal. And this is Jacobson’s most insightful and subversive point – true love, as defined by Maria, is never really 'romantic'.

There are several other interesting touches to the book. First, in order to make the story come alive, Jacobson adopts the tone of a faux biographer, inventing a plethora of documentary evidence that he draws upon to tell his tale[3]. Chief among these are the memoirs of both the officer and princess, which he ‘quotes’ from extensively, though other historical documents are also imagined. This gives the book an interesting palimpsest like quality, somewhat reminiscent of Byatt’s glorious Possession (though that book does this infinitely better). In particular it allows Jacobson to contrast his own version of events with the claims he puts into the mouths (or pens) of his characters. So, for instance, the officer claims in his memoir that in the early days of their romance he was drawn to places that the princess frequented by instinct, but Jacobson paints a more sordid picture – of a maid of the princess that the officer shamelessly seduced in order to get information about the princess’s movements. The contrast between what the lovers claim (either out of genuine delusion or out of a desire to dissemble) and what Jacobson reveals as being the real ‘truth’ is one of the most intelligent artifices of the book.

Another nice touch is the extremely realistic way in which Jacobson, like a genuinely good biographer, situates his characters in their late 19th century world. In one wonderful passage he writes:

“Vienna. 1896. The end of the century approaching. The high-point of a period of that would lead historians of a later generation to make exaggerated reference to the city as ‘the birthplace of the modern world’. Which presents a temptation here that has to be resisted. There is no need for you to imagine that this slight, bearded, firm-gazed, intensely respectable Jew, who looks on with interest as Louise and her retinue pull up in front of the Coburg palace in Silerstrasse, is Dr. Sigmund Freud (author so far only of Studies in Hysteria). Or that the abstracted, faintly smiling 22-year old on the far side of the park is Arnold Schonberg, listening inwardly to fragments of sound that will eventually become his tone-poem Verklarte Nacht. Or that several city blocks from him Gustav Klimt is striking a price with a consumptive prostitute whom he is eager to paint in the overblown, romantic manner he will soon abandon for something stiffer, stranger, more hieratic. Or that the little boy with a wide forehead, sharp nose and intense eyes, walking with his plainly intimidated governess towards the Franziskaner Kirche, is Ludwig Wittegenstein, who himself has no idea that within a few decades he will transform the direction of philosophical inquiry in the English-speaking world. Equally there is no point in imagining that any of these people – or any other Viennese poet, thinker and artist who will eventually achieve a stature comparable to theirs – is going to be casually snubbed by Louise or Phillipp or Stephanie (at a formal reception, say, or a theatrical performance), who will never know just how important that unknown person will appear to be when they themselves have been all but completely forgotten.

No doubt Louise and Phillipp attended a Schnitzler premiere or two; and Stephanie might (later) see Gustav Mahler mount the rostrum in Stadtsoper, after he had painstakingly converted from Judaism to Christianity in order to make himself eligible for the conductor’s job. But none of this mattered to them. They were preoccupied with what they had always considered truly significant: their health, their relations with one another, the exact degree of precedence given them on royal occasions, their clothes, public appearances, shopping, affairs, gossip, hunting, gambling, occasional political crises, the scanning of newspapers for mention of their names.”

These paragraphs are an excellent demonstration of Jacobson’s sublime and satirical brand of realism. Throughout the book, Jacobson’s main task is a refusal to idealise either the characters he portrays or the time they lived in. Thus anti-semitism, imperial callousness, nationalistic prejudice, and sheer fatuous pre-occupation with a dying feudal culture are universal sins in the novel – no one, including the lovers, is exempt from them. Jacobson’s point is not that this makes the characters more or less evil – it is simply a fact that must be accepted about them – a product of their fundamentally egoistic nature and the intellectual / moral realities of the time they lived in.

Bottomline: Overall, All for Love is an engrossing read, a fascinating exploration of Romance in all its facets and a book that keeps you constantly on your toes with the twists and turns of the plot. It is one of those rare books that manage to be both a delightful adventure story and a sombre and insightful meditation on the nature of Romantic love.

Should it make the shortlist? In my opinion, absolutely. Should it win the prize? I can’t say without reading the other books, of course (specially where the field is as strong as this years) but I, for one, wouldn’t be disappointed if it did.


[1] This is pure stereotyping - I have no idea what teenage girls read, or whether, in fact, they read at all.

[2] The work I was most strongly reminded of while reading the novel was Browning's The Ring and The Book.

[3] I'm assuming, of course, that the memoirs are fictional - I think that's a fairly safe assumption, though.


Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

I bow to thee.

12:42 PM  

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