I said I had fallen conditionally in love, and now anyone apart from myself would have paused to wonder what on earth, if anything, this awkward phrase could possibly mean. “Great! A penniless foreigner, a writer courting failure, a serial adulterer running off with an American teenager! He has a condition to make, would you believe it. He has got himself affianced to this delicate little flower, who also happens to be, potentially, one of those Saturday Night Movie heiresses that his papagallo kind of prince of taradiddle is always trying to snag, and he says? What is it? That he isn’t ready to make a commitment? That he wants to paint the lily a little less white? I can bloody well see we’ll be needing another round of drinks over here.”
This would have been the male voice, while the female might try another tack, more Bloomsbury-wine-bar sympathetic than Jug-and-Bottle sarcastic. “Listen, honey, I do think you love her and everything, which is just great, but maybe the chemistry isn’t right between the two of you. Like the spark, you know? [Pause.] Maybe there’s no spark. And you can go on and try to reform her all you want, but what, you’re Scorpio and she’s Pisces, you’re never going to change that. [Lights a Vogue with plastic cigarette lighter encased in gaily beaded involucre.] Anyway, don’t you think it’s a little bit unfair, on her I mean, that you’ve cooked up this diabolical plot she doesn’t know a thing about, and anyhow, even if it works, from what you’ve told me I still don’t really understand what it is you want from her. [Laughs.] It’s sex, isn’t it? It all comes down to sex, right? You’d like her to play games with you? Oh, I know, you want her to put on this little outfit and do a little dance for you, like wassername, the one who wanted the head brought to her on a silver platter, or that clip, you know the clip [undulates and sings, imitating music-video clip, eyes half-closed and mouth fully open on italicized vowel]: ‘Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?’ [Suddenly turning nasty, with a kind of lachrymose snarl.] Well, you can bloody well forget it, is what I’ll say. [To the waitress.] Can I have another glass of the California white, please?”
To both these tirades, long oblivious by now of the experience of ex post facto revaluation that should have been formative for me, I would have replied that there was no accounting for tastes and that, if the girl wanted me, there must be a reason. Besides, there was virtually nothing in the books that made up the bulk of my baggage to prompt me to reply any differently.
“If you look for the working classes in fiction, and especially English fiction,” wrote Orwell, “all you find is a hole.” Well, disappointingly for anyone who might want to look to the recorded experience of others for illumination, the same could be said of the loving classes. It is a sobering truth that only with the victory of Soviet totalitarianism in Russia, and the ensuing publication of a social order that few writers could afford to ignore, did there appear in the world a body of literature wholly devoted to manual labor, a reality immanent from the earliest days of Creation. As is often the case with things written to order, much of this literature was outright hackwork; yet if one were not, as Orwell liked to put it, somebody with a safe 500 a year, and wanted to benefit from the experience of others in the same condition, one’s only chance was to learn Russian.
The snag is that good writing is always a view from the inside—the prison, the school, the factory, the office, the casino, the brothel—and people on the inside rarely have time for writing. Hence, literature is the preserve of the uncommitted observer. Its dominant theme is autobiographical comfort. It is long on social dynamics and short on sentimental specifics. For nearly two centuries, from Richardson to Proust, society is what it has primarily portrayed. Apart from this, it is to the exceptions, rare as flecks of gold in a mass of uniformly gray rock, that one has had to look for any enrichment by recorded experience. Orwell, who described the abyss of destitution, is an exception because he had been down there. Dostoyevsky, who wrote The Gambler, is likewise an exception. He was a gambler. So was Casanova, who, after all, was a Casanova. But what did Tolstoy know besides being Tolstoy? What did he know of soldiering? Of adultery? No more, I dare say, than those innumerable Soviet hacks knew of joyful cement making or heroic bricklaying.
Thus the novel, or roman, the genre that was practically advertised from Goethe’s Werther onward to have been invented to record the experiences of a lover, turns out to have been mislabeled, coming to focus as it did on the relationship of the individual to society and leaving the lover alone with his predicament, his pistol, and his private diary. All in all, it seems that it might require some general upheaval no less momentous than the Russian Revolution to compel writers to write specifically about love, or, at any rate, about something other than the society in which, quite comfortably or ever so slightly uncomfortably, they lived all their lives long, like Proust in his symptomatically cork-lined study, and which they succeeded in describing with great accuracy at virtually every stage of modern European history.
So the books in my baggage were of no help. There was nothing in them to indicate, one way or the other, whether there existed such a thing as conditional love. As for the other kind, there was little of that either, at least in the rational reaches of expository prose. Whereas poetry, like music, did not set out to answer questions at all, but rather to complicate and to confuse everything under the sun to the point of girlish tears, like some crazy Einstein of a math teacher whose two locomotives, meant to travel in opposite directions at different speeds in the problem set, embrace each other and jump into the sea to the strains of an Argentinian tango on the hotel terrace.