I’ve never given much thought to Valentine’s Day, being cynical, Australian, and cheerfully single the last five times it’s rolled around. However I am freshly broken-up-with and feel a little vomit surging into my mouth every time I see a hearts-and-roses-themed shop display. I had not expected to feel so miserable, and it’s beginning to get really boring, all this crying and despair and friends confiscating my phone so I don’t text the ex.
So what I’d like, I suppose, is to read something that snaps me out of my funk or failing that, something that distracts me enough to have something else to think about. So far I’ve found Austen disastrous (“I cannot bear to think him alive in the world and thinking ill of me,” erg), Pratchett insufficient, Rilke unhelpful, and Vonnegut facetious, and now I’ve run out of standbys and haven’t-read-yets. Please advise me something before I go hunting for my phone again.
Valentine’s Day is hard enough for the coupled. There are no new romantic gestures under the sun, and even for someone in love, all of the sweethearts and roses and chalky chocolate and sentimental greeting card poetry can feel less like an elegant distillation of the complications of your average relationship and more like a cheap, sticky reduction. But for the freshly single, it feels all the more like a lie.
What you need is not the Valentine’s Day version of love, all dressed up like it’s some sort of equivalent of a YouTube video of a sleeping baby rabbit. Saccharine. Harmless. Post break-up, you are seeing reality a little too clearly for that. What you need is an acknowledgment that love is as destructive as it is creative, as venomous as it is sweet. Sometimes love encompasses crockery flying across the room, and we can say that without diminishing its power.
That is why I would like to introduce you to Mr. W. Somerset Maugham, the patron saint of relationship toxicity. The poor dear had no luck in love, and he was in the kind of marriage that makes you want to hide the knives when in the couple’s presence. But we can pity Maugham the person and be in debt to Maugham the writer for having the strength to transform that chaos into brilliant novels of desire, torment, sex, murderous thoughts, and, yes, love.
When the young doctor in The Painted Veil is confronted by the fact that his love for his wife has gone terribly wrong, he responds by dragging her to the center of a cholera epidemic, in the hopes of killing off one or both of them. (“Cholera” also being the humour of yellow bile and anger, but we can leave amateur academic readings of the book for another time.) They made a Hollywood movie out of the book. The couple fell in love again at the end, of course. But Maugham was never so lazy, nor so stupid. The scene in which Walter realizes how doomed their marriage is eviscerates me. “I had no illusions about you. I knew you were silly and frivolous and empty headed. But I loved you. I knew that your aims and ideals were vulgar and commonplace. But I loved you.” And then, sticking the knife in further: “I did everything I could to make you think me as big a fool as the rest of the men you knew.” Ah, the way we are so willing to chop off appendages to fit into someone else’s idea of a perfect match, all laid out on the page. Mr. Maugham, he will never lie to you.
So put down the phone. And the Jane Austen with her dreaded weddings. Maugham will suit your gimlet eye, and keep you company until you’re able to think of love again. Without the vomit.
If you’d like Jessa to ponder your question, write to “Kind Reader” at email@example.com.
Illustration by Thea Brine.