With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, and the one-year anniversary of the start of lockdown coming up shortly after that, it’s easy to get caught up in the mental vortex of self-examination in isolation. Throughout the pandemic, some have turned to films for comfort or music for escapism. But the benefits of turning to literature—which can teach us a lot about how to navigate intimacy with other people when you’re tired of being stuck in the same house with each other, and how to navigate spending so much time isolated on your own—should not be underestimated during this time.
Three authors who write about that very subject spoke to W about reading and writing through their entanglements with intimacy and isolation, and gave examples of the literary scenes that have felt poignant enough to them that they think about them a lot to this day: Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage, about the disintegration of a relationship; Jeremy Atherton Lin, whose new memoir GAY BAR unpacks the gay bar (a space which, during the pandemic, has been cast aside in the minds of most people) as a site that is essential to queer history, and Julia Alvarez, whose poems and novels about the cultural expectations of Dominican-American women. Each of them chose scenes from their favorite (and least favorite) novels and poems, new and old, that represent the unique type of tension that exists when navigating love and isolation. Hopefully, they serve as not only solid recommendations of some pretty good stories to curl up with, but also as a balm for the after-effects of 2020.
Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage
“I have been thinking of a narrative poem called here rests by Lucille Clifton, published in 2004. It’s a very short poem, but it is both a love poem and an elegy. It’s an elegy to the speaker’s sister, who was a sex worker. I think of this poem because it’s at once this love between the sisters, and the idea that people are more than just one thing. She says, ‘my sister took a book on every stroll,’ and at first you imagine a walk, someone carrying a picnic basket through the park. But then you realize she’s talking about ‘the stroll’ as slang for the streets that prostitutes walked. And her wish for her sister is not a wish for chastity or that she would change her ways. Her wish is ‘may heaven be filled with literate men/may they bed you with respect.’
For this moment we’re in, everyone is so freaked out, but it’s also making us more loving and accepting of people around us, and loving people on their own terms. There was a memorial celebration for the poet Lucille Clifton, hosted by Nikki Giovanni, and thousands of people attended. This is the poem I chose to read for that because the love is so comprehensive. It embraces the erotic—even the problematic erotic. And the erotic is integrated with our whole lives, not just quarantined to the body.
I do think that whenever we celebrate love, it reminds us of loss, necessarily. You can’t avoid that, if you’ve lost someone you love, or just lost love. It’s important to celebrate but also be mindful of what others may be going through, and to celebrate love very broadly. Hardly anyone has acquired any new romantic love this year. We’ve been siloed. But we have the love that we have. I think all of us are realizing how much the love we have, whatever form it’s in, how important all of it is. Even the love you have for yourself—I’ve discovered that I really enjoy my own company, and I’m so grateful for that.
Everyone should read more poetry in the pandemic, and always. Poetry is concentrated. You can have the whole experience. We all have an attention deficit in the pandemic, but you have 15 minutes to fall completely into a poem. The time that you have is enough to fully experience a poem, and I recommend that.”
Jeremy Atherton Lin, author of GAY BAR
“Neil Bartlett’s 1990 novel Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall tells the love story of a black-haired young man known as Boy and the handsome O (for ‘older’). Unlike many gay narratives, their relationship doesn’t occur in isolation (a tent in the remotes, the back of a car, the back of the mind). The romance begins in a London gay bar and continues, through its many surprising stages, to involve the regulars, several of whom have had a dalliance with one, if not both, the men. An omniscient patron serves as narrator, detailing the couple’s ritualistic courtship, the role-playing and cross-dressing. After a gay bar wedding ceremony — this was years before legal civil partnerships — and rowdy reception, Boy and O find themselves alone as a married couple. The honeymoon foreplay is dirty: O speaks in low tones while inspecting Boy’s body as if scrutinizing a stallion. This leads to tender, ‘married’ sex. ‘They felt like they were doing it for the very first time, which they weren’t,’ observes the narrator. ‘They felt that it was extraordinary; but I would say myself that they looked just like several other hundreds of men in similar beds in that city and at that particular time.’
Unbeknownst to the couple, dozens of naked male figures gather to watch. Some are turned on, others sentimental, and all of them are smiling. They don antiquated accoutrements and hairstyles — seventeenth century betrothal ring, army-regulation mustache, ‘badly-hennaed auburn wig.’ Is this a sex scene, or a ghost story? The bedroom haunting suggests we exist alongside those who came before us. Love and lust are not only private, but cultural, historical, shared. The afterglow is prolonged, and spectral: ‘Years later they found a single baroque pearl which had dropped that night from a white-leaded ear.'”
Julia Alvarez, author of Afterlife and In the Time of the Butterflies
“I have so many favorite love scenes from novels, and I tend to like the subtle and surprising ones best of all. I think Jane Austen’s novels do nuanced love scenes—where less is more—beautifully. Heroines who miss the mark, heroes who are clueless—until they both finally get it and each other. Another favorite love scene by a more contemporary writer, Kent Haruf, occurs in Our Souls at Night. Two lonely elders, a widow and a widower, find company and solace in each other’s company. Very little sex, instead a deep sweet connection, a kind of Romeo and Juliet manqué and aged like an excellent cheese or wine. The last scene when Addie and Louis are reduced/restricted to talking to each other at night by phone is an all-time favorite, tender love ‘scene.’
In terms of least favorites, though, in my most recent novel, Afterlife, a scene that never got put in the novel: Antonia, my protagonist, is headed for a rendezvous with her beloved husband, Sam, at their favorite restaurant. I had every intention that they would have a wonderful sexy love scene together after supper. But on the way to the restaurant, the worst that can happen happens to Sam. I tried not to go there, but that was where the story wanted to go. . . So the love scene never happened. Maybe there will be a sequel, Resurrection? But even so, it’s unlikely the love scene I envisioned would happen unless heaven has been updated since my Catholic School childhood.
I won’t name any names, but often in amateurish novels, I find love scenes that are too explicit, leaving nothing up to the imagination. The scene might be titillating, but it’s not art—or, maybe, it’s tantric art, which has its own uses. In fact, I recall some scenes in The Godfather—to break my promise not to name names–that my college boyfriend and I used to read to each other to get ourselves going. But it wasn’t literature; it was foreplay.
I also dislike certain love scenes in Madame Bovary. But it isn’t that Flaubert isn’t writing well, but that he’s written them so well. I can’t bear to see women throwing their lives and bodies at worthless lovers. “DON’T DO IT,” I want to yell at Madame Bovary when she begins her affair with Rodolphe. But God forbid Flaubert had listened and stopped writing Madame Bovary! We’d be missing a beautiful novel about misapplied passions—a novel, not just a love scene, for all times.