My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro by Jeffrey Eugenides (Editor)

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My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro by Jeffrey Eugenides (Editor)

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A collection of love stories selected from 120 years worth of literature from around the world is bound to be personal, so it's inevitable that some will touch, move or delight, whilst others leave you switching off the light and opting for an early night instead. Too broad a scope, with an admixture of style and setting, results in a disparate array, rather than a cohesive collection. Some gems, some dust. Buy rather than borrow - it's best read slowly.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? No
Pages: 576 Date: January 2009
Publisher: HarperPerennial
ISBN: 978-0007291106

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Sixty-odd years before the birth of Christ, there lived in Gaul the son of a minor aristocrat. His name was Gaius Catullus and he fell in love with Clodia. It is not certain who Clodia was – she may have been Clodia Celer, licentious wife of the praetor Metellus, but equally she may not. Whoever she was Gaius Catullus was smitten – and Clodia was not available to be pursued as he might otherwise pursue her. What then is a young man to do, but turn to poetry?

Changing her name to Lesbia, Catullus set about dedicating a number of poems to his adulteress mistress, celebrating and lamenting their love in equal measure.

Two of his early poems to Lesbia centre on her love for her pet sparrow – the first lamenting that it is the sparrow not he that is the object of her affection:

Whom she plays with, whom she cuddles
Whom she likes to tempt with finger
Tip and tease…

By the second, the sparrow is dead and the mistress is distraught. Having first wished the sparrow away, our poet is now forced to wish him back again to see his lover smile as she was once wont.

It is from this scenario that Jeffrey Eugenides takes the title for this collection of short stories, which he subtitles Great Love Stories from Chekhov to Munro. His contention is that for a story to be a love story, as opposed to a story about love, either there must be a sparrow, or the sparrow must be dead. There must be a barrier to the object of the affection; or the removal of the barrier has unwelcome consequences.

In some of the collection the analogies are easily identified, others are less clear – but as in any collection the choice is purely personal and so it is to be expected that any reader will not entirely agree with all that is presented, and may perhaps wonder at what is omitted.

There are 26 stories in all, which I found to be too many for a single collection. Perhaps such a book is not intended to be read as a book, but dipped into now and then, one story at a time over a longer period, with other works interspersing. Certainly it would have given more pleasure that way.

As it was, I found it as mixed as the authors and styles included. The stories were all written in the last 120 years, but come from Russian, Chinese, Austrian and Czech writers as well as Americans. There are famous names, and unknown ones. Authors still living and those long dead. There are historical tales and modern ones. One of the best is set in the near future.

To detail each offering in turn would be akin to those track-by-track album reviews that fail to inspire me, so I'll spare you the potential tedium and speak only of a few of my personal hits and misses.

Truly inspired is George Saunders Jon. Set in a near future where the Trendsetters and Tastemakers are truly pampered – kept safe within the Facility, soft-wired into the system which gives them Location Indicators for every frame of reference they could ever need, they are truly a world apart from those in the streets below who fawn and faint for the merest glimpse of these, the truly Cool people. How lucky they are. Of course they are not prisoners; they can request their exit papers any time they wish. This is the setting in which Randy and Carolyn fall in love. When she falls pregnant, their view of the world changes – but not in the same directions. The story itself is not new. Boy meets girl, boy & girl fall in love, girl gets pregnant, boy & girl want different futures… and as ever when we start worrying about the future our past has a tendency to catch up with us.

Saunders captures all of the youthful emotion involved, but the twist that gives this re-telling of the theme its kick is the setting: one of those future-world scenarios that appear as an almost inevitable outcome if we stay on our current course and so utterly believable as a result. This is reinforced in the most eccentric use of language. Narrated by Randy, in the language in which he'd report his day's adventures to his best friend: a strange mixture of the modern youth-speak and an attempt to be intellectual. Also all what I am saying is, who could blame Josh for noticing the little gap and squeezing through… Plus furthermore (and I said this to Carolyn) what will it be like for us when all has been taken from us. Of what will we speak?

Any attempt to define time, especially future time, by manipulating the way people talk jars on the ear at first reading. The best (and this is among the best) soon settles into a rational pattern that the mind can assimilate as just another dialect, working brilliantly by being just-enough removed from what we hear on the streets already.

Back in the real world Alice Munro's The Bear Came Over the Mountain gives us enduring love in the elderly, as much-loved wife moves into residential care with Alzheimer's setting in. Highly critical of the way we treat our elders – the author tacitly acknowledges that progress has been made. It is also a bittersweet recognition of the things we do for love. Mostly what we do, is try to see the beloved happy – no matter how or what.

In any collection of love stories, there is bound to be a certain amount of sexual love. Sadly I find most authors are completely incapable of writing on the subject convincingly. Harold Brodkey's Innocence may be technically very accurate, but I had a great deal of sympathy with Orra (a character no more believable than her alleged mentor in sexuality, Wiley) when she simply wanted him to stop. Oh enough, already, I'd rather sleep, was my frank reaction.

Others are better on the subject. Milan Kundera's The Hitchhiking Game follows two young lovers in Communist-era Czech as they embark upon a game that becomes increasingly sexual and increasingly dangerous as it traps them in character roles and changes their perceptions of themselves and each other.

And the unconsummated trials of We didn't (Stuart Dybek) are a sheer delight.

Eisenberg's Some Other, Better Otto fulfils the function of token 'gay' relationship with aplomb since it too is among the best of the bunch. A real love story, it works better because of the nature of the relationship but the events could easily play out between any 'unconventional' couple (mixed-race, mixed-culture, mixed-faith) that ignites a degree of family or societal objection. By a real love story, I mean one in which can recognise ourselves – however conventional our own relationships – in the detail. This is love among the everyday. Love over breakfast and misunderstandings. Love and insecurity in the longest-standing of commitments.

What of the failures then? Alongside Innocence, I'm afraid that Robert Musil's Tonka left me cold enough to leave it unfinished. Should a reviewer admit such a thing? I believe so. When I find myself reading the words only and not connecting with them, I have to accept that as a valid response. To continue to merely read the words, will get me no closer to feeling and appreciating the author's intent.

Among the more famous contributors, William Faulkner and Vladimir Nabokov didn't inspire, but at least kept me reading to then end. Guy De Maupassant redeemed himself with the ending to Mouche which was also sliding away until the final breath.

Flicking back through the stories to comment upon them, I find that fewer totally fail me than I expected, underlining my early statement that my mistake was to try to read the collection as a book. I advise you therefore to do otherwise and hopefully find your own gems by allowing them more appropriate time and space than I did.

Eugenides' offers the collection as a cure for lovesickness and an antidote to adultery…Read these love stories not to confirm the brutal realities of love, but to experience its many variegated, compensatory pleasures... Maybe, but don't expect to be excused the brutal reality with which we pay for those pleasures. He only partly succeeds.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

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