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Listening to Gershwin’s classic duet (the Ella Fitzgerald–Louis Armstrong version is my favorite), it struck me that, in the way the song jumps from breaking up to staying together, the lyrics mirror the plots of countless movies: meet cute, discover nothing in common, vow to break up, stay together anyway, differences be damned. A rom-com cliché, to be sure, but beneath the cliché, there is something substantive, a sense of battling against the tide that draws people apart.
In rom-coms and, of course, in genre romance, where happy endings are de rigueur, the tide rarely puts up much of a fight, but in literary fiction—and often in real life—it’s another matter altogether. Lovers are separated by death (the “dirty trick” in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms); by a sense of duty or morality (Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair and numerous others); and, most of all, by the melancholy transience of love (a theme that permeates the work of the great Robert Hellenga). Even in commercial melodrama, the whole thing keeps getting called off, often by a mild cough in the first act that becomes a rampaging tumor in the third, but sometimes by just-plain wrongheadedness (Gone with the Wind).
On the other hand, calling off the calling off does happen sometimes in life, so it must happen in realistic fiction, too, right? But where? I set myself the task of finding out.
Let’s start with classics. Well, there’s Jane Austen, but, really, as the current Austen vogue proves, her novels are finally rom-coms for the Masterpiece crowd. Yes, Darcy and Elizabeth bicker some, but it’s clear they both say “tomahto,” and, dear reader, we never doubt that a wedding looms. But move ahead 100 years or so, and you get D. H. Lawrence. Now here’s a rocking horse of another color. In Women in Love, surely among the great novels of the twentieth century, Lawrence shows us two sisters, Gudrun and Ursula, who fall in love with two very different men. It doesn’t work out for Gudrun, whose man would rather freeze in the snow than compromise his icy industrialist masculinity, but Ursula and Birkin rise above the nasty problem of love as the loss of self and forge ahead. Score one for calling off the calling off.
Moving on to more contemporary works, I was happy to realize that, in the last few months, I’ve read or listened to three fine novels in which the lead characters also take Gershwin’s advice. In Pete Hamill’s North River (2007), a vividly imagined historical novel set in Manhattan during the depths of the Depression, James Delaney, a family doctor abandoned by both his wife and daughter, is nursing wounds, both physical and psychological, left over from WWI. Then, on a snowy New Year’s Day, he finds his two-year-old grandson on his front porch and begins the long, slow trudge toward renewal. He’s helped by an Italian immigrant, Rosa, whom he hires to take care of the boy and with whom he gradually falls in love. There are countless reasons why this love affair should be called off—the least of them being a language barrier that extends far beyond tomatoes—but somehow the couple perseveres. It is a tender love story, but it’s forged in the white-hot fires of real life.
In two novels published this year, James Sallis’ Willnot and Robert Olen Butler’s Perfume River, the calling off that’s finally called off is of a different kind: not a full break but a drifting apart. Sallis’ tale is about another family doctor, Luther Hale, who, like James Delaney, tries to make life better for those around him in “tiny, invisible increments.” But random violence strikes his small Tennessee town, and in its wreckage, Hale feels his relationship with his partner, Richard, starting to drift. Watching these two aggrieved men attempt to right their ship and pull against the tide drives home the point that real-world love stories have a power that can’t be matched by even the most entertaining rom-com. The same is true of Butler’s Perfume River, in which a couple in their seventies, also confronted by random violence, find a way to share secrets and reconnect in mind and body, even though, as they make love, “the parts that ache every day are aching now and the parts that once were vivace are now andante.”
It may seem a long journey from the jaunty air of Gershwin’s lyric, with its delicious wordplay, to these obstacle-strewn love stories, but in fact, it’s just that ability to infuse the popular song with texture that has allowed the Great American Songbook to endure for decades. Here’s hoping the next time I attend a concert honoring Gershwin—or Porter or Arlen or Rodgers and Hart—I’ll be able to scan the crowd and see more hair on heads and less gray in beards.
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