Roger Rosenblatt: Five Old Flames
"Wuthering Heights" by Emily Brontë
The whole novel is overheated -- Catherine crying, "I am Heathcliff," and making the ultimate statement of unity in love, one person yearning to be made whole by the existence of the other. (The literary version of "you complete me.") And things get more than a little creepy when Heathcliff seeks to "absorb" Catherine's corpse into his own body, determined that they "dissolve" into each other. Still, there's no fun like watching Victorians at foreplay, stomping around drawing rooms and talking up a storm. It's hard to imagine things get hotter in bed.
"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Jay Gatsby's passion, on the other hand, is cool, both meanings. Cool in the way he conducts himself, his distant manner, and strangely cool in his behavior toward Daisy. The simmering's inside, more for an ideal than a woman. Where Gatsby heats up is toward an abstraction. He's hot for the past, and for revising it. A rare, quasi-intellectual form of desire, but no less passionate for that. The most let-it-loose moment in the novel belongs to the moral nitwit Daisy, when she tosses Gatsby's beautiful shirts in the air. Sex with haberdashery.
"The Dead" by James Joyce
Okay, Joyce's story is not a book, but it has the depth, pace and power of a whole great novel. It's about two kinds of passion, the more conventional being Gretta's for the dead and aptly named Michael Fury; the subtler yet no less painful being Gabriel's longing for passion itself. In a way, Gabriel's desire for desire is stronger than Gretta's lost love, because it deals with eternal confinement. Richard Wilbur said the strength of the genii comes from living in a bottle. And Gabriel's bottled passion will never realize itself. His passion is dead in the water.
"Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov
To be sure, the passion here is immoral, to say nothing of illegal, but it's hot hot hot. Give it that. And like Gabriel's, it's born of suppression. The thing to remember about Humbert Humbert is he's a literary scholar, an English teacher. The very profession is anti-passionate, taking its life from the passions of others. Now into the bookish mind comes little Dolores, with her open invitation. Small wonder Humbert goes whoo-hoo. The bitter irony, of course, is that as Humbert gets wilder, Lolita heads for the middle class, so, in the end, all the poor fellow has is a memory of passion, of which he makes his brilliantly-told story. Only Nabokov could force us to like, however faintly, such a swine.
"Doctor Zhivago" by Boris Pasternak
Zhivago is neither loudly nuts, like Heathcliff, nor quietly nuts like Gatsby, nor stifled like Gabriel, nor bad-and-sad like Humbert. Zhivago is noble, as is his passion for Lara, the love of his life, who represents the love of life. He does everything right, even as he does wrong. And he stands above it all -- the petty people, the politics, vast Russia itself. How one wishes, at the end, when he catches sight of Lara from the street car, that he could have caught up with her. Instead, like every noble hero, he dies trying. Sigh with me.
About Roger Rosenblatt
Roger Rosenblatt's essays for Time and The NewsHour on PBS have won two George Polk Awards, the Peabody, and the Emmy. He is the author of six off- Broadway plays and seventeen books, five of which have been New York Times Notable Books, including New York Times bestsellers, Making Toast, Kayak Morning, The Boy Detective and Unless It Moves the Human Heart, a primer on the art and craft of writing. Among his other bestsellers are Rules for Aging, and Children of War, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He has held the Briggs-Copeland appointment in the teaching of writing at Harvard, and is currently Distinguished Professor of English and Writing at Stony Brook University. He and his wife Ginny, a poet, live in Quogue, New York. Last November, he received the 2015 Kenyon Review Award for literary achievement.
His most recent book is the novel Thomas Murphy.