From classic tales of illicit passion to contemporary stories about betrayal, here are the best books about the beginning, middle and end of the affair
THE GUARDIAN, Wednesday 4 September 2013
Radically illicit … Flaubert was tried for offences against morality and religion for his now-classic novel Madame Bovary. Photograph: The Lowry/PFP
The coup de foudre. The brief encounter. The dangerous liaison. Our usual descriptions fascinate briefly, then fizzle out. They don't reveal enough. In fiction, as in life, I'm drawn to questions of who and how we love, the losses we fear, and what we'll risk – absurdly or boldly – to feel alive under the skin.
by Alison MacLeod
For most of us, the thrill of a story about an infidelity is less about sex than it is about intimacy, that magnetic line of connection between two bodies and their secret selves. Intimacy shared with another person is often the first real betrayal to any union, and the first plunge out of one's depth.
In fiction, characters misjudge the depth of the fall. Others rush headlong into the stuff of life. As they do, they're laid bare – literally (almost certainly) and metaphorically (always). We see what it is to be human: to yearn, to feel joy, to suffer and to see the world transformed.
1. Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert
Who can forget Emma and Léon's furious cab ride
through the streets of Rouen, their illicit passion concealed from view? In
1857, following publication, the Second Empire tried Flaubert for offences to
morality and religion. He was acquitted, and the novel became an immediate
bestseller. From the distance of the 21st century, it is easy to lose sight of
just how radical Madame Bovary was when it first appeared, not only in its new
"objective" style of prose, but also in its refusal to either
romanticise or sermonise. Flaubert confessed to weeping at times as he wrote;
he sympathised so much with Emma in her final days that he felt physically ill.
2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Anna and Vronsky. The busy train compartment. That
first passing glance, as if of recognition … In 1872, Tolstoy saw the wrecked
body of a woman who was abandoned by her married lover, a landowner friend of
the family. The woman had thrown herself under a train. Was it a tragedy or a
grim reinstatement of the natural order of marriage and family? Tolstoy
initially planned to tell the story of a woman who "ruined herself"
with an extramarital affair, but Anna instead emerged vivid and bright.
Short stories, in their brevity and intensity, are
natural vehicles for the study of illicit love and infidelity. In Lady with
Lapdog, the married cad Gurov spots Anna Sergeyevna, his next victim, while
dallying in the seaside resort of Yalta: "A young woman walking along the
promenade: she was fair, not very tall …" Anna is half Gurov's age and
passionate, but he considers her unremarkable. She departs for home and
husband, but Gurov is changed: "He felt profound compassion, he longed to
be sincere, tender …" Chekhov was branded the "high priest of
unprincipled art" because he refused to pass authorial judgment upon his
4. Lady Chatterley's Lover by DH
Frieda Lawrence reportedly told friends that her
husband had been impotent, an apparent symptom of his tuberculosis, since 1926.
Frieda, we're told, took lovers. If these turbulent details of the marriage are
true, one can imagine the personal sense of loss and grief that fuelled the
transformation of that personal tale into the story of Constance Chatterley,
whose upper-class landowner husband was paralysed from the waist down during
the Great War. Sections of text were omitted on its UK publication by Martin
Secker. Only later, in the famous obscenity trial of 1960, would the hoo-ha be
hosed down for good – and the jurors were thanked by Penguin Books in the
dedication to a new, triumphant edition.
5. The End of the Affair by Graham
Has a prose style ever been so sharp and so nuanced?
The complications of a love triangle come into devastating focus in this story
of love between the bomb blasts of the second world war: "We paid no
attention to the sirens. They didn't matter. We weren't afraid of dying that
way." Sarah Miles – modelled loosely upon Greene's lover, Catherine
Walston – is the wife of the kindly, but seemingly deadbeat, civil servant
Henry Miles. There is much more to Henry than meets the eye, but this is really
the story of Sarah's lover. Maurice Bendrix, a middle-aged writer, is our
narrator and a man who, years later, after Sarah's death, is haunted by her
exasperating and mysterious decision to end their affair.
6. Lust, Caution by Eileen Chang
In Japanese-occupied Shanghai, a beautiful student
actress named Jaizai is asked by a student rebel group to take part in a
"honey-trap" operation to help arrange the assassination of Yi, a
middle-aged collaborator and an official in the puppet government. Firstly she
befriends his wife and then stealthily moves into their social circle. In the
translation I read, I often found it difficult to get a feeling for the quality
of the prose. But this story of infidelity – Yi's calculated passion, Jaizai's
deceit, and her last-minute betrayal of her political cause ("Run,"
she said softly) – raises profound and tantalising questions, to which I
suspect there are no answers.
7. Asylum by Patrick McGrath
Stella Raphael is the wife of Max, a forensic
psychiatrist who has taken a job in a high-security mental hospital, where she
meets Edward Stark, a talented sculptor who is confined to the hospital for the
murder of his wife. Asylum is a gripping study of erotic obsession, and in the
making of it, McGrath re-invented the gothic form for contemporary fiction. The
story is edgy and relentless. It knocked the breath out of me.
8. Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi
I remember very clearly the furore this book caused
when it was published. How could a slim novella create such a blast? It's an
autobiographical story based on Kureishi's affair with the much younger woman
for whom he left his partner. I didn't read it when it first came out, because
I was sure it would leave a very bad taste in my mouth. Although I finished it
a few years ago, I'm still uneasy with the power of a writer to claim an
authority on the page and, in so doing, to betray the lives and memories of
others. That said, Intimacy also surprised and moved me with its wit, delicacy
and complete lack of pretension.
9. Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller
"It is mad to describe a middle-aged adulteress
as innocent, and yet there is something fundamentally innocent about Sheba. It
goes without saying that she is capable of all kinds of sin. But she is not one
of life's schemers." Such is history teacher Barbara Covett's appraisal of
her new colleague, Sheba Hart. Sheba's husband, Richard, is much older than his
wife, and their marriage is becalmed. The blooming youth of her daughter,
Polly, makes Sheba more aware of her own physical and sexual decline. Enter
Steven Connolly, the underage pupil Sheba will have an affair with. Somehow,
quite madly, I missed this novel when it was shortlisted for the 2003 Booker
prize. I gulped it down belatedly, in a single, marvellous sitting.
10. A Bit on the Side by William
Once again, the compression of the short story form –
its innately fleeting quality – is almost uncannily suited to the subject of
affairs, and also to the evocation of their intensity and their often
inevitable endings. With Trevor, as with Chekhov, we are in a story populated
by ordinary people: he, a married accountant; she, a newly divorced secretary.
Yet A Bit on the Side is a profoundly compassionate story; it examines the
hard-edged solitudes of life and it responds with tenderness and a sharp,
by Alison MacLeod is published by Hamish Hamilton and longlisted for the 2013
Man Booker prize