Literature tells us the experience of love is shaped irredeemably by age
To me, fair friend, you never can be old," William Shakespeare tells the elusive young man, often referred to as Mr W.H., of his sonnet sequence. “For as you were when first your eye I eyed," he adds, “Such seems your beauty still" (No.104).
As the next few lines reveal, only three years have passed since they first met. So it is anyway unlikely that his beloved would have lost his looks in that time. But that does not stop the poet from musing about the years to come. Indeed, a great many of the sonnets reckon with the prospect of mortality, of beauty fading, with the passage of time. Yet love, as the poet says in sonnet No.116, remains an “ever-fixed mark/That looks on tempests and is never shaken".
And so it is in No.104. Both men are older, but the dynamics have changed little. He, the poet, is a seasoned flirt, a master of romantic hyperbole, and seducer par excellence, while Mr W.H. is the recipient of his attentive praise, reticent and probably vain. By the end of the stipulated 14 lines, the poet has concluded that after this “fair" youth is gone, “beauty" will cease to exist in the world altogether.
As we get to the final couplet, some of us may break into a smile, perhaps just as the addressee of those lines may well have done all those years ago, at the disingenuous charm of the poet’s words. Generations of lovers have whispered such sweet nothings to each other, long before Shakespeare and long after him. Semi-earnest, drunk on the passion of youth (or other substances, as the case may be), heartfelt emotions have been expressed, be it on parchment, in a subtly perfumed billet-doux, or on WhatsApp messenger, with heart-eyed emoticons for emphasis.
Most of us want our loves to grow with us, into old age, and hopefully outlast us, but few prayers are answered. Where life disappoints, fiction delivers comfort and care, often in the form of tales that are fantastical. Perhaps the most triumphant literary example of young love remaining unshaken against all odds and surviving into the winter of life is in Gabriel García Márquez’s classic, Love In The Time Of Cholera, which tells the story of Florentino Ariza’s much belated reunion with his beloved, Fermina Daza.
The heart may speak the same language at 70 as it does at 20, but the experience of love is shaped irredeemably by age. If casual confessions of eternal love are but playthings for the young, the elderly have more sordid realities to deal with: the diminishing control over bodily functions, the awkwardness about physical appearances, the dimming of intellectual faculties. When writer Iris Murdoch started losing her memory to Alzheimer’s, for instance, her husband, the academic, John Bayley, became her full-time carer. The chronicle of their last years together, recorded by Bayley in several volumes, is replete with memories of pain and humiliation, but also warmed by humour and a tender, almost infantile, love.
In Love In The Time Of Cholera, García Márquez does not hesitate to explore the bathos of falling in love hopelessly in old age. But the heaviness of two weary souls, their trepidation about rekindling the embers of a dying flame, are redeemed by the undercurrent of a secret mirth typical of youthful spirits, excited by the discovery of each other for the first time.
In his telling of the story of Florentino’s reunion with Fermina, more than half a century too late, García Márquez invokes the levity of a Shakespearean comedy but also puts in the gravitas of a Greek tragedy. And so, in the end, as Florentino (76) and Fermina (72) sail along River Magdalena in a steamboat, enjoying the lyrical finale of their difficult and near-disastrous journey, the reader is left battling with a multitude of emotions—most of all, a sense of disbelief, followed by that of discomfort.
Disbelief because most of us do not quite know how to react to the ardour of elderly love. It is far easier to indulge the heady promises of youth, to forgive their insincerity and callowness, to consider these as being part of their intrinsic nature. But what does one make of a man in his mid-70s who is courting the lady of his heart, also in the same decade as him, for more than 50 years, before finally winning her over, and that too a few months after she loses her husband of 50-odd years? What test of constancy must it pose before those with feebler hearts and fickle of resolve—of which there never seems to be a dearth in this world?
And then comes the matter of discomfort, for several complicated reasons. There is, first, the unease felt in many societies at the idea of people rediscovering love at an age when they are fully expected to cease being creatures of desire. Second, even if these so-called senior citizens do succumb to the dictates of the heart, they are not expected to be intransigent and irrational, as Florentino stays until he gets his lady love. His expression of love was supposed to be mature, cooled by years of patient vigil at the door of his beloved and tempered by her harsh rebuffs; not the wild, even thoughtless, act of devotion that García Márquez showed it up to be.
Somewhere along the way, for instance, Florentino, who, over the years, had managed to harden his reputation as an incorrigible womanizer, has to abandon his current flame, a 14-year-old girl called América Vicuña, so that he can pursue his primary interest, Fermina, more assiduously. As the prospect of once again getting close to Fermina becomes apparent, Florentino takes out his innocent child bride for an ice cream and tries to break up with her with as little fuss as possible. But the girl, saddened beyond his expectation, quietly kills herself in despair. Her ancient lover sheds a tear or two, feels bereft and remorse for a while, before he becomes preoccupied with the more pressing mission he has been working on for the past 50-odd years. If age is supposed to make us wiser and less selfish, we only need to turn to Florentino to be contradicted in such a belief.
There is an easy temptation to experience the story of Florentino and Fermina through that famous Marquezian lens, of magical realism, enabling all sorts of improbabilities to play out. But at the same time, the moral universe of Love In The Time Of Cholera is squarely pitched to a vividly realist setting, in which social customs and mores are outlined in great detail, while politics and history make sporadic and keen appearances throughout. As a result, in spite of its overarching comedic mode, the novel is never able to make the reader forget the little cruelties strewn along the way.
With Florentino’s near-casual dismissal of América, the lid is blown off any mystique that may have been associated with the ideal of love. For a writer of love letters on behalf of those who are tongue-tied, his action seems base, unworthy of his gift. And in an odd comeuppance, Florentino’s fate does not seem to be sealed with him finding joy in the arms of Fermina but is rather revived in the plot of another García Márquez novel many years later.
In Memories Of My Melancholy Whores, the narrator’s profile is uncannily similar to Florentino’s: Only, he happens to be in his 90s, a weekend columnist on love and relationships, and firmly of the belief in the restorative powers of sexual congress with a virgin.
After a suitable candidate is found through the kind services of a certain lady, the nonagenarian gentleman is unable to invoke anything other than feelings of affection and sings the girl into a slumber. But their liaison comes to a happy end, to the score of a dulcet melody, a little too improbably for such a shockingly cross-generational romance. Whereas Vladimir Nabokov found a far worse hook to hang Lolita on, and Venus, the goddess of love, had to accept a desperate defeat at the hands of the object of her lust, a beautiful youth called Adonis, in Shakespeare’s erotic poem Venus And Adonis, the narrator of García Márquez’s Melancholy Whores is dealt with with an infinitely kinder hand.
For nothing, in the end, can beat reality better than a dose of magic.
Somak Ghoshal spent much of his youth having near-love adventures. He hopes to do better in the years to come.
FIRST PUBLISHED12.02.2016 | 10:17 PM IST
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