Top 10 novels about jealousy
Tis the season of lists, part 14. Novelist Howard Jacobson has compiled a fascinating list at the Guardian, his selection of the top 10 novels of sexual jealousy. “Tales of innocence and wonderment leave me cold. Black obsessiveness is what the novel does best. And jealousy is its natural domain.”
Jacobson, the author of 10 novels, most recenlty The Act of Love, confesses the very first story he ever wrote described “a bout of jealousy I had suffered.” Writing was the only way, it seemed, he could gain any mastery. “It was as though the shame associated with jealousy needed to be expiated in prose.”
No. 1 on Jacobson’s list: Tolstoy’s great short novel, The Kreutzer Sonata, “a crazed story of desire, rage, real or imagained adultery.” No. 2: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy. No. 3: The much loved, much hated experimental novel Jealousy, by Alain Robbe-Grillet.
In selecting Joyce’s Ulysses, Jacobson comes close to cheating. “The fact that Leopold Blood has learnt to live with, and even love, his wife’s infidelities, does not exclude this great comic novel from the jealous category.” Um, yes it does.
Jacobson’s most penetrating insight comes at No. 7, Persuasion, by Jane Austen: “Sexual jealousy is not normally what we think of as Jane Austen’s terrain. But her novels are full of jealousy’s tragic potential.”
For all its delicious provocation, Jacobson’s list is a bit high-falutin’, somewhat obscure – which is good in its way. Maybe now I’ll get around to reading Venus in Furs (N. 9), by Leopold Von Sacher Masoch. But a list of more familiar, more handled titles would be useful too.
Maybe I’m particularly stupid this morning, but for all the novels I’ve read in my wastrel life I cannot readily think of any — any!– that make sexual (or romantic) jealousy a dominant theme. More common, it seems to me, is sexual longing. Is The Great Gatsby a novel of jealousy, or Anna Karenina? How about Of Human Bondage? Madame Bovary? The Sun Also Rises?
Maybe a little, I think, but mostly these are stories of longing, of desire, of romantic frustration or sexual impotence. Okay, then, surely the distinguished history of crime fiction is filled with jealousy. The Postman Always Rings Twice? Nope. The Talented Mr. Ripley? Negative (in more ways than one). The Big Sleep? Unh-huh.
Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair can be said to be a little about jealousy – but the hero loses his lover not to her husband or another suitor but to God. Surely, I wrack my brain, jealousy abounds in the work of John Updike, the great chronicler of the sexual revolution in suburbia. But all I come up with is Roger’s Version, very good but lesser novel, and it’s God-haunted, too.
Mmmm. How about classical literature? Jacobson includes Othello on the grounds it’s not a novel only “because novels weren’t going form yet.” So: Aha! Medea! She murders her children after Jason betrays her for a younger, more politically useful woman. Jealousy, indeed. Sort of.
And after that, I’m dry. I could cast my failure into a smarty-pants critique of jealousy as an inferior trope for fiction – it’s a crude emotional motivator, doesn’t stick in the mind, and usually appears as a minor theme – but this would certainly be bogus. Indeed, jealousy is a primal human experience. Literature must be replete with it.
So instead of trying to justify myself, let me appeal to you. Help me out. What are your favorite novels of jealousy?