Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Dover, $3.50). When it comes to love, we think we’re playing chess; really, we’re riding bumper cars. The way Flaubert explores the limits of cherished notions like “romance” and “freedom” couldn’t be more modern, touching, or scary. Emma Bovary’s plight forces us to ask, “Isthere anything going on here greater than our own vanity?”
My Antonia by Willa Cather (Simon & Schuster, $5). Pioneers are fun. Trees are pretty. Immigrants are plucky. Cather’s prairie romance is very sweet, admiring, and loving, if not exactly long on racy glandular proclivities. You wish you loved someone this way.
Queer by William S. Burroughs (Penguin, $14). Strange choice, I know, but along with Junkie, this brief novel—and not his experimental later work—is why Burroughs should be read. This is an object lesson of sorts on how not to love. But Burroughs’ gay narrator also captures with wild, full-color directness the physical, emotional torture and self-abasing downward spiral of mismanaged unrequited love.
Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (Harper, $15). The fusion of love, philosophy, and addiction is hot, as is anything set in Mexico. The idea that “No se puede vivir sin amar (One cannot live without love)” is exquisitely balanced against our perpetual inability to do it very well.
The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross (Dover, $3.50). Whether it’s God or fleshlier love one craves, there’s usually an enormous buzz-kill after the initial romantic, sexual, or spiritual transport. This book—the best love poem ever written by a virgin—is no one’s idea of a fun read in 2010. But it prompts years of delectable digestion: Having gotten a taste of love/God/the Ideal, how do I now cope with the stultifying hum of everyday life?
The Guardsman by Ferenc Molnar (out of print). For a Hungarian play from 1910, this feels astonishingly limber and wise. Molnar offers a deft examination of the perils of looking too closely into the workings of a relationship. With love, as with politics and sausage, you really don’t want to know the ingredients.