marriage arrangements of times gone by. As he puts it: ‘‘ To judge a couple solely by the yardstick of vehemency is to condemn it to insufficiency.’’
Though much shorter than Bruckner’s previous books, Has Marriage for Love Failed? does occasionally suffer from its author’s tendency to make an interesting point and then repeat it in ever more colourful ways. Nevertheless, it is beautifully argued and, for the most part, beautifully written.
It is also an interesting development in the context of Bruckner’s thought more generally. After the publication of The Tyranny of Guilt, which anatomised Western masochism in the face of the threat from Islamic extremism, it was not unusual to see Bruckner characterised as a shallow cheerleader for ‘‘ Western values’’. Here, however, he invites us to consider how a value commonly associated with the West is in many ways a mixed blessing. ‘‘ If we want [marriage] to last,’’ he writes, ‘‘ let’s stop subjecting life in common to the despotic law of exuberance.’’
The despotic law of exuberance is certainly on display in Vow, a ‘‘ memoir of marriage and other affairs’’ by American journalist Wendy Plump. Indeed, if Plump’s book has any value it is as an illustration of Bruckner’s thesis that unrealistic expectations drive a wedge between couples.
‘‘ I was committed to one man wholeheartedly until suddenly I wasn’t,’’ writes Plump, adding: ‘‘ What I wanted most, what drove me in every affair I had, was the drug and energy of passion, of new intimacy.’’
There is more, much more, in the same vein. According to my instruments, Plump has four affairs in the book, all of them described in such volatile prose. (Her husband, Bill, has a number of affairs, too, one of which results in an illegitimate child; here, the prose cools off a little.) None of them is remotely interesting, even at the level of gossip.
Certainly, Plump’s informing assumption that her personal experiences have impersonal resonance — an assumption reflected in her tendency to slip from the first to the second person — remains stubbornly unjustified. Vow, I’m afraid, is an insight-free zone.
Such conclusions as Plump draws are invariably limp — a fact not disguised but rather emphasised by the faux profundity in which they come wrapped. (‘‘Explanation is a powerful seducer. We use it to keep uncertainties at a distance.’’)
Nor does her penchant for bizarre metaphors and sentence fragments help her case. Consider, for example, the following passage: ‘‘ And so I concluded that nothing all that terrible was going to come of my having another [affair]. Even if I behaved like a reckless adolescent. Even if I stayed out all night. Even if I blew that vow out of the water. Even if I did jump off the roof clutching a lighted blowtorch into a pool of knives.’’
If Plump is trying to convey breathlessness with this outbreak of dependent clauses she’s certainly achieved her goal: at times, her book reads as if it were dictated by someone suffering emphysema.
I’ve always been suspicious of confessional literature but at least the revelations of Robert Lowell and W D Snodgrass had literary merit. By contrast, Vow tells us little of note, in prose notable only for its oddness.