At its best art arouses in us emotions that remain, in the normal course of life, latent. Wonderful novels or films or paintings incite these emotions to rise to the surface, insisting that we experience them, reminding us of the full scope of our humanity.
I recall that the classic young adult book Where the Red Fern Grows was the first work to arouse such a response in me. I must have been about nine years old at the time, and I remember reading the tragic end of the book late at night in bed, weeping uncontrollably at the loss of a loyal pet. Ponette, a French movie about a five year old girl's efforts to understand her mother's death, had my seventeen year old heart breaking at her insistence on waiting for her mother's return.
Bernini's gentle terra cotta likeness of a man who looked uncannily like my father on display in the National Gallery in Washington took the breath from my twenty year old chest. Fiona Shaw as Medea had my twenty-two year old body quaking in the face of her raw, unchecked insanity. And Ernest Borgnine's profound love for and devotion to his dead wife in a short vignette in the movie 11'09"01 had my newly in love twenty-three year old heart trembling and my tear ducts working overtime.
But I'll admit, since then it's been a bit of a drought. I've seen some wonderful concerts, movies and plays over the past few years, but none have touched me thoroughly enough to recall them easily as I write this.
But this past weekend, after reading Rafael Yglesias's sublime novel A Happy Marriage, the drought is officially over.
The novel (I say a novel but it feels incredibly autobiographical) is an unwavering look at a 30 year marriage, its awkward beginnings, blissful and passionate early years, and then the highs and lows of the relationship as it progresses, as husband and wife delve deeper into one another, eventually understanding and accepting those qualities in one another that had blocked and frustrated the relationship over time.
The story alternates between today, when Margaret, the wife, is in the last few weeks of her losing battle with cancer, and earlier episodes of the marriage, from courtship to child rearing, to adultery to comfortable middle age. The deft architecture of the novel allows a stunningly beautiful story to be told, commanding only total immersion by the reader.
I spent nearly four hours on Saturday morning finishing the novel, and spent nearly as long sobbing as I made my way through the story. Not delicate tears, but full bodied abject sorrow. And after I had finished reading the last scene, which is as touching an ending to any story as one will find, my sorrow did not abate. A stroll through my favorite neighborhoods did not lift my spirits. Another book, which I have since decided is utterly charming, only felt hollow and pathetic in the wake of Mr. Yglesias's tour de force. In fact, it took a full 24 hours for me to feel myself again.
So why put oneself through such trauma? All I can tell you is that I am still thinking of the book days later, marveling at the ability of words on a page to make me feel so intensely.