'Book of Infidelities' lacks humor, spice

January 23, 1995|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

If love makes the world go 'round, what does infidelity do? Stop it in its tracks? Give life spice, or make it unbearable? For as long as people have been falling in love, they've been falling out of love or finding comfort in the arms of others.

"The Penguin Book of Infidelities" is out clearly with an eye toward next month's Valentine's Day, and you have to like the perverseness of such a project. This volume looks at the topic primarily from the vantage point of literature: How infidelity has figured in books, stories, plays and poetry, and its role in the lives of the writers themselves. As anyone with more than a casual interest in literature knows, the answer to both areas is: considerable.

The theme of infidelity is a major part of such works as "The Scarlet Letter," "Madame Bovary," Anna Karenina," "Ulysses" and "Lady Chatterly's Lover." Think of the grand emotions stirred by infidelity -- passion, lust, guilt -- and the visceral responses to it -- feelings of betrayal, revenge, self-loathing. Editor Stephen Brook writes in the introduction:

"Infidelity lobs a rock into that placid pool, whipping up waves and cross-currents in waters previously unruffled. It disturbs us not only because it nearly always brings pain to those involved, but because it is by definition an unpredictable element that shatters the uneasy truce of marital sexuality." So, he observes, "infidelity is dangerous, for it confounds the stable order, and introduces notes of deception and betrayal into relationships intended to be harmonious."

But what's bad for marriage is often good for literature, and Mr. Brook, a British author, proceeds to show just how prevalent a theme infidelity is. "The Penguin Book of Infidelities" looks at writings from Homer to Samuel Pepys to Samuel Johnson to John Updike. Given his background, there's a preponderance of English writers, which, to some American readers, might be considered a minus.

He gives a brief history of the theme of infidelity, pointing out when it was excused and when women were more or less allowed to stray (and when they suffered for their sins much more than men, which was usually the case).

Mr. Brook illustrates the chapter with some choice passages. Some writers, such as Mr. Updike, "saw fidelity as a morally ambiguous concept. But Samuel Johnson was more uncompromising. When James Boswell, something of a libertine, asked if a woman 'may indulge herself in gallantries with equal freedom as her husband does,' Johnson responded sternly: 'This lady of yours, Sir, I think, is very fit for a brothel.' "

Mr. Brook then examines the several stages of infidelity, with each phase getting a chapter: "Cravings," "Deception," "Seduction," "The Spouse's Shadow," "Sex: Real and Imagined," "Love," "Learning the Truth," "The Sense of Betrayal," "After the Affair" and, finally, " 'Indelible Constancy' " (a phrase connoting everlasting devotion, taken from Lord Byron's "Letters & Journals").

In all, "The Penguin Book of Infidelities" is earnest but not overly scholarly, and the passages are apt. But it's surprisingly unsexy. Mr. Brook may not be an academic, but neither is he prone to a giggle fit over the prospect of extramarital hanky-panky among the literati and the well-known. He does include a couple of chapters on "celebrated infidelities (mostly various English royalty and bluebloods), but there's no sniggering. He's determined to remain above it all.

There's not much of a sense of humor, either. Infidelity may not be a laughing matter to the parties involved, but in literature it's a mainstay of comic writing. He includes an excerpt from Peter De Vries' mordant "Forever Panting," in which a fellow falls for his mother-in-law, but Mr. Brook skims over the comic possibilities.

More curious is his failing to delve into the darker side of infidelity. He touches on how a victim might seek revenge, but what about the lovers themselves?

Some infidelities have led to the participants' indulging in nefarious activities of their own, such as finishing off an inconvenient spouse. Mr. Brook tends toward the "great works" -- "Anna Karenina," "Ulysses" -- in quoting a passage to illustrate his points. But in this area he could have done nicely with an excerpt from James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice," which shows marital duplicity taken to its murderous extreme. It's a striking omission in a work that strives to take its subject seriously.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Penguin Book of Infidelities"

Editor: Stephen Brook

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 376 pages, $24.95

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