Book review: The Invention of Love by Tom Stoppard

I found The Invention of Love in Spiritual Friendship by the gay Christian author Wesley Hill. Hill refers to it several times throughout, with two particular quotes I found very poignant and meaningful. The first is a description of A. E. Housman’s feelings for his friend Moses Jackson that Hill uses as a model:

Nothing which you’d call indecent, though I don’t see what’s wrong with it myself. You want to be brothers-in-arms, to have him to yourself… to be ship-wrecked together, to perform valiant deeds to earn his admiration, to save him from certain death, to die for him– to die in his arms, like a Spartan, kissed once on the lips… or just run his errands in the meanwhile. You want him to know what cannot be spoken, and to make the perfect reply in the same language.

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It evokes a depth of relationship that I have similarly yearned for, and I think others do as well. The second quote is a re-quoting of Sophocles: “Love is like the ice held in the hand by children. A piece of ice held fast in the fist.” The quote is hard to understand, but I loved Hill’s elaboration:

Like a wedge of cold, brilliant crystal, the love you grasp will sear your skin. You’ll want to escape the pain. And before you know it, you’ll be staring at a hand shiny with moistness, but the ice will be nowhere in sight. First pain, then futility. The disappearance of friendship. You’ll read that line from Sophocles and think, That’s the perfect description of trying to love your best friend when he doesn’t love you back, or at least not in the way you wish he would.

The story of The Invention of Love centers on the love of literary critic A. E. Housman for his friend Jackson. Jackson himself doesn’t return the feelings, and eventually gets married leaving Housman feeling bereft for the rest of his life. The book takes place at the turn of the 20th century during the famed trial of Oscar Wilde for sodomy, and thus Housman took his secret to his death. Housman did, however, leave many of his feelings in the form of poems. One such poem captures his inner turmoil:

He would not stay for me; and who can wonder?
He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.
I shook his hand and tore my heart in sunder.
And went with half my life about my ways.

The book is a fairly difficult read, and for several reasons. First, the setting. The book takes place in 20th century Britain, and much of the historical context and language can go over one’s head if one isn’t familiar with it. Second, the medium. As a work of drama, one has to piece together the scenes in one’s head. The absence of intonation can make it difficult to interpret. For example, does that “Oh” indicate a sudden burst of realization, or a quaint acknowledgment? A third difficulty arises from Stoppard’s complex narrative. It is anything but linear jumping from young 20-year-old Housman to 70-year-old Housman to dead Housman to young and old Housman talking together in Hades. Fourth, much of the meat of the play is in the language of literary criticism. As one of the foremost critics in 20th century Britain, Housman was very familiar with Greek and Latin authors, and the text uses his work as means of exploring deeper themes.

Despite its difficulty, the book is absolutely beautiful in portraying the human conditions. Life is messy. The difficulty of being gay in a world that rejects your identity is a microcosm in which we can explore the pain inevitable in mortality.

The views of Oscar Wilde and A. E. Housman on homosexuality are interesting to contrast as well. Wilde was the poster boy of the aesthetes: art for art’s sake. One telling quote near the end summarizes his approach to life:

Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.
One should always be a little improbable.
Nothing that actually occurs is of the smallest importance.

I have read several of Wilde’s works, and this attitude is prevalent throughout. The Picture of Dorian Gray for example. Housman, on the other hand, is respectful towards the society he is in. In one conversation, he remarks, “I was a Victorian poet, don’t forget.” I feel like this statement of Housman about his scholarship equally could be used to describe his deep feelings of love:

Scholarship doesn’t need to wriggle out of it with a joke. It’s where we’re nearest to our humanness. Useless knowledge for it’s own sake. Useful knowledge is good, too, but it’s for the faint-hearted, an elaboration of the real thing, which is only to shine some light, it doesn’t matter on what, it’s the light itself, against the darkness, it’s what’s left of God’s purpose when you take away God.

They are something beautiful, even if in the end they don’t lead anywhere.

A great read to get you thinking.

Image credit: The Long Center

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