9780061240386

My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead : Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro

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  • ISBN13:

    9780061240386

  • ISBN10:

    0061240389

  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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Summary

"When it comes to love, there are a million theories to explain it. But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. A love story can never be about full possession. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name . . . .It is perhaps only in reading a love story (or in writing one) that we can simultaneously partake of the ecstasy and agony of being in love without paying a crippling emotional price. I offer this book, then, as a cure for lovesickness and an antidote to adultery. Read these love stories in the safety of your single bed. Let everybody else suffer."-Jeffrey Eugenides, from the introduction to My Mistress's Sparrow Is DeadAll proceeds from My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead will go directly to fund the free youth writing programs offered by 826 Chicago. 826 Chicago is part of the network of seven writing centers across the United States affiliated with 826 National, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting students ages 6 to 18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.

Excerpts

My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead
Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro

Introduction

Jeffrey Eugenides

1: Lesbia's Sparrow

The Latin poet Catullus was the first poet in the ancient world to write about a personal love affair in an extended way. Other poets treated the subject of "love," allowing the flushed cheeks or alabaster limbs of this or that inamorata to enter the frame of their poems, but it was Catullus who built his nugae, or trifles, around a single, near-obsessional passion for a woman whose entire presence, body and mind, fills the lines of his poetry. From the first excruciating moments of infatuation with the woman he called "Lesbia," through the torrid transports of physical love, to the betrayals that leave him stricken, Catullus told it all, and, in so doing, did more than anyone to create the form we recognize today as the love story.

Gaius Catullus was born around 84 b.c., in Cisalpine Gaul, the son of a minor aristocrat and businessman with holdings in Spain and Asia Minor, and lived until roughly the age of thirty. It was as a very young man, then, that he found his way to poetry—and to Lesbia.

Lesbia wasn't her real name. Her real name was Clodia. Classical scholars disagree over whether she was the Clodia married to the praetor Metellus Celer, infamous for her licentiousness and possible matricide. Lesbia might have been one of Clodia's sisters, or another Clodia altogether. What's certain is that she was married and that Catullus's relationship with her was adulterous. Though, like many adulterers, Catullus disapproved of adultery (in poem LXI he writes, "Your husband is not light, not tied/To some bad adulteress,/Nor pursuing shameful scandal/Will he wish to sleep apart/From your tender nipples,"), he found himself, in the case of Clodia/Lesbia, compelled to make an exception. He became involved with a wicked aristocratic Roman lady who used him as a plaything, or—the alternate version—he fell for a fashionable, married Roman girl, who ended up sleeping with his best friend, Rufus. Whatever the details, one thing is clear: a great love story had begun.Of Catullus's many hendecasyllabics devoted to his relationship with Lesbia, only two concern us here. The first two. The poems having to do with Lesbia and her pet sparrow.

Sparrow, my girl's darling
Whom she plays with, whom she cuddles,
Whom she likes to tempt with finger-
Tip and teases to nip harder
When my own bright-eyed desire
Fancies some endearing fun
And a small solace for her pain,
I suppose, so heavy passion then rests:
Would I could play with you as she does
And lighten the spirit's gloomy cares!

That's poem II. Poem II A is a fragment. And by poem III Lesbia's sparrow is dead. "[P]asser mortuus est meae puellae,/passer, deliciae meae puellae,/quem plus illa oculis suis amabit," Catullus writes, which translates as, "My girl's sparrow is dead,/Sparrow, my girl's darling,/Whom she loved more than her eyes." (Incidentally, this poem, or more specifically, the onomatopoeia of its two central words, "passer" and "pipiabat," did more than anything I can remember to make me want to become a writer. I can still hear our Latin teacher, Miss Ferguson, piping out in her most piercing sparrow's voice, "passer pipiabat," getting us to notice how much the plosive rhythm resembled a bird singing. That words were music, that, at the same time they were marks on a page, they also referred to things in the world and, in skilled hands, took on properties of the things they denoted, was for me, at fifteen, an exciting discovery, all the more notable for the fact that this poetic effect had been devised by a young man dead for two thousand years, who'd sent this phrase drifting down the centuries to reach me in my Michigan classroom, filling my American ears with the sound of Roman birdsong.)

But back to the poem. The pluperfect of "pipiabat" is elegiac: the bird "used to sing." Now its song has been silenced. Catullus, who in the previous poem had cause to wish the bird would fly away, now changes his mind. "Oh what a shame!" he writes. "O wretched sorrow! Your fault it is that now my girl's/Eyelids are swollen from crying."

Things were bad with the sparrow around. They're bad with the sparrow gone. Nothing is keeping Lesbia from giving all her love to Catullus now. But Lesbia's no longer in the mood. Worse, her crying has ruined her looks.

If Catullus gave us the confessional love story, these first two poems delineated its scope. The book you're holding in your hands, which takes its title from Catullus, is an anthology of love stories. They were all written in the past 120 years. There are translations from Russian, Chinese, French, Austrian, and Czech writers. There are stories by famous, dead writers and by young Americans, stories involving, as in Milan Kundera's "The Hitchhiking Game," two lovers taking a road trip in Communist-era Czechoslovakia, to the two terrifically well-groomed, adolescent "TrendSetters & TasteMakers" from the near future in George Saunders's "Jon," to the little Jewish boy in Isaac Babel's "First Love" who falls for the Christian neighbor who shelters him during a Russian pogrom. Despite the multiplicity of subjects and situations treated here, one Catullan requirement remains in force throughout. In each of these twenty-six love stories, either there is a sparrow or the sparrow is dead.

2: A labor of love

At the behest of the energetic, unstoppable Dave Eggers (the Bono of Lit), I've been reading almost nothing but love stories for the past year. (Note: The entire proceeds of this anthology will go to support 826 Chicago, the literacy project here in Bucktown, and another labor of love.) In discovering and gathering these stories, my method has been maximally random and sociable. At lectures and book parties, in elevators with editors and at literary festivals with fellow novelists, on college campuses, in loud tapas bars, over a Delirium Tremens at the Hopleaf on Clark Street, I asked whoever happened to . . .

My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead
Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro
. Copyright © by Jeffrey Eugenides. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead: Great Love Stories, from Chekhov to Munro by Jeffrey Eugenides
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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