NOVEMBER 4, 2020
“HOW DO I LOVE THEE? Let me count the ways,” writes Elizabeth Barrett Browning in “Sonnet 43” of Sonnets from the Portuguese. In Pauline Delabroy-Allard’s debut novel, They Say Sarah, first published in France in 2018 (and shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt) and now appearing in English (fluidly and beautifully translated by Adriana Hunter), the unnamed narrator continuously — one might almost say furiously — enumerates for us the ways in which she loves the eponymous protagonist: she loves Sarah for her beauty (“as beautiful as a Bonnard nude”), her touch, her scent (“of blue leather and thundering desire”), her mystery, her eyes (“snake eyes,” “flinty eyes”), her breath, her skin, her tempestuousness, her madness (“Mad with fury then mad with misery”), her curiosity, her perfectionism, her wanting (“everything, instantly”), her appetite, her sexual prowess (“Her fingers are deep, lost inside me, deep in my belly she plays a music that drives me crazy. She makes my body contort, my back arch, she never stops”).
A love so overwhelming, so intense, so all-consuming brings to mind Sade’s description in Philosophy in the Bedroom: love is, he says, a “madness of the soul” that allows one to experience ecstasy. Early on in her relationship with Sarah, the narrator of this mesmerizing novel apprehends that she has, in fact, been transported to a different plane of existence — one where she lives in a constant state of ecstasy, where nothing makes sense anymore except her senses and her mad attachment to Sarah.
Realizing that she loves Sarah with a love that is more than love, to borrow a line from Poe, the narrator looks up the definition of the word passion in the dictionary. She traces its etymological roots to the experience of suffering, remarking that the definition carries the notion of “love as an irresistible and violent inclination toward a single object, sometimes descending into obsession, entailing a loss of moral compass and of critical faculties, and liable to compromise mental stability.” She quickly comes to understand that the love affair she and Sarah have embarked upon is not an ordinary love. The torrid, all-consuming emotions that the narrator feels possess “an element of disorder and excess” that, as Georges Bataille notes in Literature and Evil, can “endanger the life of whoever indulges in it.” This love is an obsessive, violent, transgressive, mind-altering love.
We find the madness and excess of Delabroy-Allard’s They Say Sarah elsewhere in literature, though not necessarily where one might expect. As far as contemporary writers are concerned, one might anticipate discovering resonances between Delabroy-Allard and, say, Sally Rooney. Less than three years apart in age, both authors published debut novels within a year of each other that center on the love affairs of young women. But the authors’ handling of this theme is strikingly dissimilar.
In Conversations with Friends (2017), Rooney portrays the ambiguities and frissons generated by an extramarital affair that plods along in its well-worn way, filled with unresolved, self-conscious anxiety. Rooney’s sophomore novel, Normal People (2018), traces the history of an obsessive sexual/emotional attachment, with a slap of S&M thrown in, but in the end the story settles for a pallid restoration of the bourgeois social order. In Rooney’s work, as in much contemporary writing about love affairs, no matter how “hot” or outré the sex becomes, or how psychologically damaging the love triangle may be, the chaotic turmoil of the senses that drives the narrative is eventually pacified and normalized.
This is because the protagonists in these stories remain rooted in reality. For the most part, contemporary characters never truly abandon themselves (think of André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name, or Zadie Smith’s On Beauty): they don’t hear l’appel du vide, they are not willing to sacrifice their egos or endanger their social standing for love. They are, despite the occasional emotional turmoil to which they subject themselves, passionless people. Rooney’s protagonists, despite the sturm und drang they experience, will go on to graduate school, have successful careers, probably marry, procreate, become productive, live stable, balanced, boring lives.
In other words, there is passion (of the Rooney variety), and then there is passion (à la Delabroy-Allard). We are interested in the latter because it charges forth with a fury that drives our curiosity: what are that passion’s modes, manifestations, mechanisms?
Examples exist. In fact, Delabroy-Allard’s novel is closely aligned with Mann’s Death in Venice (1912), Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), and — a contemporary exception — Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body (1992). Delabroy-Allard writes about passion that knows no bounds, and it is this boundlessness that links it so vividly to each of these aforementioned works.
In Mann’s torturously intense, often perverse novella, the self-possessed, disciplined author Gustav von Aschenbach, who is “no lover of pleasure,” falls passionately in love with Tadzio, a young boy who is “more beautiful than words could ever tell.” Aschenbach can think of nothing else than “to pursue the beloved object that inflamed him.” In the notes Mann kept while working on the story, he remarked on the type of attraction that Aschenbach felt for Tadzio, referring to it as the “frenzy of love.” Mann used this term — similar to de Sade’s “madness of the soul” and Bataille’s “element of disorder and excess” — to characterize the delirium that overtakes Aschenbach. “When one is seized by this,” Mann notes, “then no Muse, no gentle song, no change of setting is capable of calming it. Such a person loves the object that sets him on fire when it is near and longs for him when he is gone.” Once Aschenbach has “tasted the lewdness and frenzy of surrender” specific to this type of love, he can no longer help himself.
Aschenbach learns that he needs to leave Venice or risk dying from of the “Asiatic flu.” But, because he is suffering from the “frenzy of surrender,” he is immobilized: his senses override his reason. He cannot depart Venice, nor can he bring himself to warn Tadzio’s mother of the imminent danger of the epidemic. If he did so, the mother would take the boy away. Besides, warning the mother would constitute a logical, rational action that would bring him back to his senses, make him himself again, and “when one is beside oneself there is nothing more abhorrent than returning to one’s senses.” Aschenbach cannot bear the thought of being separated from Tadzio, recognizing, “[n]ot without a certain horror, that he would not know how to go on living were that to happen.” He stays in Venice to be close to the boy, and so dies.
The same frenzy that is responsible for the death of Aschenbach also overtakes the lovers in They Say Sarah. In the first half of the book, the narrator begins a whirlwind affair with Sarah, a violinist, whom she meets at a party. The two spark to each other, and the narrative lunges forward in leaps and bounds like a wildfire consuming everything in its path, including, ultimately, the two protagonists. The narrator has an ex-husband, a boyfriend, and a child. We don’t know much about Sarah’s romantic past, but neither of the two women has had a lesbian relationship before. Both of them launch into this “sudden, instant, almost abrupt” liaison without a thought, with “gusto.” The sheer pace of their passion requires that Delabroy-Allard not pause to question their queerness. And indeed, thankfully, she doesn’t; there is no need: she is writing about passion, and their coupling is pure desire in action.
Almost immediately, Sarah announces that she is in love with the narrator. So powerful a force does Sarah represent for the narrator that, she says, “[l]ife around me no longer exists.” There is only Sarah: “She’s always on my mind. She haunts me, naked, divine, a ghost that makes my veins swell, makes my snatch slick. It’s a revelation, an illumination, an epiphany.” But the existential power of this type of passion is unsustainable. We know this innately. The feeling is blinding, deafening — a sensorial vortex that swallows not just one’s sanity but also one’s sense of psychic safety. This lurking, persistent danger — along with the psychological work necessary to survive it — is fatiguing. And, indeed, the narrator in They Say Sarah becomes exhausted.
After a year, the affair reaches a crescendo and begins to implode. Sarah “gets angry with me for silly little things, all sorts of things,” the narrator reports. “She flies into blazing tempers, unforgettable tempers.” She bites, scratches, pounds her fists on the narrator’s chest. The narrator knows the end is coming. Nevertheless, the tempestuous affair continues. Just as Aschenbach cannot leave Tadzio, so the narrator cannot relinquish Sarah: “[E]very part of my body hurting because it’s impossible to imagine life without her.” The break between them (spoiler alert) comes about when, in the last sentence of the novel’s first half, Sarah informs the narrator that she has terminal cancer.
The second half of They Say Sarah moves from the celebration of saturnalia to the sobriety of analysis. The narrator, having fled Paris, is now ensconced in an apartment in Trieste, where she struggles to understand, as did Aschenbach, “how has this come to pass?” Sarah is dead. Did she die from cancer? Or did the narrator kill her? The narrator can’t decide one way or the other. She is haunted by the lingering thought that, because Sarah “doesn’t love me anymore, she doesn’t want me anymore, she chose to die instead.”
The narrator argues with herself about her responsibility for her lover’s death and tries to piece together the events that led to this catastrophe. She remembers Sarah telling her she doesn’t love her anymore, remembers Sarah telling her she has breast cancer. Remembers making love to her one last time. Remembers running away from her apartment. Remembers that she’s dead. She begins talking to herself, first in her head, then out loud, as if Sarah were still next to her. The narrator tries to tell herself that “[l]ife without [Sarah] it’s still life.” But this platitudinous tautology does nothing to relieve her agony. “Love is betrayal,” she brays. “I can’t love again, do you know that? I hope I’ll always remember the second just before I knew you existed, before I knew what would happen to us. I’m a widow. Without you.” Alone without Sarah, she falls into the void — which is as dark as their love was coruscating and bright. Mental collapse ensues.
The narrator stops taking walks, recedes from the world. She stops going to the local café and drinking with the owner. She throws her phone away, loses track of time. She has an urge to “howl like a wolf at the moon, to howl out my pain, my loneliness, my madness.” She crawls into bed in her apartment, where she remains, thinking about Sarah, wondering “who is this girl who’s died, is it you or is it me?” Finally, curled in the fetal position, her consciousness is reduced to the pulsating systole and diastole of her heart: the clichéd — but no less profound — universality of the beating heart. Paradoxically, passion has a way of reducing one to the metaphysical.
If the metaphysics of They Say Sarah finds its corollary anywhere in contemporary fiction, it’s in Winterson’s Written on the Body. That book contains a similar narrative arc of passion, illness, and death. In Winterson’s tale, the narrator is both nameless and genderless, so what we witness in the relationship is pure, uncoded, ungendered desire. Like the narrator in They Say Sarah, Winterson’s narrator also falls passionately in love with a woman, Louise, who happens to be married. The narrator unceremoniously dumps his/her current girlfriend and embarks upon a relationship with Louise. So captivated is he/she by Louise that the narrator wants to consume her: “I didn’t only want Louise’s flesh, I wanted her bones, her blood, her tissues, the sinews that bound her together.” In no time at all, the narrator admits, “I am out of control.” This madness is cut short by the discovery that Louise, like Sarah, has cancer. Under pressure from Louise’s husband, a doctor, who promises to provide her with the best treatment, the narrator abandons Louise to doom: “She was my twin and I lost her. […] She flooded me and she has not drained away. I am still wading through her, she beats upon my doors and threatens my innermost safety.”
Frenzy, madness, disorder, subversion — passion. As Mann notes in Death in Venice, “passion, like crime, does not sit well with the sure order and even course of everyday life; it welcomes every loosening of the social fabric, every confusion and affliction visited upon the world, for passion sees in such disorder a vague hope of finding an advantage for itself.”
This “advantage” — to wantonly pursue, capture, and enjoy the object of desire, heedless of the consequences — is what makes passion a threat not only to the subject and object of desire, but also to the social order. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert’s diabolical deeds comprise more than the sexual relations he enjoys with the eponymous nymphet: he is responsible (morally, if not legally) for the death of Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother, and he shoots and kills Clare Quilty, his rival for the girl’s affection, in cold blood. Similarly, if less extravagantly, passion impels the narrator of They Say Sarah to ditch her boyfriend, leave her job, abandon her child and her parents, flee the country; indeed, she may or may not have killed Sarah. The narrator in Winterson’s tale drops his/her current lover for Louise, a married woman, abandons his/her job, then abandons the dying Louise to the care of her husband. Aschenbach’s enthrallment to Tadzio, a pubescent boy not much older than Lolita, prevents him from informing the boy’s mother that she should flee Venice to save her family from the cholera epidemic before it’s too late because he cannot bear to be separated from Tadzio. And, who knows, if Aschenbach had had the opportunity to consummate his love, he might eventually have found himself in the same legal situation as Humbert does.
Upon first encountering Lolita, Humbert finds it “difficult to express with adequate force that flash, that shiver, that impact of passionate recognition.” He explains: “I entered a plane of being where nothing mattered, save the infusion of joy brewed within my body.” Humbert, like the narrators in Written on the Body and They Say Sarah, “solipsizes” Lolita, the object of his passion. He absorbs her into his consciousness, completely engulfs her in his own ego, whereupon she then reabsorbs him. In such cases, Bataille notes: “[W]hat [one] thereby regain[s] is always both innocence and the intoxication of existence. The isolated being loses himself in something other than himself.” To solipsize the love object in this way is one of the hallmarks of this type of passion. Winterson’s narrator puts a distinctly corporeal twist on the process: “I would go on knowing [Louise], more intimately than the skin, hair and voice that I craved. I would have her plasma, her spleen, her synovial fluid.” This passion does not pause, it pushes knowing head-first into having.
Once the “having” is secured, there is no letting go. Indeed, another hallmark of passion is the inability to relinquish the object of desire — ever. In the words of Humbert, that genius of self-analysis, “I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever. […] The word ‘forever’ referred only to my own passion, to the eternal Lolita as reflected in my blood.” This same idea is also expressed in Written on the Body when Louise tells the narrator: “I will never let you go.” The narrator in They Say Sarah and Mann’s Aschenbach are also swept up in the same dynamic: there is simply no renouncing the love object. Indeed, in the novels under discussion, the protagonists do not end their attachments to their objects even after they have lost them.
Passion may not end, but novels do. So what, ultimately, brings closure to passion’s course? We know that nothing can modify or ameliorate it; it burns from start to finish; even the staid and solid man of letters, Aschenbach, discovers that there is nothing Apollonian about passion, it remains resolutely in the realm of Dionysus. The only thing that can end the madness is death. And indeed, in each of these stories, either the protagonist or the love object dies. Humbert dies in jail of a coronary embolism, Aschenbach of cholera, both Louise and Sarah of cancer; and the narrators of Winterson’s and Delabroy-Allard’s texts, if they do not themselves perish, are so ruined that they experience, in the mystic tradition, a “dying to this life.” The use of disease, by all these authors, as a deus ex machina to terminate the narrative is understandable: if passion is an organic, ineluctable force, then another such force, disease, appears to be the only way to stop the flow of desire and resolve the stories.
In They Say Sarah, Delabroy-Allard has given us a work of depth and intensity. The narrator risks everything — her job, her child, her parents, her sanity — in a quest for ecstasy. This is selfish perhaps but, in its own way, revolutionary: the ecstasy experienced in the throes of passion is a form of liberation from the social and psychological prison in which the narrator (and the reader) lives. Bataille points out that there are two things in this world that allow one to attain a state of ecstasy: the first is death; the second is “the ruin of the isolated individual in search of happiness in time.”
They Say Sarah is an erotic work that explores the dialectics of desire, possession, madness. The “turmoil of the senses” in which the narrator and Sarah live ultimately leads to despair, destruction, death. Today, when so many writers are turning to stories about their upbringings and their political journeys, it is satisfying, now and again, to be shown the darkness that lurks within all of us, the latent itch for reckless passion — and to be reminded that fiction can be made from a purely metaphysical examination of the subterranean drives that govern our lives. None of us know when that moment will arrive, when we will be struck by a coup de foudre, will be inspired to abandon our humdrum existence, and perhaps experience what Delabroy-Allard so poignantly shows us: the human heart damaged beyond repair.