Rite of Passage

Life After Marriage: Love in an Age of Divorce

by A. Alvarez
Simon and Schuster, 269 pp., $14.50

Marriage, Love, Sex and Divorce

by Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy
Summit Books, 384 pp., $14.95

Perhaps it is better to marry than to burn, but there can be little doubt that it is sometimes better to burn, however slowly, than to try to quench the flame with a very wet book. Grudges usually become novels, or even works of popsociology with theses—brown rice, open marriage, total chastity. Either is preferable, it seems, where a subject like divorce is concerned, to the more permissive form A. Alvarez has chosen; a “critical meditation” has the form of a sleepless night.

He began, from a rankling interest in the subject, by researching the legal, statistical, and historical aspects of divorce but discarded this more scholarly approach for a “personal” one which resembles in method his more interesting book about suicide, The Savage God. He has produced a compendium of divorce anecdotes, with the idea, following Freud’s remark that neuroses are all unique and similar, that divorces are too, and that we can learn most about the phenomenon from other people’s experiences (although the author’s case seems to disprove the premise).

The book begins, to curious effect, with Alvarez’s account of his own marriage and divorce. The effect is almost to disqualify him as a reliable observer: will someone with so little distance, objectivity, insight, or humor—someone so obviously still stung—be able to take the large view his title promises: Life After Marriage: Love in an Age of Divorce? If you do trust Alvarez’s view, and he is after all a famous author and critic, then you must mistrust yourself, assume yourself disqualified by sex, nationality, age, temperament, or some other limitation or difference from understanding this book at all, though you have the feeling that if you could explain the mistrust that lies between you and the author right from the start you might make him see what went wrong with his marriage.

Perhaps, for instance, this is just not a book for female readers, mined as it is with a set of disagreeable assumption revealed on the first page, paragraph one, where he confesses that his secret title for it was “The Savage God Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter,” assigning qualities of godlikeness to the male, and monstrousness to the female, protagonists. Ostensibly a literary and personal critical meditation on divorce, this sounds all too much as if we are going to hear how his ex-wife was really Frankenstein’s daughter, and so we do. For him to tell a husband’s point of view would be natural enough, since he is a man, and would be natural too if this were a court brief, but Alvarez is also a novelist, supposedly able to imagine the life of another, and supposedly embarked on a work of general interest. Unlike Bergman, whose Scenes from a Marriage remains probably the best modern study of divorce, Alvarez is so confined to his own point of view that the reader is apt to take the opposite side, as for the underdog at a football game.

Something was wrong and I already knew it…

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