When the Before and After of love are recognized, the revelation is seismic. They manifest in the After of “after the end.” They transform the abandoned lover along a fault line of the psyche that one could have never envisioned in the Before, but that perhaps was always there and has, only in the After, become an active fault. A loaded homonym, fault can mean an unappealing feature in a personality or a defect in machinery, an umpire’s call in tennis, a responsibility for a mistake, or a break in a body of rock “marked by the relative displacement and discontinuity of strata on either side of a particular surface.” Abandonment in love breeds fault, and fault gets passed back and forth, an overworked ball in an internal game of tennis, with the abandoned lover owning it for a while then propelling it towards the one who left, then getting it back and letting it fall, not bothering to pick it up and serve again until the jolt of a memory. Yet all the while it is the abandoned who gets to be both players in the game of fault. And it is the abandoned who lives the fault both as burden and as transformation, struggling with the After while longing for the Before because longing for the During, the time of love, is too unbearable.
Many of us have been either the one who abandons or the abandoned in various configurations of love. This is why André Aciman’s novella Mariana, newly released on Audible, offers us a double dose of recognition. We know what it feels like to be the abandoned protagonist, Mariana, and we know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the letter she is writing to her fickle lover. Her letter is the entire novella, an ardent and obsessive retelling, recalling, and reflection. We have thought and spoken or written some words like her, and we have heard or read some words like hers, even if the words of our own abandoned have reached us in smaller doses, in different forms of communication, and with less intensity. If we have buried the memories of being left by someone we love for another, Mariana resurrects them. If we don’t fully realize what effects our carelessness can have on those who love us, Mariana reminds us. She makes us feel the fault, in both a blaming and seismic sense.
A student at an Italian academy, which she also refers to as an artist colony, Mariana hardly arrives there to begin her fellowship when she meets Itamar, the handsome charmer of the group of fellows, who promptly sets his sights on her. Their first meeting, in public at the cocktail hour, is instantly intimate, incendiary, and playful, and sets the stage for an eruption of many passionate encounters that would free Mariana, the “Catholic girl from middle America,” from her inhibited views. She admits: “All you had to do was touch me and I was someone else, someone I couldn’t recognize but that I knew had waited years in the wings, silenced and tame in the world I grew up in.” What she eventually realizes is that the transformation brings her closer to herself: “…the less I’m me, the more I’m me.”
Yet the warning cracks of a doomed relationship manifest early, in the very first meeting of the would-be lovers. Between the laughter and the levity, the affection and the attention that Itamar lavishes on Mariana, shifting moods lurk, and their appearance is sudden and unnerving, an electrical shock to the system; she writes: “That’s the part I never understood, the jolt, always the jolt, with you. You’d skid from laughter and that mirthful glint in your eyes to a midwinter scowl…” So, when those initial shadows evaporate, Mariana surrenders to Itamar quickly for fear he’d change his mind. The rest is… history.
And it is a subtle evocation of history. Well, historical fiction. Aciman’s Mariana gives us two hints: she envisions a “supplicant nun” as she ponders selfless love, and she refers to a particular year: “…rather than write about an obscure novel published in 1669, all I want to do is think of you.” It was in 1669 that a collection of five passionate letters appeared anonymously, published by Claude Barbin in Paris as The Letters of a Portuguese Nun, and launched a craze of imitations, spin-offs, sequels, and replies throughout Europe. This work of epistolary fiction written by Gabriel de Guilleragues was attributed by some to real-life nun Mariana Alcoforado who experienced love with a French officer, the Marquis de Chamilly. The letters from Mariana to the Marquis who had left her and returned to France, abound in sorrow, longing, self-analysis, obsession, and, of course, the inevitable game of fault in all its candid, and heartbreaking agony. Mariana, the beautiful and educated nun, blames herself for breaking her vows, blames the Marquis for abandoning her, but, ultimately, she reclaims the fault and withdraws her reproaches: “My love for you serves you so faithfully that I cannot consent to find you guilty… I could not live without the pleasure which I find and enjoy in loving you in the midst of a thousand sorrows.” Despite the pain, she, like Aciman’s Mariana, embraces the After and the transformation she feels so acutely.
Epistolary literature has the gift for drawing us into an immediate and urgent intimacy with the letter-writer, especially when the outpouring of narration mingles with outbursts of visceral emotion and analysis of the self and others. We ride the ebb and flow of the protagonist’s highs and lows, and, often, it feels as though the letter is meant only for us to read, and the confession only for us to hear. And when, in the audio version of the letter, we have a voice that can convey tenderness, pain, joy, disdain, and earnestness with fluid and natural ease, the result is spellbinding. André Aciman’s Mariana is read by Mamie Gummer, astounding in her range of emotional expressions, cadences, dynamics, and tone colors. After hearing her, it is impossible to imagine someone else narrating this novella; her voice inhabits the character’s stream of consciousness naturally and sensually in all of its oscillating emotions.
Clearly, this absorbing and heartrending audio experience would not be possible without the writing. Aciman’s writing here floods us in unrelenting waves, swallowing and turning us upside down occasionally propelling us into a rarefied stratosphere of observational detachment only to pull us back into the entrails of an agonizing spewing, like an oceanic force that is not yet done with us, and won’t be done with us even after Mariana’s last words have stopped resounding. Imaginative, immediate, recurring, and unfinished thoughts, emotions, speech, and narration play with perception in sentences that range from long, lulling, and sweeping to clipped, brutal, and jagged utterances that jolt, like Itamar’s fickleness. While some may recoil from the obsessive, pining aspects of Mariana, and find them extreme, I think that anyone who has known passionate love, or even sheer infatuation, can identify with at least certain fragments of this unabashed, unapologetic confession. And if, listening to Mariana, we remember our own Befores and Afters and we illuminate the fault, not the fault we have assigned or claimed but the fault line at the center of our own landscape of transformation, it will all be worth it. The journey of lost love is distinctive to each of us. But sometimes, in the pain and perhaps lingering resentment, we may just find a seed of gratitude for those who shook us to our core, because, in doing so, they dared disrupt the strata of our presumed identities and deepened our self-knowledge.
Listen to “Mariana” by André Aciman, narrated by Mamie Gummer, on Audible.