Forbidden Pages: Books Of Illicit Love Thrill, Delight

Hands reaching out to one another
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In all the love stories ever told, has there ever been such a recipe for disaster as in the tale of illicit love? Beginning 3,000 years ago, when Zeus, the married King of the Gods, was gallivanting with all his many mistresses, the message was clear: Unconventional trysts are destined to end badly for all concerned.

But how brightly these love affairs burn during their short span! Heroes become spies as they plot their next tryst, and brief encounters take on this huge intensity, where every moment is lapped up in haste and savored for eternity.

'Heloise & Abelard'

Heloise & Abelard
Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography, by James Burge, paperback, 352 pages

Perhaps the most eternal of forbidden love affairs is the 900-year-old story of a French philosopher and his beautiful young pupil. In Heloise & Abelard, James Burge's biography based on 20 years worth of the lovers' letters to each other, we relive the fire of their brief affair and the longing that simmers for decades afterward.

This is not a happily-ever-after story — Heloise's jealous uncle puts an end to things, and castration, a monastery and a nunnery follow — but, still, the couple's passion for each other never subsides. "While I am denied your presence," writes Heloise in one letter to her beloved Abelard, "give me at least through your words some sweet semblance of yourself."

'The Well Of Loneliness'

The Well of Loneliness
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall, paperback, 448 pages

Ah, tortured longing — the hallmark of illicit love. The Well of Loneliness, Radclyffe Hall's pioneering tale of lesbian love, overflows with it. Banned in Britain in 1928, the book went on to become a global bestseller. Based on Hall's own life, it contains much anguished hand-wringing as the heroine Stephen dithers over whether to take a bite from this forbidden fruit.

Eighty years on, it is hard to understand how the uptight Brits could have branded this novel an obscenity — the very raunchiest line in the book is "That night they were not divided." But even if the prose seems a bit tame to the modern reader, Hall's novel is still a rollicking read — and you can tell right from the start that this love affair is heading for the rocks.

'Portnoy's Complaint'

Portnoy's Complaint
Portnoy's Complaint, by Philip Roth, paperback, 304 pages

Forty years after The Well of Loneliness shocked Britain, Philip Roth unleashed Portnoy, the man who put the Id in Yid. Portnoy's Complaint is a crazy romp through the protagonist's extraordinary love life as he attempts to seek closure with his tyrannical mother.

I cannot think of another book that is so hilarious in its descriptions of sex — or quite so shocking. Featuring a wealth of illicit love, the one thing Roth's sex scenes have in common is that they are all utterly cringe-making. It doesn't seem to matter what sort of sexual mischief Portnoy has immersed himself into, always in the background there is the sound of his mother hammering on the door and demanding to be let in. Even decades after I'd first read the book, Roth's toe-curling descriptions of love in the bathroom are still seared into my memory.

And how does it all end for Portnoy? It ends badly, just as these tales always do — but that is the very nature of illicit love. (And why we can't get enough of it.)

"Three Books ..." is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Bridget Bentz.

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