ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
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Illicit romance is the theme of the debut novel by William Coles. "Prelude" won rave reviews when it was released in Great Britain.
For our Three Books series, authors pick three books on one theme. And for us, Coles sticks with illicit romance with this warning: all the books end badly, but that's part of the fun.
Mr. WILLIAM COLES (Author, "Prelude"): 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 assignation, and brief encounters take on this huge intensity, where every moment is lapped up in haste and savored for eternity.
Perhaps the most eternal forbidden love affairs is the 900-year-old story of a French philosopher and his beautiful young pupil. In "Heloise & Abelard," we relive the fire of their brief affair and the longing that simmers for decades afterwards.
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.
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.
Forty years after "The Well of Loneliness" shocked Britain, Philip Roth unleashed Portnoy, the man who put the Id into Yid. "Portnoy's Complaint" is a crazy romp through the protagonist's extraordinary love life as he attempts to derail his tyrannical mother.
I cannot think of another book which is so hilarious in its descriptions of lovemaking or quite so shocking. Featuring a wealth of illicit love, the one thing that 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, though, is the very nature of illicit love and why we can't get enough of it.
SIEGEL: That's William Coles, author of a novel that's also about illicit love. It's called "Prelude." He was recommending "Heloise & Abelard: A New Biography" by James Burge, "The Well of Loneliness" by Radclyffe Hall and "Portnoy's Complaint" by Philip Roth.
For more stories of love, illicit and otherwise, you can visit the summer book section of npr.org.