'My Mistress's Sparrow' Gives Love a Bad Name Writer Jeffrey Eugenides, who edited the new anthology, My Mistress's Sparrow Is Dead, takes an unorthodox look at love. He explains how the stories in this collection revolve around voyeuristic longing or disenchanted entanglement.
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'My Mistress's Sparrow' Gives Love a Bad Name

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'My Mistress's Sparrow' Gives Love a Bad Name

'My Mistress's Sparrow' Gives Love a Bad Name

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Just in time for Valentine's Day, here's a nonromantic romantic pitch, a short story collection from a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the novel "Middlesex."

Mr. JEFFREY EUGENIDES (Pulitzer Prize-winning Author): If any guy would have buy this for his girlfriend, his stock would rise quite quickly. And I think if any women buy the book, they actually might realize they just don't need a guy. So they ask you for help…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUGENIDES: Now, pull aside.

NORRIS: The writer Jeffrey Eugenides edited this collection, but they're not your mother's love stories. Sure, he includes some of the great romantics but this anthology is less about love and more about the disappointment and heartburn that comes with that four letter word.

We began with an exploration, an explanation of the books title, "My Mistress's Sparrow is Dead."

Mr. EUGENIDES: Yes, a rather gloomy sounding title for a book of love stories.


Mr. EUGENIDES: Derives from the Roman poet Catullus. He had a girlfriend named Lesbia who had a pet sparrow.

NORRIS: You know, it would seem a shame to talk about this poem without reading from a portion of it. Do you happen to have the book right there?

Mr. EUGENIDES: I do. This is the first poem.

(Reading) Sparrow, my girl's darling whom she plays with, whom she cuddles, whom she likes to tempt with fingertip and teases to nip harder. When my own bright-eyed desire fancies some endearing fun and a small solace for her pain, I suppose, so heavy passion then rests: Would I could play with you as she does and lighten the spirit's gloomy cares.

That poem is the first poem where we see the sparrow. And obviously, the sparrow is in the way. Catullus wishes to be with his girlfriend but she's more interested in the sparrow. Now, that's poem two.

Poem three, the sparrow has died. It seems like things are going to get better for Catullus. He's now going to have Lesbia as much as he wants but it turns out that she's too grief-stricken by the death of her sparrow and so can't really pay attention to him.

So, I saw these two poems and after reading all the love stories in this collection, I realized that they are the two poles around which all these love stories revolve. You have in the first poem, a voyeuristic longing and then the second poem, a kind of disenchanted entanglement.

NORRIS: You know, when you think about this collection of stories, you seem to note that these the attention in these stories depends on people coming from very different places that you need - disappointment or, you know, feuding families or people who were sort of born to unequal states.

Mr. EUGENIDES: Right. That's what I discovered. I didn't really start with any preconceptions about love stories. I just ask everyone I knew, writers and friends, what's your favorite love story. And I read lots and lots of love stories and after about a year of this, I started to realize that not only the love stories that I like but actually the love stories that everyone liked - had a certain bittersweet quality to them.

The stories in this collection are by no means all tragic but in order to even get to a measure of happiness, the characters usually have to go through difficulty.

NORRIS: It's almost - I don't want to rip off Jon Bon Jovi but if you look at this collection in total, it seems to give love a bad name.

Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, I think love stories do give love a bad name but the thing is with a love story, you're actually can participate from a distance. So I recommend it actually instead of going out on Valentine's Day. It's probably much safer course to stay home and read the choices, the dead or…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. EUGENIDES: …bring us to feel by the back water. And you don't have to see those terrible little red carnations sprouting at the tables of the restaurants.

NORRIS: I'd like to ask you about one of the stories in particular in the book.


NORRIS: A story called "We Didn't."

Mr. EUGENIDES: The Stuart Dybek story. That's a wonderful story to read. I'm sure it was wonderful to write it. But at least I got to read it.

NORRIS: Could you read a little bit of it for us?


(Reading) We didn't in the light. We didn't in darkness. We didn't in the fresh cuts on the grass or in the mounds of autumn leaves; around the snow where moonlight threw down our shadows. We didn't in your room, on the canopy bed you slept in, the bed you'd slept in as a child. Over in the back seat of my father's rusted rambler which smelled of the smoked chubs and kielbasa he delivered on weekends for my uncle Vincent's meat market. We didn't in your mother's (unintelligible) where a rosary twined the rearview mirror like a beaded black snake with silver cruciform fangs.

I don't want to give this story away but on the beach, Oak Street Beach in Chicago, they come close to do doing it and something happens to prevent them…

NORRIS: Something…

Mr. EUGENIDES: …and there's…

NORRIS: Something awful happened.

Mr. EUGENIDES: Something very awful. And as often is the case. It's those times where desire is frustrated that linger in the mind the longest.

NORRIS: You know, when we talk about love stories and the thing that draws us in, sucks us in almost to a vortex, it seems like it's not the love itself; it's the - I don't know, almost like viewing the world from a position of absolute vulnerability

Mr. EUGENIDES: It's vulnerability and the kind of heightened awareness, I think, that people feel when they're in love. When I think about a lot of my favorite novels — "Portrait of a Lady" by Henry James or "Lolita" by Nabokov, I mean, they are all love stories, Anna Karenina obviously is another one. And in the case of "Lolita," it can be the kind of a perverse love story but still the force of the desire drives the prose and drives the plot.

NORRIS: Do you consider yourself to be a romantic?

Mr. EUGENIDES: I consider myself too old to be a romantic anymore. I was terribly romantic as a youth, and I think I retain a portion of that romanticism.

I know Sol Belo(ph) who was married - what - four times managed to stay romantic and weep over his new girlfriend even in his 60s, and his friends (unintelligible) was kind of impressed that he'd stayed youthful in that way. It seems to me both admirable and rather laughable to be that way in your 60s or 70s.

I'm a father and husband, and I find that as life goes on, the kind of youthful romanticism changes into a deeper kind of, familial romanticism that is not really something so often written about in these kinds of stories.

NORRIS: Jeffrey Eugenides, thank you so much for talking to us. Happy Valentine's Day to you.

Mr. EUGENIDES: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Now, I was going to ask you if you're doing anything special for Valentine's Day but your someone special might be listening.

Mr. EUGENIDES: I'll tell you one of the firs things my wife, Karen(ph) and I decided when we got together was that we would never celebrate Valentine's Day so this would…


Mr. EUGENIDES: …one of the things that made me - one of the first things that made me fall in love with her was our mutual antipathy for Valentine's Day so.

NORRIS: Wait a minute. An author who puts together a collection of love stories has a total antipathy to a Valentine's Day?

Mr. EUGENIDES: Oh, yes, don't you think it's the cheapening and commodification of something rare that we'd all like to celebrate in private and had our time?

NORRIS: You know, perhaps she likes flowers and chocolate, you know?

Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, you're a special person. I hope she's listening.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: Me too.

Thank you very much.

Mr. EUGENIDES: Okay. Thank you.

NORRIS: Jeffrey Eugenides is the author of "The Virgin Suicides" and "Middlesex." You can read more about that dead sparrow's role in these love stories at npr.org.

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