I'm all in favor of erudition. Read everything from Proust to Poe, Sex and the City to The City of God, Confucius to Confessions of a Shopaholic. Books help us understand what it means to be human.
But there are those for whom books take the place of human sympathy, and other people seem mere characters to be manipulated, enjoyed and discarded. Felix Quinn, the neurotic and narcissistic protagonist of Howard Jacobson's new novel, can't tell if what he feels is love or literary interest.
Felix (the name's a joke; he's anything but happy) owns an antiquarian book business in Marylebone, an expensive, faintly Bohemian London enclave. Not that he works much. Mostly he obsesses over his wife, Marisa, a blank page whose life seems to consist of getting pedicures and volunteering at an art museum.
But to Felix, not so much steeped in literature as practically drowning in it, she's as compelling as Cleopatra, as vivacious as Elizabeth Bennett and as irresistible as Lolita.
Whatever. We only have Felix's word for it, since he is in sole charge of this story. Into their lives slinks a well-educated but somewhat tiresome fellow named Marius. Felix doesn't think he's tiresome, of course: To him, Marius is a mystery. Not to mention a marital aid.
Now pay attention, this is a little complicated. On Felix and Marisa's honeymoon in the Everglades, she fell ill. As the doctor examined her, Felix noticed — or thought he noticed — that the man let his hand rest just a second too long on her breast. Felix had an epiphany: He's aroused by the thought of another man with his wife. "You know it when you walk into the torture garden of your own disordered nature. You recognize the gorgeous foliage, overgrown and fantastical. You know the smell. The smell of home."
Felix realizes that in order to be satisfied in his self-flagellating adoration of his wife, she must betray him: "For me to burn for her, Marisa had to burn for someone else." He chooses Marius. And engineers their downfall.
Jacobson, who has occasionally been compared to Philip Roth, is best known for comic novels about nebbishy guys trying to come to terms with their masculinity. The Act of Love is a departure from his gleeful satires of Jewish life in Britain.
Not that it's without humor: Felix can be hilarious in his madness, stalking the freaked-out Marius through the designer cheese shops and artisanal bakeries of Marylebone, skulking about his house reading Marisa's diary, imagining that somebody's writing "cu cu" — as in "cuckold" — with chocolate on his cappuccino.
But this novel aims to explore the pathological selfishness and cruelty of passion. The Scarlet Letter, another novel about one woman and two men, suggests the worst sin in a marriage isn't adultery but violating "in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart." For all his bookishness, it seems Felix hasn't read his Hawthorne.
This cold and clever novel aspires to keep shelf company with the likes of Choderlos de Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses or Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. The Cambridge-educated Jacobson can't help displaying his formidable learning; you are meant to recall famous triangles. There's Venus, Vulcan and Mars; Guinevere, Arthur and Lancelot; Desdemona, Othello and Iago.
The problem is, Marius isn't up to scratch. He's not a charismatic antihero or Byronic bad boy. He's not even Marius the Epicurean, the hero of Walter Pater's famous novel (and probable origin of his name), who lives for art and beauty. Jacobson's Marius is a showboating Heathcliff wanna-be, a Hamlet manque, an unemployed ex-graduate student. Felix is so inept he can't even find a genuinely worthy guy to pimp out his wife to.
For all its literary allusions, The Act of Love is not really in the tradition of the great European adultery romance — not Flaubert, but Poe. And that may be the trick of the novel. Felix is obsessed, delusional and, as a narrator, entirely untrustworthy. Who knows if he really gets Marius and Marisa to have an affair? Who knows if the salacious blow-by-blow details of their lovemaking Marisa recounts to Felix are real or just what she thinks he wants to hear? And is it Marisa Felix loves so fiercely, or is it really Marius?
Jacobson's style comes out of the School of Fine Writing. It's loaded with bells and whistles, decorated with curlicues, ruffles and gilded lilies. Sometimes his high-wire act is dead on, as when Felix discerns that Marius is attracted to Marisa: "just a flicker of acknowledgment between them, such as high-bred cats exchange when they pass on the common street."
In other instances he overshoots in a spectacular way, as in the description of Marius' "lost city of Atlantis eyes" and "dried-up riverbed of a mouth." Say what? Yes, all this overcooked tosh is in Felix's head, but hasn't he read enough books to know better? Jacobson certainly has.
The Act of Love is ornate, unlikely and frequently unsavory. But it is not dull. Jacobson sustains the suspense of Felix's masochistic master plan, even as it spins out of control. The ending is exquisitely shocking and beautifully rendered. You almost feel sorry for Felix and the diseased egotism he mistakes for love.
Diane Roberts teaches English and writing at Florida State University.