Love After Loss in Otherworldly Venice

Two loving persons, John and Laura. experienced a big tragedy—the tragic loss of their beloved daughter. Their love seems to have cracked after this tragic event. Can their love after loss still be restored?

Loss after loss can be partially healed – and intimacy restored – experiencing something unexpected and new, incorporating in a couple’s life small doses of the unfamiliar, the magical, and the primal. Don’t Look Now seems to say just this. The novella is set in Venice and it is written by Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca.

John and Laura, the protagonists of the story, experience a reawakening of the senses that brings them close to one another again after the tragic loss of their daughter. While depicting Venice as gloomy and mysterious, the lagoon city acts as a time-travel device, allowing the protagonists to go back in time and offering them, briefly, the illusion of a restored happiness. The beauty and magic of Venice give them a suspended moment of loving and sensual closeness before a tragic conclusion.

The Journal of the Short Story in English published a special issue on Daphne du Maurier’s short stories and novellas. The volume, edited by Xavier Lachazette, will be available online in June 2024. Meanwhile, readers can access the article I wrote on Don’t Look Now here:

The Soothing Encounter with Otherness

When John and Laura take a trip to Venice after the death of their daughter Christine, they are distant from one another. In Venice, they meet middle-aged twin sisters. One of the sisters is a psychic who tells Laura she can see and communicate with Christine. She also tells her that Christine is trying to warn their parents to leave the city at once, as she thinks they are in danger. Whereas Laura believes what she hears from the sisters, John, feeling manipulated, grows increasingly impatient with his wife and annoyed with the old ladies.

Whereas Laura is capable of contemplating and accepting a necessary dose of soothing, otherworldly reality which will help her elaborate and contain her grief for the loss of her daughter, John chooses to hide behind a veil of scepticism which will eventually lead him to ruin.

As the story unfolds, John and Laura, in spite of their opposed attitudes towards the unknown, become less estranged from one another. Venice works its magic on them, bringing them closer, renewing their intimacy. Their encounter with otherness – the lagoon city as an exotic and mysterious location and the sisters as messengers from an otherworldly dimension – generates an intense moment of happiness, acting as a catalyst of positive change in their relationship.

Otherness as Catalyst of Change

Don’t Look Now immediately introduces us to a parallel dimension of doubles and opposites: twin old ladies, the second sight one of them possesses, youth opposed to old age, innocence to corruptness, belief to disbelief. In a sense, the novella can be read as a story of descent into a maze – which Venice very much resembles – from which only those who are emotionally open to the possibility of being challenged find a way out, getting consoled for their loss and partially restored to a peaceful state of mind.

This is why Don’t Look Now is very much representative of an Anglophone literary tradition depicting the South of Europe, and Italy in particular, as a space in which manifestations of the magical, the supernatural, the unorthodox, and the regressive are still present, and there to challenge the British visitor. In other words, Italy has been depicted, for a long time, as the ideal stage for tales that centre on a rational British self who finds himself/herself challenged by a parallel world in partial discontinuity with the contemporary one.

Hence Venice is depicted as a counter-site, a place that represents the ordinary by projecting its counter-image, a microcosm that is in appearance in continuity with the contemporary world, but where ordinary rules can be momentarily suspended in order to make space for a tale of fated ineluctability.

Don’t Look Now places at its centre northern European protagonists constantly challenged by the city’s reiterated foreign character, its web of alleys and the largely incomprehensible behaviour of its natives. In order to navigate the city and to make sense of their journey, the British protagonists need someone situated half-way between their world and Venice’s parallel reality: the psychic twin sister personifies this state perfectly, as she is a medium between two worlds.

Why Italy Is Such a Special Venue in Du Maurier’s Novella

Du Maurier’s novella is a fascinating narrative centred on an ideological mystification. By making use of Italy as the cultural polar opposite of England, as a trope for healing, salvation, sensual renewal, and ultimately damnation, the story consigns the country – which Venice epitomises – to a particular role, relegating it to a magical space outside “real” space and real time, a mirror reflection and a dimension outside history that serves the double function of challenging the symbolic order of the self and reiterating its normative value.

Francesca Pierini, Asian University for Women

The Courage to Love

Sometimes love requires strong actions. When we love someone, it is easy to mistake the respect we feel we should have towards the other person’s choices, with cowardice and fear. In the case of parental love, for instance, it is crucial to be able to distinguish between interfering and intervening. This is one of the themes present in Follow your Heart, an Italian novel that despite its astonishing commercial successithas been translated into eighteen languages and sold over sixteen million copies worldwide – is often dismissed as excessively sentimental and soppy. A more careful reading uncovers the true themes at its core: incapacity to deal with human emotions – often disguised as modesty – going hand in hand with familial histories of abuse within a patriarchal arrangement of relationships harmful to women as well as men.

An extensive article on the novel is included in the collective volume Love and the Politics of Intimacy (2023), an exploration of love in the 21st century. Incorporating academic writing and original creative work from scholars around the globe, the volume seeks inspiration for transforming and re-mapping the pathways of love.

Love Does Not Suit the Lazy

The novel tells the story of Olga, a grandmother who feels that her relationship to Marta, her granddaughter, has been recently infiltrated by sourness and misunderstandings. Sensing the nearness of her death, Olga recognises the urgency to communicate truthfully to her granddaughter. She therefore consigns to the pages of a diary the honest confession of her life. 

While telling her story to Marta, Olga exposes a palpable absence of love in all her most significant relationships. Between herself and her husband, as well as between herself and her parents, communication was formal and insincere. Olga recalls her mother dying “unsatisfied and holding a grudge” after a marriage characterized by unkindness and spite. As Olga’s account reaches its highpoint, the reader discovers that at the centre of Olga’s pain is an immense sense of guilt for having  caused – albeit involuntarily – the car accident in which her daughter died.

Wishing to leave behind an honest and coherent narrative of her life, for herself as well as for Marta, Olga recognizes, one by one, her faults and mistakes. First, she sees that behind her apparently progressive choice of respecting and not interfering with her daughter’s unhappiness was hidden a good amount of laziness and cowardice: “love doesn’t suit the lazy, sometimes it requires strong, precise actions. Do you see? I disguised my listless cowardice as noble sentiments about personal liberty” (Tamaro, 1994, p. 63-64).

Olga’s Lack of Courage

Ultimately, Olga blames her lack of courage and self-knowledge for her incapacity to really love her daughter, for not having understood the difference between interfering and intervening, and for having lived her life in fear: “most of my life has been like this, I didn’t swim, I floundered. With uncertain, confused movements, without elegance or joy, I have barely managed to keep myself afloat” (Tamaro, 1994, p.79).

One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is that it does not shy away from describing the strong connection between emotional incompetence, its damaging and far-reaching power, and cruelty, one of its most frequent outcomes. Olga, who was a young woman in post-fascist Italy, connects her bitterness to the condition of women in general, vividly describing a world in which men could access opportunities of self-realization: “men had their professions, their politics, their wars, they had outlets for their energy. Women, to the contrary, for countless generations have been confined to the bedroom, the kitchen, and the bathroom; we have taken millions of steps, millions of gestures, each one encumbered by the same rancour and the same dissatisfaction” (Tamaro, 1994, 49-50).

The Courage of Reading without Prejudice

While reading the story of Olga, I thought that it could be of particular interest to the younger generations, more and more accustomed, when discussing familial or romantic relationships, to a language that highlights consent, self-affirmation, the transparency of feelings, as if these perspectives had always been widely shared and available to everyone. To the contrary, private histories have always been, and still are, fraught with conflicts, abuse, and ineptitude in dealing with human emotions. As such, narratives that investigate these aspects should be read without prejudice in order to better understand the complex and contradictory history of our relationships.

Francesca Pierini, Asian University for Women

Why People Love Romantic Comedies

Why are romantic comedies so popular among people? Do their narratives reflect men’s and women’s love?

Romantic comedies, also known as rom-coms, are among the most popular film genres. However, they have often been criticized for not being serious enough and for distorting people’s perceptions of love.

Anthropology of Romantic Comedies

Marianne Gabrielsson, a student from the School of Global Studies at University of Gothenburg studied these questions from an anthropological perspective. She explored:

  • Why do people watch romcoms?
  • In what way do people embody love as portrayed in romcoms?
  • How can we relate people’s perceptions of love to the romcom genre?

What the Study Revealed

Thus, according to the recent study conducted by Marianne Gabrielsson,

  • Romantic comedies have psychopharmacologic functions in the sense of escapism.
  • People embody romcoms in terms of EPIC love, disappointment, fear, non-realistic demands, resignation, false happiness, or joy.
  • Romantic comedies are often negatively loaded with ideals, traditionalism, stereotypes, and conformity.

The Functions that Romantic Comedies Have in People’ Lives

The concept of escapism serves as an indicator of underlying societal issues, wherein romantic comedies are often depicted as a potential solution rather than a contributing factor to these problems.

Paradoxically, romantic comedies present this solution in a stigmatized, negative tone, causing feelings of shame, blame, and belittleness, contextualizing romcoms as a ‘guilty pleasure’ for the female consumer.

As a result of this paradox, culture continues to rewrite cultural norms and reinforce stereotypes, reproducing the outdated idea of the Other. This way, romantic comedies divide people into intellectual, serious, and pragmatic consumers and the rest: the naive and stupid consumers of banal and superficial depictions of love.

This suggests a shift in the focus of discourse from a widely shared sentiment of love to a more practical and rational approach.

Nevertheless, the study found that love is related to pragmatism, disappointment, and love always being for someone else. The author conducted the interviews that revealed a prevalent views of love as aspirations, dreams, and a desire for a love that transcends societal norms and expectations.

Conclusions of the Study

The author concludes that the complexity exhibited by romantic comedies presents a promising path for future academic research. Within this realm, three specific aspects have emerged as particularly intriguing subjects of study:

  • 1) The phenomenon of culture consumption encompasses various forms such as film, literature, music, and social media. And it has its significant impact on society.
  • 2) The persistent practice of rewriting culture is an ongoing process that shapes and reshapes societal norms and values.
  • 3) Within the field of anthropology, there exists a notable gap in the discourse surrounding the potential universality of love as a human experience.

The Spanish and German Medieval Stories of Militant Chivalry

The concept of chivalry usually refers to chivalrous codes of behavior that knights and gentlemen of medieval Europe should demonstrate in their social interactions. In the time period of about 1170 to 1220 CE, knights created the social rules of the chivalric code of conduct.

The word “chivalry” came from the Old French word “chevalerie,” which means “horse soldiery.” Initially, it referred to the men who rode horses. But later it denoted the ideals of a knight.

Medieval literature popularized chivalric ideals, which later shifted their meaning to noble social and moral qualities. The aristocracy and noble people of medieval France, Spain, and Germany widely accepted such chivalrous norms of behavior. Chivalry has become an essential feature of the courtly love art (Karandashev, 2017).

According to Henry Finck, chivalry practice was much less refined than its literary representation.

Many historians have praised the moral virtues of chivalry. However, some knightly behaviors appeared to be less than morally virtuous. It is true that the knights took a solemn oath promising to defend widows, orphans, and ladies. They also showed respect for and deference to them. Nevertheless, they treated women harshly when they invaded cities or stormed castles. Henry Finck defined this kind of chivalry as militant chivalry (Finck, 1887/2019).

Let us read his writings. Chivalry militant was most common in Spain, Southern France, and Germany. The warm climate and friendly nature of those countries provided ideal conditions for wandering knights in search of adventure. Here are two examples of medieval chivalry and the art of love. One is the story of the Spanish Don Quixote, and another is the story of the German Ulrich von Lichtenstein.

The Spanish Images of Chivalry

For example, it appears that the medieval knights of Spain were wandering around the country, interfering in every quarrel.

In the literary genre, Cervantes presented a lifelike picture of knight-errantry in Don Quixote. His intention was to make fun, not so much of chivalry as of trashy contemporaneous romances of chivalry. However, he could not avoid depicting the comic side of chivalry itself. It was indeed “difficile satiram non scribere.”

Each knight had his own Dulcinea, whom he may not have seen. Nevertheless, he fights all these battles for her honor and love. And whenever he meets another knight, he immediately challenges him to admit that his Dulcinea, whom he has never seen, is the most beautiful lady in the world.

The other knight repeats the challenge on behalf of his Dulcinea. Therefore, he fights the battle through the inexorable logic of superior strength, intended to prove the superior beauty of his chosen lady-love. The victor celebrates victory and sends the defeated knight as a prisoner to the victor’s mistress with a love message.

The German Images of Chivalry

When medieval German knights came into close contact with French knights, the Germans adopted the idea and the fantastic aspect of chivalry from the French. And they pursued the code of chivalry with great diligence. As the 19th-century German cultural historian Johannes Scherr noted,

“Spain has imagined a Don Quixote, but Germany has really produced one.”

(cited in Finck, 1887/2019,p. 100).

His name was Ulrich von Lichtenstein. He was born in the year 1200.

“From his boyhood, Herr Ulrich’s thoughts were directed towards woman-worship, and as a youth he chose a high-born and, be it well understood, a married lady as his patroness, in whose service he infused method into his knightly madness. The circumstance that meanwhile he himself gets married does not abate his folly. He greedily drinks water in which his patroness has washed herself; he has an operation performed on his thick double underlip, because she informs him that it is not inviting for kisses; he amputates one of his fingers which had become stiff in an encounter, and sends it to his mistress as a proof of his capacity of endurance for her sake. Masked as Frau Venus, he wanders about the country and engages in encounters, in this costume, in honour of his mistress; at her command he goes among the lepers and eats with them from one bowl…. The most remarkable circumstance, however, is that Ulrich’s own spouse, while her husband and master masquerades about the land as a knight in his beloved’s service, remains aside in his castle, and is only mentioned (in his poetic autobiography) whenever he returns home, tired and dilapidated, to be restored by her nursing.”

Johannes Scherr, cited in Finck, 1887/2019, p. 100.

When a German knight chose a Dulcinea, he adopted and wore her colors. He was now her love-servant and stood in the same relationship to his mistress as a vassal to his master. As Scherr continues his writing,

“The beloved gave her lover a love-token—a girdle or veil, a ribbon, or even a sleeve of her dress; this token he fastened to his helmet or shield, and great was the lady’s pride if he brought it back to her from battle thoroughly cut and hewn to pieces. Thus (in Parzival) Gawan had fastened on his shield a sleeve of the beautiful Olibet, and when he returned it to her, torn and speared, “Da ward des Mägdlein’s Freude gross; ihr blanker Arm war noch bloss, darüber schob sie ihn zuhand.”

Johannes Scherr, cited in Finck, 1887/2019, p. 100.

Chivalry Love Across Cultures

Here I presented two cultural examples of chivalry. However, romantic ideas of chivalry and courtly love similar to European conduct of love evolved in South Asia and Japan during 900–1200 CE. American historian William M. Reddy (2012) explored the depiction of courtly love and of the emerging ideal of chivalry in twelfth-century romances.

An Invisible Swedish Romance

How romantic are Swedish people? What does love look like in the cold climate of this Nordic culture?

There are two possible planes of reality to consider in this regard: ideal and real (Karandashev, 2022a). The first one concerns how love is presented as a cultural idea in literature, art, cinema, and other social media, which create cultural love models.

The second one concerns how love is really experienced by people in their daily lives.

This article considers the first plane of love in how romantic love is represented in literary genres of Swedish literature and what popular romance looks like in a Swedish cultural context. According to Maria Nilson and Helene Ehriander, the scholars at Linneaus University’s center for research in popular culture in Sweden, popular romance has been a challenging genre in Swedish literature for many years (Nilson & Ehriander, December 21, 2020).

Why Literary Romance in Sweden Was Invisible?

In Sweden, there is a strong literary tradition of realistic novels. Occasional romantic fiction was written and published but attracted little interest among Swedish readers. did not attract much readability. Popular romances were rarely discussed in public. The genre was generally invisible in scholarship as well as in the cultural arena. For many years, Swedish literature has had a poor tradition in the romantic love genre. Until recently, few romance titles appeared in the Swedish book market. Romance has been and continues to be viewed as a static genre comprised of poorly written books that are strikingly similar and simplistic in plots and characters. Generally, popular romance in the country is a genre with a “bad reputation.” Romantic writing has been seen as being an endless repetition of essentially the same plots, as old-fashioned as it gets. Authors and readers of romantic novels have been largely women. Some consider the romantic genre as literature that strengthens old patriarchal norms and ideals.

Some may theorize that the traditional unpopularity of romance in Sweden could be related to the cold climate of the country or the reserved character of people in Swedish culture. In any case, this can be related to the culturally normative ways in which Nordic people experience and express emotions.

The range of fiction commonly read in Swedish schools and universities is traditional. The same selection of classics, as it was in the 1980s, is still in the curriculum. Popular romance novels are not covered in the “main” literature course. The romance genre is frequently considered as old-fashioned, patriarchal, or subversive (Nilson & Ehriander, December 21, 2020).

The Origins of Nordic Romance Novels in “Chick Lit”

The Nordic genre of “chick lit” is related in some ways to the genre of romance. It is a sort of “subgenre” of popular romance. The “chick lit” genre was also associated with “women’s fiction” in the 1970s by Erica Jong and Marilyn French.

Chick lit came to Sweden with Bridget Jones’s Diary by Fielding. After the success of this romantic novel, several other books were translated into Swedish. Then, several Swedish writers also began writing Swedish chick lit with the conflicting desires that characterize this genre. Nordic chick lit novels have typically featured conflicting desires, a distinct writing style with distinct presentations of speech and thought, and distinct tones and settings.

The Swedish welfare state has had a significant influence on Swedish chick lit. The “non-western” novels of chick lit in Nordic cultures have shifted their genre. These books changed and developed the genre, rather than just mimicking American bestsellers. The heroes of Swedish chick lit embodied so-called “modern men” who have no problem with washing up the dishes or changing diapers. The chick lit heroines in Swedish authors’ novels are more concerned with their love interests, female friends, and careers than with their families. The classic chick-lit themes are reimagined in terms of Nordic social conditions, gender roles, and cultural contexts.

The Rise of Swedish Interest in “Popular Romance” In recent years, the genre of “popular romance” has gradually appeared in public view and in the Swedish cultural context. Simona Ahrnstedt is a bestselling author who has extensively written her books as romances. She started out by writing historical romances. Yet, her big breakthrough was the love novel En enda natt (All In). She actively promoted this genre in Sweden (Nilson & Ehriander, December 21, 2020).