An Education, one of the Best Picture nominees at the last Oscars, is about a schoolgirl’s love affair with a secretive older man. Watching the heroine move through the familiar stations of Bliss, Disillusionment, and Chastened Maturity, I found the movie working all too well as an allegory of my last car purchase. Nothing was said—or nothing sensible at least—about love itself. Love is blind? No blinder than anything else. Sight corrected, we come to our senses? If only it were that simple. Truer to life are the stories in which a rational person walks open-eyed into hell. In Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915), sensitive Philip winds up in the thrall of grasping Mildred, one of the most loathsome characters in all fiction. “When she left him it was wretchedness, and when she came to him again it was despair.” The sentence hints at the Thoroughly Unhappy Love Story’s circular non-plot and one-sided perspective, but also at its greater profundity. The schoolgirl in the film would have been fine had she only known how to spot a married man. But how can we avoid falling for someone we don’t even like? We can’t. That’s an education.
Unfortunately, Maugham’s novel takes way too long to get to Mildred. Other contributions to this most autobiographical of fictional genres give too much rein to self-pity. The story told in Wolfgang Koeppen’s Eine unglückliche Liebe (1934), literally An Unhappy Love, feels no less overwrought for having evidently taken place in real life; the hero even buys a gun for the girl, Sibylle, to shoot him with. Superior to both books as a literary whole, if never as harrowing as either one, is The Midnight Bell (1929). Patrick Hamilton, the author, may be better known in the United States as the man on whose plays the films Rope and Gaslight were based, but in his native Britain he is remembered more for novels of urban loneliness and frustration. The Midnight Bell tells of a handsome young waiter’s love for a teenage prostitute. Bob is trying to work himself up the class ladder; Jenny pulls him back down, and then some, without a second thought. The novel is the first and perhaps best part of Hamilton’s trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, which has been republished by New York Review Books.