Page from 'Green eyed monster'“No man has ever loved a woman and not imagined her in the arms of someone else.”  That is the central contention of Howard Jacobson’s new novel The Act of Love, an ambitious, acutely forensic study of male jealousy.

The proposition itself may be plausible enough. But the novel’s coldly obsessive narrator, Felix Quinn, takes it a stage further. Not only does he fantasise about his wife in bed with other men, but he consciously sets about engineering an affair for her, selecting the lover, setting the scene and voraciously turning himself into the observer of his own agonies. Throughout, he justifies his actions and his impulses by invoking others who have followed the same path.

There’s his father’s friend who invites the adolescent Quinn to visit his sick wife with the clear intention that the boy make love to her. There’s Quinn’s secretary, Dulcie, who confides her bewilderment at her otherwise conventional husband’s sudden desire to turn her into a “hot wife”, available to other men of his choosing. And Quinn revels in the story of his own grandfather who once encountered a charming, lettered couple while away in Switzerland, only to find that the husband is inviting him to take off with his wife for the day. The husband turns out to be James Joyce, the wife the long-suffering Nora.

Quinn is so consumed by his jealous imaginings that he reaches the point where he’d rather make the worst happen than continue to fear its happening. It sounds farfetched, and indeed at several points in the novel Quinn admits to being unhinged, crazed, even at one point criminally insane. What is never in doubt, though, is the very real, overwhelming passion of jealousy that haunts all lovers, all husbands.

What are we to make of this grandiose claim for jealousy as the mainspring of a man’s sexual make-up? Some would argue that jealousy is not merely an intrinsic part of the human condition, but a necessary one. It intensifies the desire to win and keep a mate, to fight off competition and to ensure progeny. Jealousy, in other words, satisfies an evolutionary imperative.

But this assumption has long been challenged by generations of progressive thinkers who have insisted that jealousy is neither healthy nor inevitable. Rather than being an essential part of our nature it’s a mere social construct stemming from a destructive sense of ownership.

“From a Darwinian perspective, sexual jealousy is easily understood,” concedes Richard Dawkins in his essay “Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster”. “Natural selection of our wild ancestors plausibly favoured males who guarded their mates for fear of squandering economic resources on other men’s children.”

But having made that evolutionary concession, Dawkins goes on to contend that even if sexual jealousy does in some way accord with Darwinian principles, there is no reason why we should be enslaved by it. “I, for one, feel drawn to the idea that there is something noble and virtuous in rising above nature in this way. I admit that I have, at times in my life, been jealous, but it is one of the things I now regret.”

And one reason for his regret may be that that jealousy is an emotion imposed and perpetuated by religion. The Lord thy God is a jealous God and you’re to have no other gods besides him. Not surprisingly then, humanists and atheists tend to regard it with suspicion.

And so do many feminists. For Simone de Beauvoir, mother of contemporary feminism and a woman dedicated to living her life in accordance with the existentialist views she espoused, jealousy is a trap for women, a curb to their freedom. Her lifelong partnership with Jean Paul Sartre was a model of free love and openness. Both had endless strings of lovers. Occasionally they even shared them. Ostensibly Simone was the epitome of the liberated woman, defying bourgeois convention and eschewing any notion of ownership of another being.

On the inside, though, she was wracked with insane jealousy, all the more agonising because she disapproved so deeply of her own emotions that she felt doubly betrayed. While she was careful to disguise the pain of her open relationship, she describes it graphically in her first novel, She Came to Stay. This roman à clef gives an emotional version of the complex ménage involving herself as the heroine Francoise, Sartre in the persona of Pierre, and Olga and Wanda Kosakiewicz, the two sisters with whom they were involved, here amalgamated into the character of Xavier: “Jealousy and resentment were feelings Francoise had always spurned,” the author tells us. Nonetheless, she continues, “on many occasions she had been transfixed with jealousy. She had been tempted to hate Pierre, to wish Xavier ill: but, under the futile pretext of keeping herself pure, she had created a void within herself.”

Another unconventional Frenchwoman has also recently confessed to being similarly tortured. Catherine Millet, a flamboyant Parisian and editor of the art magazine art press, came to prominence eight years ago when she published The Sexual Life of Catherine M, an explicit account of her prolific sexual exploits in which she claims to have enjoyed over 60 lovers and indulged in endless orgies. That book sold over two million copies and, though denounced by some critics as nothing more than pornography, was hailed by its many fans as a pioneering declaration of unfettered female sexuality.

Now, though, Catherine has revealed the underside of her libidinous sexual mores. Her latest book, Day of Suffering, details the agonies of jealousy that she experienced when she discovered the sexual infidelities of her partner of 35 years, Jacques Henric. “Having a very liberated sexuality does not prevent you from falling into the awful trap of jealousy and does not protect you from the pain which accompanies it,” she said. “I suffered terribly because I was torn apart by a contradiction. . . How could I have blamed him for behaving in exactly the same way that I had for so long?”

For Freud, such irrational, hysterical jealousy is perfectly natural in women. You can probably guess why. ”Of course jealousy is not limited to one sex,” he concedes. “But I am of the opinion that it plays a far larger part in the mental life of women than of men and that that is because it is enormously reinforced from the direction of displaced penis-envy.”

It’s a theory which might account for Catherine Millet’s distress: her commitment to sexual freedom is simply incompatible with the female, penis-less psyche. But that doesn’t quite ring true, given the similarities between her reaction to her condition and that of Jacobson’s Felix Quinn. Like him, Millet found herself obsessively imagining Henric having sex with other women. And, also like Quinn, she found that these images, despite causing her such acute pain, also brought her sexual pleasure.

Felix, though, would not be flattered by the comparison. For him, the ability to experience such intense and complete jealousy is a purely male accomplishment. Women may feel jealous, but to nothing like the extent, the depth, the sheer extremity that is the province of men. “Because they don’t do jealousy as men do jealousy, because they take the Othello murder route themselves, and cannot imagine where the pleasure part comes in, they conclude it must be the deviancy they understand that explains it, rather than the deviancy they don’t.”

Jacobson’s morbidly obsessive hero has elevated what might be seen as a negative and base emotion in women into nothing less than an art form in the hearts of men. This insistence on the transcendental nobility of a rather commonplace feeling is reminiscent of Gloria Steinem’s acid remark that if men menstruated they would boast about how much and how long. Jealousy, similarly, becomes a test of endurance, even of masculinity.

That, after all, is how it is presented in literature, as Quinn is quick to point out. For Quinn, an antiquarian bookseller, inhabits a literary landscape so vivid that he’s unable to distinguish between fiction and reality. “I draw no distinction between literature and life. In the stories I previously devoured I gravitated naturally to the pain – to the sorrows of Young Werther and the older Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, to the easily bruised boyish prickliness of Julien Sorel and the deep womanly contemplative sadness of Anne Elliot. But it had never been any different for me in life. I was born lovesick – unrequited, highly strung, quiveringly jealous, with a morbid yearning to give my heart long before there was anyone to give my heart to.”

So it’s inevitable that the greatest stories of jealousy are summoned into his narrative to support his own claim to greatness. He describes a visit to a National Theatre performance of Othello where one of his companions, an otherwise bluff and insensitive man, remarks that “anyone would think from the performance we’ve just seen that Othello wants Desdemona to be unfaithful to him.”
As a signal to Marius, his wife’s lover, that he’s both aware of the affair and somehow colluding in it, Quinn sends him a travel book about French Guinea, the colony where Alain Robbe-Grillet’s classic dissection of jealousy is set. Indeed, he prepares Marius for this big clue to his intentions in an earlier conversation in which he extols the virtues of Jealousy as “the best novel about the banality of suspicion ever written”.

The two men, the lover and the cuckold, then go on to mention the work of another connoisseur of jealousy, Roland Barthes, whose observations on the subject could well serve as the theme of this novel: “As a jealous man I suffer four times over: because I am jealous, because I blame myself for being so, because I fear that my jealousy will wound the other, because I allow myself to be subject to a banality: I suffer from being excluded, from being aggressive, from being crazy, and from being common.”

It’s references like these that indicate something else is going on at the heart of Jacobson’s multi-layered fantasy. Just as Quinn drops hints to Marius, hidden messages, oblique references, in order to hasten the event he is orchestrating, so Jacobson is dropping hints and references in order to invite the reader’s complicity.

At one point in the story Quinn receives an anonymous message, scrawled on the back of a Munch painting. What he doesn’t explain, but leaves the reader to know or to discover, is that Munch himself was obsessed with jealousy. It was the theme of a whole series of paintings. And Munch was so jealous of his own wife that he, like Quinn, contrived a scenario which led her to be seduced by another man – a man chosen by him.

The more we buy into these literary allusions, the further we are entering the world the author has created. He, the author, is becoming God. Indeed, as Quinn explains to Marius once his intervention has been revealed, by inventing and manipulating fate he is attempting to survive God.

Jealousy becomes Jacobson’s device for linking love, art and God – a route towards immortality. “This is how we know love from its poor relations,” Quinn remarks. “By the greed with which we devour its object, not resting until we have ingested the loved one in his or her entirety. Only artists are as voracious in their gaze and curiosity. And of course the religious, who will eat their god to know him.”

The Act of Love, even though jealousy is its theme, is in essence a study in the art of literature. It’s about the act not of loving but of writing, of reaching out to immortality, of replacing God. And also about the futility of attempting to emulate what doesn’t exist.

Quinn may identify with Young Werther, with Othello, with Robbe-Grillet’s tortured husband, with Venus in Furs’ desperate, flogged, abased, humiliated masochist Severin – with all the cuckolds of western literature. But in the end, he’s far closer to poor John Dowell in The Good Soldier, the flawed narrator who in his earnest telling mistakes the plot. The story Quinn has created turns out to have a different ending, his own characters are not what he contrived.

His is a morbid, psychopathic condition, yet it’s an extreme exaggeration of an emotion that all of us have encountered, suffered, been enslaved by or tried to overcome. Jealousy is one of the abiding themes in literature – the cause of murder, betrayal, conflict, war, disaster. And, as this novel so powerfully illustrates, that must surely be because it’s so much a part of us, so universal, so intrinsic to the human condition.

Howard Jacobson‘s The Act of Love is published by Jonathan Cape