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My worst break up was over a patchy long-distance phone call from Japan. She was my childhood sweetheart. I had a job in Hiroshima. We were both 19. ‘This long-distance thing isn’t working,’ she crackled across 6,000 miles of phoneline. ‘You crossed the world for six months and now I’ve met someone else. He’s an estate agent.’ I felt like she’d seppuku’ed my heart and given it to her pet poodle as a chew toy. There were no tears (except for a few, from me, in bed, alone), I just said something appropriately teenage about dying alone and then she said goodbye. Credits rolled. I woke up the next morning in a low-budget sequel to my old life, without her in it. Looking back now, I just wish I’d said something cool, something she'd never forget, something like: ‘My dear, I don’t give a damn.’

Rhett Butler knew how to handle a break up. That’s how he dumps Scarlett O’Hara at the end of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Pulitzer-winner Gone With the Wind (the ‘frankly’, by the way, is not in the book, just the film). It’s one of the most famous – probably the most famous, thanks to its 1939 Hollywood adaptation – break ups in literature: a short, cold, cut-your-heart-in-two mic drop. If only I had been better-read back then. If I had, not only might I have said something empowering, maybe I’d have had the tools to better deal with the emotional fallout. I could have turned to literature, rather than pot noodles, for solace.

As every great writer knows, misery is more inspirational than love. Just ask Grahame Greene. ‘The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness,’ he wrote in The End of the Affair. ‘In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.’

And for that exact reason, literature is stuffed with beautifully written break ups, from the savage to the downright absurd.

As devastating break ups go, it is hard to conceive of one worse than when Rodolphe dumps Emma in Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 classic Madame Bovary: the 19th-century equivalent of dumping someone over text. He writes her a letter which he leaves at the bottom of a basket of apricots he delivers to her door:

‘I shall be far away when you read these sad lines, for I have wished to flee as quickly as possible to shun the temptation of seeing you again. No weakness! I shall return, and perhaps later on we shall talk together very coldly of our old love. Adieu!’

But if you think that cowardly, at least he had the nerve to say it – or at least write it – to her face. Bertie Wooster, in PG Wodehouse’s Carry On Jeeves, conspired to get out of an ill-advised engagement to Honoria Glossop by proxy of his butler.

‘Well, you see,’ he tells his friend Biffy when asked how he got out of the marriage, ‘old Sir Roderick (Honoria’s father), who’s a loony-doctor and nothing but a loony-doctor, however much you may call him a nerve specialist, discovered that there was a modicum of insanity in my family. Nothing serious. Just one of my uncles. Used to keep rabbits in his bedroom. And the old boy came to lunch here to give me the once-over, and Jeeves arranged matters so that he went away firmly convinced that I was off my onion.'

No, it’s far kinder to do it by letter, as Min does so crushingly to Ed in Daniel Handler’s 2011 YA novel, Why We Broke Up: ‘I’m dumping the whole box back into your life Ed, every item of you and me. I’m dumping this box on your porch, Ed, but it’s you, Ed, who is getting dumped.’

Sometimes relationships crash and burn in a ball of flaming anger. But sometimes they just lose their coordinates, run out of fuel and vanish quietly over the sea. And, surely, never was a break up more depressingly prosaic than the way Laura leaves Rob at the start of Nick Hornby’s 1995 ode to love and loneliness, High Fidelity:

Now... Laura leaves first thing Monday morning with a hold-all and a carrier bag. It's sobering, really, to see how little she is taking with her, this woman who loves her things, her teapots and her books and her prints and the little sculpture she bought in India: I look at the bag and think, Jesus, this is how much she doesn't want to live with me.

We hug at the front door, and she's crying a little.

‘I don't really know what I'm doing’ she says.

‘I can see that,’ I say, which is sort of a joke and sort of not. ‘You don't have to go now. You can stay until whenever.’

‘Thanks. But we've done the hard part now. I might as well, you know . . .’

‘Well, stay for tonight, then.’

But she just grimaces, and reaches for the door handle.

From the opening of one seminal book about love unlived, to the closing of another, Ernest Hemingway’s Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises ends (spoiler alert!) with possibly the saddest admission of unfulfilled destiny in literature. Jake and his free-spirited old flame Brett are in love, inextricably bound to one another. But they can never be together because an old war wound has rendered him impotent and for Brett, sex is a condition of her fidelity:

‘Oh Jake,’ Brett said, ‘We could have had such a damned good time together.’
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly, pressing Brett against me.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Isn't it pretty to think so?’

The real tragedy – and genius – of this final line is that there’s nothing wistful about it at all. It is Jake’s crushing, and cynical, realisation that, even without his disability, he and Brett could never have worked. Their relationship was merely a charming dream; a dream that’s now slipping away forever.

It’s desperately sad, but at least no one dies. In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair (1951), Sarah inexplicably dumps her lover Maurice after he is nearly killed by a bomb during the Blitz. He is angry, confused and heartbroken by her rejection, and it isn’t until after her death, when he finds her diary, that he discovers the truth as he reads:

So I said [to God], I love him and I will do anything if you make him alive. I said very slowly, I’ll give him up forever, only let him be alive with a chance, …and I said people can love without seeing each other, can’t they, they love You all their lives without seeing you, and then he came in the door and he was alive, and I thought now the agony of being without him starts, and I wished he was safely back dead again under the door.

Maurice’s response? ‘I hate You, God. I hate You as though you existed.’

Greene, like many novelists, saw writing as a form of therapy. It helped him ‘escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation’. For Haruki Murakami, writing is like a ‘time machine … I can remember everything. I can feel the wind. I can smell the air. Very actually. Very vividly.’

Maybe that’s where the Japanese super-novelist found the words, in South of the Border, West of the Sun (1999), for that uniquely crushing pain of discovering your spouse is leaving you for another after years of marriage:

I think you still love me, but we can’t escape the fact that I’m not enough for you. I knew this was going to happen. So I’m not blaming you for falling in love with another woman. I’m not angry, either. I should be, but I’m not. I just feel pain. A lot of pain. I thought I could imagine how much this would hurt, but I was wrong.

But if you want to really want words to squeeze your heart, Richard Yates’ furiously unsentimental breakdown of an unhappy marriage, Revolutionary Road (1961) feels like someone repeatedly dropping a kitchen fridge onto your chest.

By the time this unbearably sad book reaches at its climax, the emotion that grips you tightest is pity, for Frank and April, and also for the man who brought them so mercilessly to life. Yates once said he was drawn only to ‘stories about the crushing of the human heart.’ And boy, is their break up scene crushing. ‘Insanity … [is] the inability to love,’ Frank tells wife April. She bursts into hysterics before… this:

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Oh, Frank, you really are a wonderful talker. If black could be made into white by talking, you’d be the man for the job. So now I’m crazy because I don’t love you – right? Is that the point?

‘No. Wrong. You’re not crazy, and you do love me; that’s the point.’

She got to her feet and backed away from him, her eyes flashing. ‘But I don’t,’ she said. In fact, I loathe the sight of you. In fact, if you come any closer, if you touch me or anything, I think I'll scream.’

You must read the scene in full to truly feel its force. But, take it from me, once read, it cannot be unread; it’ll leave you turning the pages long after the tea’s gone cold and the cat’s got the goldfish.

If I’d read all these books by the age of 19, I know I’d have dealt with that break up better. Books make everything better – even if it’s only to remind us that things could always be worse. I mean, heaven help me, I could have married that girl. Maybe I could even have proposed like Mr Rivenhall does to Sophy in Georgette Heyer’s 1950 Regency romance, The Grand Sophy:

Will you marry me, vile and abominable girl that you are?
Yes, but, mind, if only to save my neck from being wrung!

Maybe not. But isn’t it pretty to think so?

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