The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for lust


Click to follow

Ailment: Lust

Cure: Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

The feeling of desire for another human being is one of life's thrills, whether or not you're in a position to act on it. Lust makes us feel charged, positive, alive. It makes the world go round. It makes us happy when skies are – oh, hang on! Is that lust, or is it... love?

Well, quite. Confusing lust and love is a common mistake, especially when it comes to making important decisions, such as who to share your life with. If you need help putting your lust back in its bloomers and listening to your head and heart instead, take Girl with a Pearl Earring to bed and let it teach you the art of self-restraint.

In this conjuring of the story behind the eponymous 17th-century Dutch masterpiece, Griet is the maid-cum-muse of Johannes Vermeer. She first captures the painter's interest by the way she arranges her chopped vegetables on a plate, separating the red cabbage from the carrots so that the colours do not 'fight'. Vermeer allows her to clean his hitherto sacrosanct studio; and one day he places his hand over Griet's as he shows her how to crush ivory to make black paint. So powerful is the charge that passes through the young woman that she drops the 'muller', or crushing stone. By the time the painting is made, Vermeer's lust – and Griet's – is there on the canvas for all to see: in the glinting whites of her eyes, the parted lips, and the shine of that incongruous, lustrous pearl.

Griet knows that a girl from her background cannot possibly have a future with a man from Vermeer's class, and Chevalier's carefulsentences model the restraint required from them both. Let those disciplined sentences work on you too, dampening your ardour and showing you that, sometimes, reason must prevail.