Fourth Estate, £14.99, 211pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030; Penguin Classics, £14.99, 209pp. £11.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030; Vintage Classics, £10, 167pp. £9 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

The Lover's Dictionary: A Novel, By David Levithan
Kama Sutra, By Vatsyayana, trans. AND Haksar
The Art of Love by Ovid, trans. Tom Payne

Last week I chaired an event at the French Institute during which Alain de Botton talked, with all his graceful erudition, about Stendhal's treatise On Love. For de Botton, that hopeless old romantic's wander through passion's rare peaks and frequent troughs adds up to a sort of autobiographical novel rather than a systematic theory of desire and disappointment. Lytton Strachey, he reminded us, thought that Stendhal combined the emotionalism of a 12-year-old girl with the rigour of a high-court judge. It's the quasi-legalistic side of his approach to amour that sometimes comes to the fore in the arch recipes and formulae of On Love.

Over millennia, male authors have shown a fondness for this kind of pseudo-system when writing about love. Heads might spin, hearts might pound, loins might throb – but dress up your infatuation as an under-the-bonnet user's manual or an auditor's report, and you can re-gain at least the illusion of control. This Valentine's Day, three titles show the perennial appeal of the literary urge to package the rules of attraction into gobbets, chunks and clauses.

In modern Manhattan, David Levithan has subdivided the highs and lows of an affair into a fictional "dictionary". It moves from "aberrant" and "abstain" to "yesterday" and "zenith". Each entry in this lover's ABC captures a pivotal incident or emotion along the road of a relationship between two mildly hip and kooky New Yorkers.

For all his tricksy ingenuity with form, Levithan's content never strays far from the hygienic breeziness of a mainstream Hollywood romcom. The author made his name with young-adult fiction. Although it does touch on some grown-up stuff – she likes sex whereas he often prefers reading; she comes from warring parents, he from a happy marriage - a pleasantly bland vanilla flavour suffuses the work.

Levithan wittily matches subject-headings with each section's content. But the detail tends to let him down. So the entry for "deciduous" reads: "I couldn't believe one person could own so nany shoes, and still buy new ones every year." First cute, then banal – like the novel as a whole. The Lover's Dictionary might work best for younger readers on the verge of the (mis)adventures it shuffles into snapshots, not for veterans who have been around the Manhattan block and already dipped into the ancient literature of love.

Cited often, read less, the Kama Sutra has stood as a landmark in that literature for more than 1700 years. The sage Vatsyayana probably wrote his Sanskrit "guide to the art of pleasure" near what is now Patna in Bihar in the third century AD. Thanks to the under-the-counter renown of a famous Victorian translation in 1883 by the leading Orientalist Sir Richard Burton, most people in the West think of it as a manual of sex techniques. Indian experts often dismiss this vulgar notion and evoke a philosophical account of good behaviour in courtship, love and marriage. As we can now discover from a scrupulous and accessible new version by the eminent Sanskrit scholar AND Haksar, both are right. Here sense and spirit, etiquette and foreplay, always intersect.

Vatsyayana writes for lovers, wives and courtesans living in a time and place of leisure, culture and elegance. Luxury gifts, subtle cuisine, expensive cosmetics, refined fashions: all fill the background of his prose and verse study of seduction, satisfaction and (with luck) serenity. For "The fruit of every kind of marriage/ Should be mutual love". His 64 ancillary talents associated with the art of love include "inlaying gems in floors", "mixing perfumes", "reciting difficult verses", and "knowledge of strategic sciences" – over and above the skills of assignation, rendezvous and finesse in the bedroom. He does keep his lovers busy.

This treatise fits sensual pleasure, Kama, into a scheme which also encompassed Dharma (virtue and morality) and Artha (wealth and power). It comes from a thoroughly forensic mind, and age, which can't observe a love-bite (would you prefer the "coral gem" or "piece of cloud"?), a sex toy or a flirty glance without slotting it into an exact classification. However modern-sounding the attention to women's pleasure in sex or autonomy in courtship, this trainspotter-ish drive to fix everything into its formal and cosmic place may strike readers as the book's most alien attribute – that, and a doggedly pedantic attention to biting, scratching and consensual SM.

Ovid would agree that Vatsyayana that "there is an aspect of conflict to sexual intercourse". He treats love as a contact-sport of high stakes and low blows. The Roman poet wrote his Ars Amatoria around 2BC-2AD. It may well have plunged him into hot water with Augustus, possibly via coded allusions to the emperor's frisky daughter Julia. Exiled to the Black Sea in 8AD, Ovid blamed an error and a carmen (poem). Is this the offending work?

Contrary to the naughty-naughty reputation over centuries of this much-banned how-to guide, only 40 lines in Book III deal with bedroom acrobatics ("If you've been scarred in childhood, don't display/ the marks; be Parthian – ride the other way"; the delightful notes gloss this as "reverse cowboy"). Addressed to men, Ovid's first two books cover methods of seduction and ways to keep your lover sweet; the third, for women, gives punctilious, slightly nerdy fashion, make-up, flirting and bedroom advice ("if you do fake, maintain the disguise; be sure to move about and roll your eyes").

With its jaunty, cunning and infernally clever rhyming couplets, Tom Payne's new translation is an utter treat from first to last. It follows the poet in his calculating but never wholly cynical pursuit of lovers – freedwomen were best placed – who would not fall foul of the prudish emperor's strict new laws against adultery: "Discreet seduction – safe sex – is my song".

Ovid trained as a lawyer. He shares with Vatsyayana that legal (or just male?) need to slice and dice the emotional life. And he likes to encumber Eros with tips and knacks, whether laying down the law for girls about the sexiest colours to wear ("let's lose the purple wool": too obviously pricey, apparently) or telling chaps how to avoid shaved-leg metrosexual narcissism and opt for "shabby chic" (but be sure to shun the "dodgy cut" up top).

Even if it's just self-interest, Ovid can sound like a new man as well as a sleazy cad. One size of seduction does not fit all: "Girls have such differing hearts. Thousands of minds require thousands of arts". Having wooed and won, lovers must keep on their toes: "Care and indulgence make people content – it's roughness and aggression they resent". Don't boast about your conquests ("In modern times we seek fame from a shag") or overstay your welcome ("Come when she wants; go when she wants no more"). Give as much pleasure as you take: "I hate sex when it brings uneven joys/ that's why I don't like doing it with boys".

As that couplet shows, Ovid's sympathies did have some, typically Roman, limits. Payne's commentary, and a sparkling foreword by Hephzibah Anderson, make the clear the deep gulf that separates his world from ours. Nonetheless, this effervescent Art of Love will be a lasting joy. For a while, in Book II, Ovid drops his zero-sum tactics and admits that happiness arrives once the hitched pair stops keeping score: "it's not a race where one of you prevails". On Valentine's, and indeed every other day, legalistic lovers would do well to mark his words.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable