For men like Alistair, marriage is a prison, and infidelity offers escape and rejuvenation. But how can he leave his children? A modern morality tale by Tim Parks. Photo-illustrations by David Hiscock

A couple of years ago, I attended a lecture on a somewhat abstruse theme: "Marriage Bedroom Tapestries in the Works of Shakespeare." It's not the kind of thing I would generally move heaven and earth to get to, but I was stuck in a conference at Lake Como, way out of town, it was raining heavily, and there was nothing else to do. As it turned out, I was spellbound.

The speaker, a fine-looking woman in her fifties, used slides and video to illustrate the ambiguities of a series of images woven onto the upholstered bedsteads of the Elizabethan aristocracy. Particularly fascinating were scenes of domestic bliss undermined by allusions to more disturbing emotions: serpents and harpies warning rapturous newlyweds of obscure calamities to come.

The speaker explained how Shakespeare had drawn on this material in his plays, but what she ended up giving us was a history of marriage, from its dynastic origins, when family was everything and sentiments were relegated to extramarital adventures, through the crisis sparked off by the tradition of courtly love, when husbands and wives began to leave their partners to follow their lovers, to the novel idea that marriage be founded on love rather than on family.

This, the speaker claimed, was the subject of three plays she had selected for consideration, the underlying theme of the allegories in the bedroom tapestries: the huge gamble of placing love at the heart of marriage, the sad discovery, fearfully embodied in Othello, that love is even more fragile than dynasty. All it takes is an unexplained handkerchief, a jealous temperament, and, as Shakespeare put it, "Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!"

After the lecture, chatting with two elderly professors, I couldn't help praising the woman's marvellous dispatch, the energy and passion and relevance of her analysis of marriage. "A brilliant lecture," I insisted.

"No mystery about that," remarked one of the two. His smile was at once sad and wry. "Her husband just left her for a 25-year-old."

Love and dynasty, passion and family. It was around this time that Alistair's story got into full swing. (Names, of course, and some details of the story have been changed.) I was his confidant. We played squash together twice a week, and over beers afterward he would tell me all about it.

As he spoke, his voice was full of laughter and his face burned with excitement. "You've blown your marriage," I warned him. He laughed out loud and used sports terminology: playing away, scoring in extra time, next week's game plan. "The logistics can be so complicated," he said, chuckling. He even giggled. And you could see what an enormous sense of release he felt in this first affair after eight years of marriage. Alistair was a very sober, solid, reliable man, but now the great dam of vows and virtue was crumbling beneath a tidal wave of Dionysiac excitement.

We worked together at the university, and in the corridor I showed him a passage from a book I was translating, Roberto Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. "Dionysus is not a useful god who helps weave or knot things together, but a god who loosens and unties," it said. "The weavers are his enemies. Yet there comes a moment when the weavers will abandon their looms to dash off after him into the mountains. Dionysus is the river we hear flowing by in the distance, an incessant booming from far away; then one day it rises and floods everything, as if the normal above-water state of things, the sober delimitation of our existence, were but a brief parenthesis overwhelmed in an instant."

"You're possessed," I told him. Alistair nodded and laughed. He had been a weaver for so long. He had woven together family-house-career-car. But the following evening, after squash again, he described how in that family car his mistress had pulled up her skirt - they were on the turnpike from Verona to Venice - and started masturbating, then rubbed her scented hand across his face, pushed her fingers in his mouth. Since we live in Italy, and have both lived here a long time, he occasionally broke into Italian. "Evviva le puttanelle!" he said, and laughed again. "Long live the little whores!" He was in love with her.

For those of us still safely married, it's hard not to feel a mixture of trepidation and envy on seeing a friend in this state. Clearly, it is very exciting when you start destroying everything.

Alistair referred to his wife as the "Queen of Unreason" or "She Who Must Be Obeyed". She was still a weaver. They had two young children. In the way that feminism has changed everything and nothing, she was in charge at home; she felt primarily responsible for the children.

Men, of course, now help in the home, and Alistair, being a reasonable and generous man, helped a great deal - more than most. But he was not in charge. His wife's conscientiousness and maternal anxiety, heightened no doubt by her decision to stay at work despite the kids, must have frequently looked like bossiness to him. Their arguments were trivial - whose turn it was to do this or that. He felt himself the butt of her imperatives, his behaviour constantly under observation.

Making love is difficult in these circumstances, though doubtless these two people loved each other. Or perhaps with everything now achieved, it was time for something else to happen. All of us have so much potential that will never be realised within the confines necessary to weave anything together. Job and marriage are our two greatest prisons. When Alistair asked his wife what was wrong and how could he understand if she didn't tell him, she said if only he spared her a moment's attention, he would understand without being told. Every intimacy is a potential hell. Alistair referred to sex with his wife as "duty-fucking".

The affair began. Chiara was a young divorcee, 33, with a 10-year-old daughter and an excellent job in education administration which took her to the same conferences Alistair attended. Rather than a decision, infidelity was a question of opportunity coinciding with impulse -no, with a day when Alistair felt he deserved this escape. Sex was new again.

They made love in Rome, Naples, Geneva, Marseilles. They made love in cars, trains, boats. They made love in every possible way. Anal sex, water sports, mutual masturbation: I had to listen to it all. The complicated logistics of their encounters seemed to be at least half the thrill - the advantages and disadvantages of mobile phones, the dangers of credit cards. They adored each other's bodies, inside and out. Alistair was in love with Chiara. Wasn't she beautiful?

After lovemaking they had such intelligent conversations: philosophy, psychology, politics, their lives. They gave books to each other. They swapped stories. They experienced the delirium of all that information flowing back and forth - your own retold, another life discovered. There is always something to talk about when one is falling in love. As so often, there is not in the long-haul mechanics of marriage.

But how could Alistair leave his children? He loved his children. His wife, though, was becoming more and more difficult. He would interrupt his long descriptions of frantic sex to tell me self-justifying stories of his wife's unreasonableness. Why did she always object to the way he did even the most trivial things: the way he hung a picture; the way he left his toothbrush -get this - turned outward from the tooth glass, so it dripped on the floor, instead of inward, so it didn't? "Can you imagine!" he protested. Not to mention the fact that she never gave him blow jobs.

But Alistair admitted that he couldn't be sure any more whether his arguments with his wife were purely between them or had to do with his mistress. Perhaps he was deliberately stirring up these petty conflicts in order to justify his eventual departure. Perhaps they weren't arguing about a toothbrush at all.

Out of nostalgia, or guilt, or just in order to see what it felt like, Alistair would try to be romantic with his wife. He would bring flowers. When the children were safely asleep, he would persuade her to make love. And immediately he would realise he didn't really want to make love to her. He felt no vigour, no zest. He wanted to be with his mistress. "I told her I'd heard the baby coughing," he said, and he laughed, sadly.

Passion, family. Was it time for Alistair to leave home? I thought so. But he said that when he and his wife sat together of an evening, playing with the children or catching a movie on TV, they were perfectly happy. Not to mention the economics involved. And perhaps the thing he had with Chiara couldn't be turned into long-term cohabitation. He lived in the ecstasy of the choice unmade, the divided mind. Convinced that he was trying to come to a decision, he relentlessly applied the logic that was so effective in his research, as if this were a technical problem that it must be possible to solve somehow. It's the Cartesian legacy that has filled the stores with self-help books: life is a problem to solve if only you know the formula. I was equally glib. "You've just got to work out which means most to you," I told him. "Perhaps it's only sex with Chiara."

"You must never put the word `only' in front of `sex'," he objected. "Or not the kind we have. It's an absolute."

"So you're only staying at home for the children," I tried. "You should leave."

But then he said that you couldn't put the word "only" in front of "children", either. Passion and children were both absolutes. You couldn't weigh them against each other. In the end, Alistair managed to prolong a state of doubt and potential, of anything-can-happen precariousness, for nigh on 18 months. Later, he would appreciate that this had been the happiest time of his life.

But now Chiara was cooling. There were limits to this feverish equilibrium. Finally, Alistair and his wife decided to take separate holidays. The months of July and August would be spent apart. "Are you sure you mean it?" I asked him. He had phoned me to say he'd told Chiara he was leaving his wife. "After all, that's not strictly true," I said. "You only decided on separate holidays." He said he thought he meant it. Anyway, the point was that he felt he had to make something happen. The expression stayed in my mind. It gnawed - because it was unusually honest. As I think back on the many people I know who have divorced, or separated, or left each other and got back together, then left each other again and got back together again, or divorced and married someone else and divorced again and married someone else again, it occurs to me that while most of them talk earnestly of their search for happiness, their dream of the perfect relationship, what really drives them is a thirst for intensity, for some kind of destiny, which often means disaster.

It's the same endearing perversity that made Paradise so tedious that, one way or another, that apple just had to be eaten. Man was never innocent. Marriage was never safe. "I have to make something happen," Alistair said. In this finely managed, career-structured world that we've worked so hard to build, with its automatic gates and hissing lawns, its comprehensive insurance policies, divorce remains one of the few catastrophes we can reasonably expect to provoke. It calls to us like a siren, offering a truly spectacular shipwreck. Oh, to do some really serious damage at last!

But Chiara said no. Chiara didn't want to live with Alistair. She didn't want to risk the happy routine she had built up with her daughter after her divorce. She didn't want to risk love again. She didn't want to be responsible, she said, for ruining Alistair's marriage. They must stop seeing each other completely.

Alistair collapsed. The gods abandoned him. Intoxication was gone, and he couldn't live without it. He couldn't live without joy, he said. His smoking shot up to 60 a day. He drank heavily. His wife, alarmed, became excessively kind. This infuriated Alistair. He could barely speak to her. He could barely speak to his children. He could barely see his children. Unable to sleep at night, he dozed all day. His work went to pieces. He tortured himself with the thought that if he had asked sooner, Chiara would have said yes. His procrastination had destroyed her passion. He should have trusted his instincts. Finally, I managed to persuade him to see an analyst.

As I said, we live in Italy. It's a country where people divorce significantly less than in the UK, but probably have more affairs. It's a country which perhaps never fully believed that romance should be the lifeblood of marriage, or not after the children have arrived; a country where a friend of mine told me that at his wedding his grandmother advised him to try to be faithful for at least the first year. In short, it's a place where people expect a little less of each other, and of marriage. Above all, they don't expect the privilege of unmixed feelings. Hence a country where analysts give different advice.

The analyst told Alistair that only the wildest optimist would divorce in order to remarry, presuming that things would be better next time round. Why should they be? Was there anything intrinsically unsuitable about his wife, anything intrinsically right about his mistress? Alistair's problems sprang from his Anglo-Saxon puritan upbringing, from the fact that he'd never been unfaithful before. This had led him to attach undue significance to the sentimental side of his new relationship in order to justify the betrayal of values - monogamy, integrity - that would not bear examination. He had "mythicised" it.

What he must do now was take a few mild tranquillisers, settle down, and have another affair at the first opportunity, being careful to attach no more sentimental importance to it than an affair was worth - some, but not much. And keep it brief. Meanwhile, he might remember that he had an ongoing project with his wife. They were old campaigners. Think of the practical side. Think of your professional life. He told Alistair that every family was also a business, or hacienda, as the Spanish say, a family estate, a place where people share the jobs that have to be done.

Is such advice merely cynical? Or, in a very profound way, romantic? Old campaigners. Discussing it with Alistair after he had put in a decidedly lacklustre performance on the squash court, I felt it wise to agree with the analyst - at least about the ingenuousness of imagining that things would be better next time. I also told him that during the Italian referendum on divorce in 1974 one of the arguments against divorce put forward by some intellectuals was that it would change the nature of affairs. I tried to make him laugh. You'd never know if your mistress wasn't planning to become your second wife!

But visions of such consummate convenience leave little scope for myth and misery. Alistair had been in love with Chiara. He had given his heart. Such cliches do count for something, whatever an analyst says. Trying and failing one evening to have sex with his wife, unable to feel stimulus at all, Alistair suddenly found himself telling her the truth. He didn't decide to tell her, as indeed he had decided nothing in this whole adventure. Every thing had been done, usually after enormous resistance, under an overwhelming sense of compulsion. Perhaps this is the way with anything important. He told her the whole truth and got his catastrophe.

The wife was destroyed. Alistair had spared no details. She insisted he leave. He did, discovering as he did so what a large space home and children had played in his life. Most of this he struggled to fill with whiskey and Camel Lights in a lugubriously tarnished apartment in a cheaper area of town. Legal proceedings had just begun when Chiara came back. At this point, there was a brief hiatus, since Alistair no longer felt the need to be in touch with me. He was happy, or so I heard later. He had won his dream. The hell with the analyst. The hell with squash. His wife was more than generous with access to the children; Alistair was more than generous with money. All was well - indeed, perfect. It was about three months before I got another call.

I suppose what fascinates me about divorce is how tied up it is with our loss, our intelligent loss, of any sense of direction, of any supposed system of values that might be worth more than our own immediate apprehension of whether or not we are happy. We are not ignorant enough to live well, or too arrogant to let old conventions decide things for us. For many of us, and especially for men, who do not bear children and do not breast- feed them, the only thing that is immediately felt to be sacred, the only meaningful intensity, or the last illusion, is passion. DH Lawrence puts this very simply in Women in Love. Birkin says:

"The old ideals are dead as nails - nothing there. It seems to me there remains only this perfect union with a woman - sort of ultimate marriage - and there isn't anything else."

"And you mean if there isn't the woman, there's nothing?" said Gerald.

"Pretty well that - seeing there's no God."

"Then we're hard put to it," said Gerald.

Perfect union with a woman: over beers again, depressed and tranquillized, Alistair was explaining how he thought he'd got that, until one night after lovemaking when Chiara casually asked him if he wanted to know the real reason she had refused his initial proposal that they live together. It was because she had just started an affair with another man. With Alistair being married and mostly absent, that had been inevitable. She'd wanted to see how it would work out with this man - quite well, as it turned out. "Though he wasn't at your level in bed," she said, laughing. Alistair hit her.

Alistair now became obsessed by the fact that there really had been no great love. Quite gratuitously, Chiara had exposed the illusion around which he was rebuilding his life. She went on to confess to three or four other lovers during their affair. Why should she have put all her eggs in one basket, she asked? Alistair, who had never hit anybody, hit her again. The analyst explained to him that hitting her was his way of trying to preserve some sort of myth, albeit negative, about the affair - trying to insist on its importance.

Disturbingly, Chiara appeared to like being hit. She came back for more, told him more. It took them another year and two trips to hospital to stop seeing each other. It was always Chiara who came back. Alistair told the whole story to his wife, and she commiserated. They made love. They started seeing each other more often, but without interrupting the divorce proceedings. Alistair began a long series of affairs whose main purpose seemed to be to relive the passion of the earlier affair, whose main purpose, perhaps, had been to rediscover the enthusiasm that had led him to marry in the first place.

Marriage and divorce are so tangled up with our sense of mortality. One lives such a short time, yet wishes to do everything, and then to recapture everything. Start again, the springtime says. Unfaithfulness never fails to rejuvenate. But if we start again too often nothing will be brought to completion. And happiness? That long-term monogamy is unnatural is something that every male of the species has felt. Yet where would we be without some repression? The perfect union begins again. Another intimacy beautifully galvanized by the unbridgeable distance between men and women. A radical incomprehension. The children arrive. There are disagreements. The project falters. Our biology cares little for wholesome values and domestic routine now that the reproduction is done. The sound of a river in the distance lifts your head from the loom. The sound of rushing water. Time to batten down the windows, sandbag the doors. Old campaigners will take their kids to baseball, or take up baseball themselves. Or piano. Or drawing classes. Or martial arts.

In a chaos of receding floodwater, Alistair surveys his rearranged landscape. He has the kids alternate weekends, eats regularly with them and their mother. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether they're separated or not. The analyst has become a friend, plays squash with Alistair and swaps stories of affairs over beers. His main boast is three in three days at a conference in Palermo. The divorce has come through at last. And, as divorces will, both Alistair and his ex-wife assure me, perhaps a little too insistently, that this is the ideal solution

Tim Parks's new novel, `Europa', will be published next April by Secker & Warburg

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