On street corners a couple of hundred yards from where I write this, prostitutes stand in the hope, and no doubt the expectation, of passing trade. They look as if they had stepped straight from the work of Otto Dix or George Grosz: and they go straight from the age of fourteen, when they start their career, to the age of forty-nine, without appearing ever to have passed through the intervening years.
In like mysterious fashion, Catherine Millet, the author of this memoir of her sexual life that the Kirkus Review found both oddly charming and deeply pornographic, passed directly from first communion to orgiastic group sex without so much as batting an eyelid. As far as can be deduced from her book, she adopted what she generously calls the ‘philosophy’ of making herself available to any man, any place, any time, quite arbitrarily, without any reflection whatever. If ever she were to write a Bildungsroman, it would be less than a paragraph long.
The point of this book is her repeated, detailed, and mechanical description of her sexual encounters and activities. These were so compulsive and so many that one has to pinch oneself to remember that she has a sideline in art criticism as well. The mercifully brief reflections that interrupt her agonizingly long descriptions (narrative would imply a degree of organization that is absent from this book) are pseudo-intellectual banalities expressed with imprecision and disguised by a certain portentousness:
There must be a fairly intrinsic link between the idea of moving in space, of traveling, and the idea of fucking, otherwise the widespread expression “getting off” would not have been invented.
Compared with this, basketball commentary on television is profundity itself.
When it comes to the facts, her veracity must surely be in doubt. Could she really have had sex with thirty men in quick succession in an underground car park in Paris? (This gives new connotations to the words subconscious and subterranean.) At her first meeting with her dentist, he is interested in her mouth more as a receptacle for his genitalia than as an object of dental treatment—and he proceeds to have sexual encounters with all the other women in his waiting room. Waiters in a Moroccan restaurant make explicit sexual contact with her, despite the fact that she is in the company of another man. There are also internal contradictions: a few pages after she claims to have had sex with only one man younger than herself, in all her thousands (or is it millions?) of sexual encounters, she is talking of affairs she has had with younger men. I suspect she is the Baroness Munchausen of sex.
Millet’s book is so bad—it is to eroticism what a minutely detailed account of bulimic binging and self-induced vomiting would be to gastronomy—that it is best treated not as a literary, but as a psychological and sociological artifact. Why would anyone have written it? And why would anyone read it (except for review purposes)?
The author offers no clue as to her motive in writing the book. This is just as well, because she is not one for searching self-analysis. Her only explanation for her insatiable sexual appetite is her shyness and inability to make small talk. Finding herself with nothing much to say in social situations, she does not retreat into solitary philately, embroidery, or building model ships: she resorts to nonverbal communication of a certain kind. That is to say, she takes off her clothes and fellates the nearest man who comes to hand, as it were, even if he is an achondroplastic dwarf. If this is shyness, then goodness knows what disinhibition would be: but on her own account, what she really needs is assertiveness training. She has sex with so many, she says, because she lacks the self-confidence to make polite conversation. This is a manifestation of modern gnosticism, in which everything is “really” the opposite of what it seems.
Of course, if much of what is related in the book is not true, she is either a fantasist on an industrial scale, unable to distinguish reality from her imaginings, or a cynically calculating opportunist. If she is a fantasist, her imagination is a deeply impoverished one, an impoverishment that gives to the book its repetitiveness. In a sense, it is quite an achievement to have made so short a book about sex so utterly tedious and unreadable.
Underlying the fantasy, or the reality if that is what she describes, of her life is the wish—one that springs eternal in the mind of humans living under conditions of civilization—to have done with control and restraint, to reach a state in which each desire will be instantly satisfied without the inconvenience of having to wait for, much less forgo, its fulfilment. On this reading of the human condition, all unhappiness is caused by “artificial” restraints placed upon the expression and satisfaction of desire, and therefore a better society—one whose members will be permanently happy—requires the removal of as many controls on personal conduct, both internal and external, as possible. The good life consists of constantly packing pleasurable moments into its brief span, and anything which interferes with this is to be opposed. A perpetual orgy is thus the summum bonum. In having sex with thirty men in her underground car park, therefore, or in describing the event for the public as if it actually happened, Catherine Millet thinks she is helping to build a better world. How pleasant to do exactly as one pleases for the good of humanity!
Alas, ideological hedonism, adopted to defy or scandalize one’s parents or one’s society, is as joyless as the most die-hard puritanism, of which indeed it is but the mirror image. There are places in the world where sexual morality is easy-going because it has never occurred to anyone that it should be otherwise, and such places are often very charming. They certainly do not give the impression of deliberate and determined brutishness that Catherine Millet’s book gives. The combination of earnestness and frivolity (one that is characteristic of our age) is never attractive to behold: and it is no coincidence that the author comes across as humorless, self-absorbed, and very dull. She is a puritan who has undergone a gestalt switch.
Her book has sold 400,000 copies in France alone, which suggests that longing for, or fantasizing about, the abandonment of all restraint has been far from ended by the sexual revolution, even in a country famed, not altogether justly, for its sexual tolerance. The book’s main appeal is to prurience, a prurience that has been given the nihil obstat by literary intellectuals who affect to find virtues in a work that contains innumerable atrocious sentences such as the following, selected at random:
I cannot close this chapter on exchange (which, like a silk worm’s cocoon, covers and constitutes the sexual relationships) without bringing up my only failed attempt at prostitution.
Even allowing for the vagaries of translation, this sentence is an abomination: and if there were any justice in the world, the author would be prohibited from ever publishing another word.
Why have so many critics granted the book the respectful attention it so manifestly does not deserve? The answer, I suspect, is fear of appearing ridiculous, of being sneered at for lack of sophistication. (Indeed, one American reviewer suggested, with implicit superiority of understanding, that the American response to the book was likely to be less sophisticated than the French, because America lacked a literary tradition that included figures such as de Sade: an author whom only masochists could read for pleasure, and only psychopaths for instruction.) Certain categories of books exercise a kind of moral terror over the unfortunates deputed to review them, for example memoirs written by people who are dying of cancer. One has to find them moving and profound, otherwise one is unfeelingly aiming a low blow at a brave author already pretty much down on his luck. Besides, we could all suffer from cancer one day, so that a literary attack on a sufferer is profoundly undemocratic. Moreover, the magical thinking to which we are all sometimes prey suggests that the hubris of unsympathetic criticism will be swiftly followed by the nemesis of the development of cancer in oneself.
The fear that this book has exercised over many reviewers is that of appearing prudish or unfamiliar with human degradation and the seamy side of life, and thus of being naïve and unworthy of attention. To express distaste for the exhibitionism of the life it describes, or fantasises about, or cynically exploits for commercial purposes, is to hold fast to certain (rather minimal) beliefs about how life should be lived and humans should conduct themselves. This in turn requires a belief that truth is more important than one’s status in the eyes of the other members of one’s particular guild. And those who refuse ever to nail their colors to the mast are destined always to discover a few years later that, to their chagrin, the whole ship has sunk.
Catherine Millet’s book has been described, more than once, as subversive. Naturally, this has been meant as high praise. But what it subverts is all subtlety, humor, irony, decency, and finer feeling. There is actually much more fun to be had at a Church of England summer fête than at one of her orgies: indeed, such fêtes have called forth far better writing than hers. And she proves the truth of one of Voltaire’s great aperçus: the way to be a bore is to say everything.