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Catherine Millet, The Sexual Life of Catherine M.

Ostensibly a portrait of group sex, which I don’t think has been given its full literary due since de Sade, this is an interesting read in feminine sexuality. Compared to other dabblers of group sex (Houellebecq comes to mind, positively juvenile in contrast, though juvenility is an interesting starting point here too), Millet comes across like an old hand at the game. She’s thorough, honest and precise in recounting the blur and the gross joys of group action. She’s got a finger on the memorial contours of intimacy and space, from the outskirts of Paris parking lots to domestic nooks and crannies. She’s got an appreciably serious and hungry eye for sex and larger scales of satisfaction; Paglia would no doubt detect a trace of masculine perspective and attitude in her ability to project (imagination-wise, here) and indulge the raw desires as just that, raw, slightly detached, self-pleasing love of detail and variety etc. Her professed obsession with numbers (a little underdone, narrative-wise) doesn’t come close to de Sade’s mechanics and ingenuity, but Millet does define for herself the modern libertine woman. A libertine tract (mental news flash: for the godless libertine, fucking becomes religion and ritual), a tract with the requisite dose of philosophy — here masquerading as art-speak and liberation. Liberated in what sense I’m not sure — highly specialised and particular, like all liberations I suppose. Millet retains the trappings of adolescence/juvenilia that pushed her right in group-sex’s deep end: the containment and masturbation fantasies, shreds of guilt from parents and religion and taboos; and she makes continually clear these function in a continuity (just like she’s always banging on about sexuality’s relation to space). But on the whole, in terms of dealing with her subject slash self she provides something close to a thorough slash seeming-complete picture of sexuality’s domain and range… the discovery of preference and personal want, the fantasy crossing into reality (especially when it comes to masturbation), the jealousies and fallout in terms of relations (the treatment and insights into relations and sexual community are probably the most valuable here, in terms of humane reality) (interestingly, she counters jealousy with strength of imagination), as well as the fine points which give absolute pleasure and crave repetition. The brush with scatology. The self-perception or imago contrasts, the inward-outward, and of course the subtle bodily differences and varieties (of men) and minds in relation to sex. I wasn’t really taken with the near-philosophy and near-art parallels — obviously making a supremely able group fucker was the art of her life. The prose is symptomatic. By turns amazingly evocative and succinctly suggestive in her writing (the life on the Bois, the various places in the country, the interiors), Millet minces acute perception with sloppy continuity and carelessness. Don’t get me wrong, evocation is a highly prized narrative skill, and the first few chapters are great reads. But the obvious parallel to be drawn is with group sex itself — her prose skips around with partners and places and pleasures ‘till you don’t know who’s what or where and don’t even care. She tunes in and out. She fast forwards and then scrolls by frame. Memory and interpretation blend. Guys especially become an endless rotation of johns, like carelessly preserved slides coming out sideways, or from the wrong carousel. Her dominant mode is pictorial generally and cinematic specifically — although she seems to prefer documentary at times as well. Painting doesn’t seem to interest her beyond a professional sense, and neither ultimately does prose though there is a strong sense of personal satisfaction in not only having written this tract but in its candour and gumption. She strikes me as appreciably gruff and efficient in the sphere of sexual action, but also intensely private. Which is the hook line of the book. And which makes the near-pseudonymous title rather hairless really. I mean pointless. On the whole, it’s agreeable stuff; surprisingly lacking in repetition or doubt.

When the surrounding temperature, whatever it may be, can be felt by an area of skin it doesn’t normally reach, such as the small of the back, the body no longer presents an obstacle to the air, it is penetrated by it and is, therefore, more open and receptive. When the atmosphere which embraces the vastness of the world adheres to the surface of my skin like a myriad tiny suction pads, my vulva also feels as if it has been drawn out and dilates deliciously. (p101) (If a guy had written this, or Tom Wolfe, this’d be high camp)

On the slopes of the little hill we’re overlooking, the vines have been replaced by scrub. When my cunt has been sensitised to its very depths, I just have to close my eyelids and, through my eyelashes, I can see the village of Latour-de-France over to the right. I still have the faculty to think to myself: ‘There’s Latour-de-France’ and to appreciate not for the first time its picturesque position on an outcrop of rock in the middle of the valley. (p106)

But what a good poking I had that evening, my rear end grasped between his hands, pinioned and kneaded, with my top half thrust forward over the Roussilllon plain as it slowly dissolved! (p108)

… I thought of myself as being in the active realm of the men… (p168)

Exasperated desire is a naïve dictator which cannot believe anyone would oppose it or even inconvenience it. (p170)

posted by rino breebaart  # 4:54 pm
FootnoteWhat I didn’t disclose in the review above was that my copy of the novel had a major binding malfunction. The last 40 odd pages were repeats of the ones before. So I missed out on the last chapter until an exchange righted the issue. And now that I’ve finished reading that last chapter I wish I hadn’t — Millet’s writing fairly undoes itself and exposes her rather perverse ego. It could be the way she praises her own fellatio skills or her great consuming return to masturbation and fantasy, but every other sentence is a self-celebration of the worst kind. A toddlerish attitude of ‘I am so great’, my powers of observation so fine, my gift of rolling with the punches so carefree and malleable. It really puts a depressive note of indulgence on the whole project, a Frenchified air (‘oui, I write the great essay of myself’) of mock-complexity slash solipsism that lacks perspective and dialogue in a really fundamental way. Neither fish nor fiction, the work craves for a degree of removed distance to better suggest a sense of grace or personal appeal and personality. The last chapter becomes a morose continuation of minor detail, a breakdown of sorts. Thank god she doesn’t write novels.
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