Reading Mattersby Rebecca Riley
‘Porn is everywhere’, Irvine Welsh averred back in 2002, but a recent twelve-hour power cut to Castle Riley sadly proved how readily Irvine’s proclamation can be gainsaid. With not even so much as a half-charged laptop between us, my cohabitee and I were thrown back on the pastimes of a less technological age: parlour games and reading aloud.
Barely had we completed a round of Naked Twister before it was time to find the candles (I favour the three-inch beeswax bad-boys sold by Vanpoulles Church Furnishers). Yes, candles. You might suppose that Ecky Thumpshire’s famously long light evenings would have seen us through to the end of 120 Days of Sodom, but as luck would have it our cut coincided with a period of cloudy bad weather and dusk fell early. With the library lit up like the Vatican at Christmas, we settled down with a few improving volumes and renewed our appreciation for the written word. There really is nothing quite like rolling a mouthful of ripe English over your tongue. And since the holiday season is again upon us, and many of you may find yourselves in need of something diverting to settle down with in bed of a night, here are a few suggestions gleaned from my own groaning shelves.
First things first: it is often unwise to judge a book by its cover. De Sade or D.H. Lawrence may well be acclaimed as masters of eroticism, and they are certainly worth the reading, but in my experience they are unlikely to bring you anywhere close to what Sade would term ‘lubricity’. De Sade’s novels have such vast casts of characters, all proceeding at dizzying speed from act to act and partner to partner, that the copulation becomes strangely asexual; more like the frantic motions of a plate-spinner or a synchronised swimming team: ‘Once all ten are suitably erect, I take them in hand. They were supple, agile, responsive to the touch; I plant two of them in my cunt, another in my ass, I mouth one, two nestle under my armpits, one in my hair, I frig a pair, the tenth rubs against my eyes.’ (Juliette). Lawrence, by contrast, keeps his numbers small and concentrates on detail. Perhaps too much detail: ‘ever, at the quick of her, the depths parted and rolled asunder, from the centre of soft plunging, as the plunger went deeper and deeper… till suddenly… the quick of all her plasm was touched.’ (Lady Chatterley’s Lover). Though his prose is beautiful, the overwrought, overemotional imagery extinguishes its erotic charge. His books manage to be at once mildly arousing and deeply wearing, like prying into the diaries of a stroppy teenager.
If you can be a significant writer about sex without making for an arousing read, conversely, sometimes stimulation can be found in unexpected places. Do not despair if you find yourself marooned in a house full of romantic fiction or action adventure. As a lustful teenager, I discovered much to arouse me in the works of Susan Howatch, Jilly Cooper, Danielle Steel, Mario Puzo and Clive Cussler; and should my mother ever decide to reread her copy of The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough) she will find that it readily falls open at two key scenes: Meggie and Ralph’s desert-island reunion, and Justine and Rainer’s fur-rug romp. Although, I must say, I still find myself unconvinced by McCullough’s fondness for a string vest.
It’s not all bad news if your taste runs to rather more highbrow literary fiction. It is wise to exercise some caution here, however. I recommend having a quick flick-through before clamping the volume in question under an armpit and trotting upstairs. The Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex awards demonstrate that some of the greatest names in contemporary literature are capable of yielding up absolute wilting stinkers: ‘Her beautiful head was down at my breast, she caught me between her teeth just once, she put the nip into nipple like the cub of a fox would’ (Boy Meets Girl, Ali Smith); ‘Uncle was now as soft as a coil of excrement. She sucked on him nonetheless with an avidity that could come only from the Evil One’ (The Castle in the Forest, Norman Mailer); ‘It felt to him as if he were tending a delicate weeping wound’ (The Rescue Man, Anthony Quinn). You are in safe hands should you trust yourself to Rose Tremain, Mario Vargas Llosa, Alina Reyes, Tom Robbins or John Irving. Ian McEwan however really should be issued with some sort of health warning sticker: the sex in his books is cold, prurient and oddly detached, as if seen through the binocular-gaze of a stalker; and invariably comes with overtones of degradation and humiliation (as perhaps does Mr. McEwan himself, which might explain much).
There are always of course the classics to fall back on. Aubrey Beardsley’s Story of Venus and Tannhäuser includes a remarkable scene of Venus bringing a unicorn to pleasure with her hand; Walter’s Secret Life, Cora Pearl’s Memoirs, Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves and Casanova’s Memoirs between them cover every sexual variation imaginable, in well-judged pace and tone. Restif de la Bretonne’s Pleasures and Follies of a Good-Natured Libertine (1798, but translated in 1990 by Masquerade), conceived as an ‘anti-Justine’, was written with the intent of giving ‘those who have some spirit in them an erotikon, well spiced and lively’ and of preserving ‘women from cruelty’s delirious excesses’. Perhaps I should send McEwan a copy. In case you are worrying that it sounds a little dry and worthy, I offer you a small amuse-bouche: ‘Madame Poilsoyeux was sweating with pleasure. She shot her tongue into my mouth, calling me her fop, her dear hundred-louis cunt-stuffer, her beloved thick-pricked client, her peerless Trait-d’Amour. At last, drunk with erotic fury, she cried, “Vitnègre, you fuck-in-the-ass sod, screw me! Fuck me. Put your fat black prick into me, let it split me like a melon and embugger me!” and she discharged like a she-devil.’
John Cleland, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Edith Wharton, really the list of amatory excellence could swell to fill any amount of time from a weekend mini-break to a six-month cruise. Since we travel with wheelie-bags these days and not steamer-trunks, though, we must narrow it down a little. So toss out Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow (a tale of ‘the sexual shenanigans of young people’ recommended by Davids Lodge and Milliband) and Louise Bagshawe’s Desire (deemed ‘quite suitable’ for Tories by William Hague’s parliamentary private secretary), and instead pack some (or all) of my own top five. They are, in no particular order:
Pauline Réage (Anne Desclos), The Story of O. In some ways the bridge between the works of de Sade and Catherine Millet, O describes in delicious slowness the descent into erotic submission.
The Abbé de Choisy’s Transvestite Memoirs. Like Don Juan in the seraglio, Choisy finds that a life spent in petticoats makes an admirable disguise for chasing after the petticoats of others. Curiously kinky.
Alina Reyes, The Butcher. A slim love story to flesh. Really, deeply sexy.
Anything by Anaïs Nin, one of the first writers who I found climactically arousing. The stories in Delta of Venus and Little Birds are probably my favourites.
Mario Vargas Llosa, In Praise of the Stepmother and The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto. I am cheating here, as these are in fact two novels following the same hero Rigoberto, the ultimate sensualist, and his enormous consuming passion for his wife Lucrecia.
I wish you all many hours of happy reading. May your wrists and your eyes remain tireless.