sex

LIKE A VELVET GLOVE CAST IN IRON BY DANIEL CLOWES

I started to draw my response to this. I completed only four panels. A man walks up to me. I’m sitting reading. He asks me what I’m reading. I tell him: it’s Like a Velvet Glove Cast In Iron by Daniel Clowes. He then asks me what it’s about. The fourth and final panel shows my sad, frustrated face. I dream in words, rather than images. It has only recently occurred to me that this is strange. Clay Loudermilk enters what appears to be a pornographic cinema. He watches a film called Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. I see nothing, darkness, blackness, void, but I hear words. Or I sense them. The content of the film is a kind of fetishised violence. In the fifth panel, the man waits, a look of concern or perhaps impatience on his face. I am not adept at drawing facial expressions. Clay Loudermilk becomes intent on finding out more about the film. He borrows a car, sets off on a road trip. My waking life is more like a dream than anything I experience while asleep. I try to explain to the man that Clay Loudermilk goes off in search of information about the film. Like a Velvet Glove, I tell him, gives the impression of being a kind of quest. I speak to myself more often than I speak to other people. The man wants to know what I mean by ‘gives the impression.’ I tell him: the film really isn’t that important.

[a quote from the text]

The man, I have forgotten to mention, has an overly large head. It is as though his head isn’t really his head, but a false head, a joke head that he has placed over his own, ordinary-sized, head. This is most likely due to my artistic limitations. There are hints at a wider, overriding significance to the individual events. The tease of being able to pull it all together and arrive at an explanation, a satisfactory resolution. Mr. Jones, for example. As the story progresses there is the sense that you are getting closer to the truth. Mr. Jones is, I should explain, the face that is carved on Clay’s foot by the policeman. The image, henceforth, crops up multiple times. Like a Velvet Glove gives the impression of being something like a detective novel. There are clues, which may not be clues, if you understand what I mean by that. In panel number twelve the man is crying. I do not know what I have done to upset him. Perhaps it wasn’t me, however; perhaps the man is having some trouble at home; perhaps this is why he, without any encouragement, has approached a stranger and engaged him in conversation. The man is angry because he feels as though I am making fun of him with my explanation.

[an image which gives some indication as to the content and tone of the book]

It is with earnestness that I describe the plot of Like a Velvet Glove. I slowly count and recount the panels. The plot isn’t really a plot, although it gives the impression of being one. If I cared less I would say that Like a Velvet Glove is weird or surreal or something of that sort. My dreams are not my waking life. My waking life is a nightmare. He cries, terribly; his face is contorted. It is with great conviction that I state that I am not sure at all about what I am saying. I draw in the tears, which, as I am using a black biro pen, look like large ants, or bullets. There are so many striking images, I tell him. Paul, Clay’s friend, with crustaceans in his eyes, for example. These things are accepted in Clowes’ world without so much as a raised eyebrow. They are part of the ordinary fabric of this world, I tell him. The dog with no orifices. These things are, I tell him, strange only to the likes of you – I cough – and me. Even Tina, the odd fish-like young woman who lays eggs when sexually aroused, is accepted. It is possible that I am mistaken and the man is neither crying nor angry, but is, in fact, laughing. My eyesight, I have until now forgotten to disclose, is very poor.

[sometimes there is a second image here]

It may be, in fact, a woman whom Clay is seeking, an actress. Daniel Clowes did once state that Like a Velvet Glove was inspired by his dreams. Yet, while there are peculiar, and unsettling, and unexpected events, the action does move forward in a linear fashion. Accusations of meaninglessness are, I tell the man, wide of the mark. Clay has a purpose. Billings has one too. What is absent is a relatable cause. In panel thirteen or fourteen I assure the man that our lives are random and unpredictable, in both large and small scale ways. One might argue that Clay’s quest is itself a search for meaning. In one of the panels, perhaps the last panel, the truly last, I am glumly smoking a cigarette. I hold up one finger, the first finger on my left hand, and then plunge it into the hole made by my right hand. The actress may be Clay’s mother or his wife. The man laughs, or cries, or whatever. His big head shakes like a dandelion in the wind.

Clowes’ art, I say to myself, is noirish. B-movie noir. I’m embarrassed by my inability to capture, on paper, a true likeness of a dick and a vagina. My head pounds. The vagina, I must admit, is causing me greater problems than the dick. Tropical slush. Shush. The man wakes. It is possible that I nudged him. Hey, I might have said, don’t sleep. This is panel something or other. A black bordered panel; a black square with nothing inside. The people in Clowes’ world are grotesque-looking. Not only Tina the fish. Everyone, really, except Clay. Hey, I say. Something something America. Cults and conspiracy theories. Charles Manson and murder. Something something America. I don’t know. I have never been. I don’t own a TV either. Hey, mister, have you ever been to America? The man solemnly walks away. I sketch his receding figure. Hey, mister! His big head trembles, like a golfball rattling the rim of the hole.

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GAMIANI, OR TWO NIGHTS OF EXCESS BY ALFRED DE MUSSET

Our arrangement was that we wouldn’t talk at all, that as she entered my flat she would go immediately down on her knees without a word being exchanged between us. This was her fantasy. Throughout our communication, in the days leading up to her arrival, she always brought it back to this: don’t speak. She wanted to be treated like a whore. However, afterwards, after climax, once her mind had cleared, it became apparent that she was beginning to regret it. I have never done anything like this before, she said, in an attempt to excuse, or apologise for, her behaviour. Guilt and shame were working their insidious conjuring trick, transforming an event that was morally neutral into something bad, something negative, something wrong. What had been a pleasurable experience was already becoming that which she could not allow herself to contemplate or acknowledge. Yet, while she doubted and judged herself, I admired her. She had not only dared to dream, but dared to bring that dream to fruition.

“We, who are scarcely more than fantasies ourselves; will’o’the wisps who exist in this world only as the most fugitive of dreams; or nightmares, rather, in the troubled sleep of some lesser god.”

Gamiani is credited to Alfred de Musset, who is these days known – if at all – for his poetry. I’m sure that there are good reasons for linking him to the novel, but he certainly never himself took responsibility for it. This is not surprising when one considers the content, which involves a great deal of, at times unpleasant, sex. There are several scenes involving torture, although these are not particularly explicit; there is group sex, which seems par for the course with these sorts of things; there is some strap on action; and there is a little bestiality. These last two warrant further consideration, if only for the laughs. Of the strap on, de Musset muses that ‘the most generously endowed stallion in his moment of extremest power could not, at least as regards thickness and volume, have equalled that device.’ Most preposterously, he further notes that when a spring is pressed on its side it expels warm milk ‘halfway across the room.’ In terms of the bestiality, this centres around an enormous black dog called Medor who appears to be rather adept at cunninlingus.

However, it isn’t all warm milk, smooth tongues, and belly laughs; de Musset did have some interesting, if sometimes outdated, ideas about sex. The book begins with a man, Alcide, peeping on Gamiani while she seduces another woman [well, fifteen year old girl, to be precise]. He states that ‘what looked like rape was, I quickly understood, a kind of dance.’ This could of course be no more than a weak attempt to justify sexual abuse. Certainly, Rape or coercion crop up frequently in works of this sort, but that isn’t something I intend to discuss here. What is notable about this line is that it sets the tone for much of the sex in the book, or, rather, the attitudes and behaviour of the central characters towards sex in certain circumstances. Outside of marriage, under cover of darkness, sex is an animal, brutal activity, it is a ‘raging paroxysm.’ Anything goes, anything is permissible if it gratifies. Indeed, the gratification comes by way of indulgence; it is a consequence of truly letting oneself go. Yes, someone might play coy but what they really want is to devour and be devoured.

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While for much of Gamiani one would be forgiven for thinking that de Musset was an advocate of libertinage, of sexual freedom, ultimately the opposite appears to be the case. When, following the first night, Alcide wakes up next to Fanny [the girl with whom both he and Gamiani – singularly and in union – take their pleasure] he finds that he is a gentleman again and no longer a beast. In the light of day, his mind is not full of filth, but syrupy, sentimental, moralising twaddle. For example, he says of the kiss that he and Fanny share: ‘I felt her soul upon my lips.’ Lips that only hours before were wrapped around his dick. Yet, in the morning, he feels ashamed, and expects, imagines, Fanny’s shame. In the morning, this buffoon is in love.* In contrast, when he looks in upon Gamiani, who is now cast as an evil temptress, she is described as being in an ‘ignoble heap, her face distorted, her body unclean, distorted.’ This is the worst sort of patriarchal claptrap: the innocent and the whore; both to be enjoyed and both to be judged by impossible, hypocritical standards. Indeed, the finale to the novel sees both temptress and tempted die upon their sword; and by sword I mean, of course, a large penis.

The suggestion is that Gamiani is based on de Musset’s affair with the bisexual author George Sand. If so, it isn’t, as you might have noticed, a flattering account of that relationship. Gamiani is said to have ‘the grace of a empress’, to have good manners and effortless style, but it is clear, as I explained in the previous paragraph, that her story is meant to serve as something of a cautionary tale. She says of herself that she is isolated from feeling; that ‘hell prowls’ in her spirit. She is tough and voracious and obviously a symbol of what happens when someone is too in thrall to their libido. Gamiani cannot be satisfied; she desires ever more intense and extreme sexual activity in an attempt to find satisfaction, much like a drug addict will take ever larger doses in order to get high.  However, for me, and for many others I am sure, she is actually the [unintentional] heroine of the novel. I’m not suggesting that we all fuck dogs, but I do believe that we should look upon the urgings of the body in a more sympathetic, tolerant way. There are, in fact, a good many people I know who would be happier if they could do this, if they – if we – could finally, fully throw off the shackles of guilt, timidity and shame.

 

*love itself is not buffoonish, rather the fact that Alcide ‘falls in love’ partly out of shame and partly because he now feels he ought to protect Fanny.

CRASH BY J.G. BALLARD

It had been announced at the beginning of the flight. There would likely be turbulence. The woman next to me had started crying before we were even in the air, as though she had been granted a vision, a premonition, of her death. Ordinarily I would have closed my eyes and tried to sleep, but I found myself fascinated by her reaction. When the plane shuddered, as though breaching a hard surface, her panic intensified and her sobbing reached the point of hysteria. It felt as though she was controlling the rocking plane and preparing to bring it down, that she was passing a death sentence on us all. She pressed her face into her hands and I wondered if she saw in the darkness the aircraft colliding with the earth, married with the earth, the cabin now a tunnel of fire and smoke. The more I thought about it the more I saw it too, the more I wished for it almost, such that I felt that she and I were somehow joined together, married in this vision, like the plane and the earth, our mangled bodies wrapped around each other as in a desperate act of copulation.

“The long triangular grooves on the car had been formed within the death of an unknown creature, its vanished identity abstracted in terms of the geometry of this vehicle. How much more mysterious would be our own deaths, and those of the famous and powerful?”

J.G. Ballard’s sixth, and most controversial, novel was published in 1973. It was, for me, a disorientating experience, and if one can say that of it now one might wonder what it must have been like to read it without the baggage of decades of critical opinion, to which, of course, I am about to add. These days, even someone with a passing interest in so-called serious literature will likely be aware of Crash and its reputation, and will know, at least, its central theme. This is summed up in the blurb on the back of my copy of the book as ‘erotic atrocities among car crash victims,’ which in vulgar terms could be described as ‘being turned on by car accidents.’ I would wager that for most of us, no matter how kinky or open minded we consider ourselves, such a thing seems incredible. There are many novels that explore outré sexual practices and preferences, many that disgust and shock, or certainly attempt to, but it strikes me that Crash bests them all in this regard. Incest, torture, bestiality, blood and shit; these all seem almost like child’s play in comparison.

If someone were to ask me which book I wish I had written I would not say this one, but it does, without a doubt, contain the one idea I would most like to have thought of. I admire the ballsiness, even the beauty, of Ballard’s imaginative prowess, his descriptions of the intimate embrace of deformed metal, of instrument panels forced into the crotch as if in ‘some calibrated act of machine fellatio,’ of fragments of tinted windshield set in the forehead ‘like jewels.’ However, to give the impression that Crash is about sexual fetishes would be misleading, which is to say that while of course a specific, and unusual, fetish is a major part of the novel, Ballard does not say anything particularly meaningful about it as a fetish or about sex in general. In fact, the sex tends to be ridiculous or clinical; the author’s approach to it, specifically the terminology he uses, is sterile, formal, medical. There are, for example, repeated references to such things as mucus, discharge, faecal matter, and so on.

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Perhaps the only interesting thing that Ballard does suggest in relation to sex is the parallel between it and the experience, or aftermath, of a car crash. Crash is not a character study, everyone in the book is devoid of personality, and that is fine. There is, however, a strange, an almost obsessive focus on their bodies. It is in this way, if at all, that one gets to know them. The hand, the knee, the crotch, the anus, etc. Ballard consistently breaks his characters down into their constituent parts; and doesn’t sex, doesn’t injury, do this too? When sexually excited, when given access to someone’s body for the purpose of sexual activity, there are – for me, at least – certain areas on which I focus; the person I am touching, kissing, fucking, ceases to be whole; they are a vagina, a mouth, and so on, or a small combination of these things. Consider also how it is to be hurt, physically, in some way; stub your toe and you become, well, a toe. Yet I feel as though this insight, which isn’t particularly profound, was possibly accidental, was a unintended consequence of exploring another idea altogether, which is our relationship with technology.

By disassembling his characters, Ballard is destroying their humanity, he is, you might say, mechanising them, for a machine is…what? It is the sum of its parts. In focussing so relentlessly on a hand, a thigh, etc, the author forces you to see them in isolation, and when isolated, when removed from the totality of the body, they become strange, unnerving, inhuman. Perhaps I am not explaining myself very well, but there is something here, something important in all this. A man holding a mobile phone is just that: a man holding a mobile phone; but a disembodied hand holding the phone is something else; the removal of the hand from the body is a kind of equaliser. Hand and phone become one, the hand ceases to have authority, greater importance, by virtue of being human. Indeed, and as already suggested, throughout the book Ballard combines, marries, people and technology. He likens an airplane shaft to a penis, he writes about the ‘soft technology’ of the breast, and the metallic sheen of the body. For me, he was making a point about how technology itself is, how a mechanised world is, dehumanising; and his sterile descriptions of body parts – the ‘geometry of the pubis’ – and sex play into this.

On the cover of the book at the top of this page there is an image of Elizabeth Taylor. The nature of celebrity figures in both Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, which could be seen as a sort of precursor to it. There are, I’m sure, a number of reasons why celebrities preoccupied the author, as they do Vaughan, who is Crash‘s leading man, or ‘nightmare angel.’ There is, for example, something super-human about them, and therefore inhuman. They are, we tend to think, not like us. However, it strikes me, certainly in terms of the novel under review here, that it is acting, more than celebrity, that is the real point of concern. There are, for example, numerous references to a thing or action being stylised, which is to say that it is not realistic. Moreover, at one point, a stunt man performs an accident, a crash, which is to be included in a film; and while doing so he is dressed, and made up, to look like Taylor. I would argue that this – acting, or, if you prefer, unreality – is further evidence of what I was discussing previously. People in Ballard’s world are not living, they are performing, they are playing or pretending, consciously or unconsciously; they are, despite appearances, unreal and inhuman, like mannequins, robots or crash test dummies.

120 DAYS OF SODOM BY MARQUIS DE SADE

I never thought that I would become tired of sex. In the last twelve months, however, I’ve done it more times, and with more women, than I had in all the previous years of my life combined; and recently I’ve noticed a change, a hint of boredom creeping into my lovemaking, like the shadow of a pot-bellied man crawling up a bedroom wall. I had once been so easy to please, so straightforward in my tastes, but now? If someone were to suggest the missionary position I would be horrified. The shadow of the pot-bellied man looms larger, and between his legs dangles a most flaccid and unimpressive cock. I have a preference for certain acts, of course, but I’ve never really had any kinks or fantasies. I’ve always found that sort of thing ridiculous, for it suggests to me a mind gone awry, a defect, a glitch in the system. Sex but not sex. Sex incognito. Yet last week I was talking to an underwear and fetish model. She was fresh off a job in which only her feet were of interest. ‘It’s because they’re forbidden, because they’re not the norm, because they’re kind of ugly and dirty; you’re not meant to sexualise them and so they become sexy,’ she said, and while I still didn’t feel any stirrings myself, for the first time I, in my jaded state, understood.

“Beauty belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary, and there is no question but that every ardent imagination prefers in lubricity, the extraordinary to the commonplace.”

The Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom appears to be one of those works that many people have heard of but know little about in terms of the specifics of the story. I was one of the many. In fact, I was under the impression that there was no narrative at all, that it was simply a catalogue of sexual deviancy. And it is that, but there is a frame around the kinks and perversions, in which four libertines gather together – some by way of abduction – a group of men and women, but mostly boys and girls, in a remote castle. There, they have a number of aged prostitutes recount their experiences, which are progressively more extreme, and which they then re-enact with the other inhabitants. This is, indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel, because it makes an audience of the libertines, almost in the same way that you, the reader, are; and just as the power of suggestion works upon them, there is the chance it will work upon you too. Certainly, not everything contained within will appeal to everyone, or I would sincerely hope not, but there is such a range, and it is so imaginative, that I’d be surprised if there wasn’t something. I think there is a misconception about pornography that people only go to it with, and looking for, pre-established ideas about what turns them on. There is some of that, no doubt, but I also think that, for better or worse, it also suggests, it teaches, it moulds.

While 120 days of Sodom is not a character study, the four libertines are sketched in some detail, to the extent that one is informed of both the length and circumference of their dicks. The Duc de Blangis is fifty years old, and ‘may be regarded as the repository of all vices and all crimes.’ His brother is a Bishop, who is, we’re told, ‘treacherous and cunning,’ and a ‘loyal devotee of active and passive sodomy.’ The President de Curval is ‘the walking image of debauchery and libertinage,’ who has a ‘dreadful squalor about his person that he finds sensual.’ This gentleman’s erections ‘are rare and only achieved with difficulty.’ Finally, Durcet, a financier. He has a ‘woman’s build and all of her tastes.’ In considering the four men a number of interesting ideas and similarities emerge, many of which are expanded upon, or given more weight, as the book progresses. First of all, one may have noticed that each of the men are rich or of noble birth. While de Sade doesn’t explicitly discuss the issue of class, it cannot be a coincidence that every anecdote involves people in a position of power and prosperity. One might say that these are the only people who can afford to use prostitutes, but I believe there is more to it than that.

Throughout, the small number of peasants are the only characters shown in a positive, or sympathetic, light. They are pious, good-hearted, downtrodden, or happy-go-lucky, while the rich have peculiar tastes or are simply monstrous. For example, one poor old woman is dragged from her sickbed and abused by a wealthy man; her daughter, who her mother very much loves and who cares for her, is abducted by the man and likely murdered as part of a sexual act. In another anecdote a working man shits, not for his own gratification, but for a rich man who has paid for this service. So what, if anything, is de Sade saying, indirectly at least, about class? The rich are the only people who have the time and the means and the imagination for these kinds of perversions, that in fact the free time and great wealth enables their imaginations. Secondly, if one can buy whatever one wants, if one can (by virtue of one’s power and wealth) have whomever one wants, then one is likely to become jaded very quickly. Therefore, to be a libertine, to be aroused by, to engage in, extreme or unusual sexual acts is, in this instance, an end point, it is arrived at as a way of reinvigorating dulled senses.

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I have already used the term libertine multiple times, and that is because it is insisted upon in the text. Barely a page goes by in which it doesn’t appear more than once. To be a libertine is to indulge oneself, sensually, to excess, without regard to conventional moral principles. This is both the way of life and the philosophy of the four central characters; it is this that bonds them together. Far from having one particular kink, the men are interested in anything that is unconventional, anything that conventional society would deem wrong or disgusting, including rape, torture, incest, and murder. Indeed, anything criminal adds to their enjoyment, by virtue of how shocking, how frowned upon it would be. Perhaps this anti-conventional attitude is the reason why women are so scorned by the four libertines (and by the majority of the men in the book). Make no mistake, they are vehement misogynists, to an almost laughable degree. For example, there are numerous instances where a woman showing her vagina or breasts to a man sends him into a rage. It is, in almost every story, the arse they want! Always the arse! There are, indeed, several rhapsodic speeches on the subject, such as when one of the libertines salutes ‘divine arses! How I reproach myself for the tributes I stole from you! I promise you an expiatory sacrifice – I swear on your alters never to stray again for the rest of my life!’ The arse is of course not uniquely feminine.

“Only the law stands in my way, but I defy it – my gold and my influence place me beyond the reach of those crude scales meant only for the common people.”

As I sat down to write about 120 Days of Sodom there were a large number of themes that I intended to explore. My notes, in fact, totalled over a thousand words, and much of that I still haven’t touched upon, and will not, including the topics of nature and religion. I realise now that it is inadvisable, if not impossible, to discuss everything of note in detail. This review will have to serve as a kind of introduction, if it has any use at all. Bearing in mind the name of the author, one thing that it seems necessary to include is the role of sadism within the book. Surprisingly, sexual torture, and the pleasure gained from it, makes up only a small part of the prostitutes’ stories. However, the main reason for this is because the book is unfinished, and only one whore – she who is tasked with outlining the simpler pleasures – is able to give a fully fleshed account of her experiences. One is left in no doubt – and de Sade’s own notes attest to this – that there were greater horrors to come. Yet there is still, even within the ‘finished’ part of the manuscript, much that is disturbing, certainly when removed from the atmosphere of the text as a whole. For example, the inhabitants of the castle, aside from the four libertines of course, are not allowed to shit unless given permission and are not allowed to wipe or clean themselves. This is because the men have designs upon the shit, but also because they enjoy the power, they enjoy how unhappy it makes the boys and girls.

Throughout the book, de Sade makes it clear that almost none of the young people, nor the men’s wives, are willing participants. They shit in the captives’ mouths, and have them shit in theirs. They fondle, maul, and force them to suck and swallow, they rape and fuck arses and cunts. The disgust and pain their victims feel during these abuses is commented upon, albeit only in passing. It is this, more than the acts themselves, that turns the old lechers on. Within the castle there is a system of punishment, which the reader never has full access to, but which we are informed will be barbaric, potentially fatal. The victims, who are innocent both in terms of their overall situation and often in terms of the ‘crime’ they are charged with, are constantly reminded of the compassionless nature of their judges. The situation within the castle is, therefore, absolutely not the form of sadism that is currently en vogue, it is not a consensual exploration of mutual fantasies involving a master and a slave, a dom and a sub, although there is some of that within the stories the first prostitute tells. In any case, there were occasions when, rather than providing a libertine manual, I felt as though it was de Sade’s aim to torture his reader, to make them his victim; and yet, if so, he failed.

“If it is the dirty element that gives pleasure to the act of lust, then the dirtier it is, the more pleasurable it is bound to be.”

Before I finish, I want to return to a word I used earlier, which may have struck you as strange, or even disconcerting, given the context, which was ‘laughable.’ There is, without question, nothing funny about kidnapping, misogyny and sexual abuse. When I was reading A Sentimental Novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet last year I was deeply troubled by its contents and had to quit before the end. 120 days of Sodom is, however, or was for me, extremely amusing in places, because it is ridiculous. There is a marked difference of tone between this book and Robbe-Grillet’s. First of all, one never believes in the characters or the situation. I could not buy into de Sade’s reality. The four libertines are cartoonish, vaudeville, over-the-top; they stop just short of twirling their moustaches and laughing in an exaggeratedly sinister fashion. Moreover, consider again some of what de Sade tells you about them: one of them can’t get an erection, one of them only fucks arses and has his own fucked, and two of them have prodigiously large dicks. It’s terribly hard to take any of them seriously.

These men all have an insatiable sexual appetite, to the extent that they appear to be turned on, to be able to fool around, all day, every day; and most of them come multiple times. They are truly Herculean! Consider, also, some of the acts, the shitting in particular. It is no exaggeration to say that the libertines devour three or four turds a day each, and none of them end up unwell. They even put their captives on a special diet in order to have them produce especially tasty shit. I don’t want to labour over the scat too much, but it dominates the book, and there came a point when, despite having no interest in shit myself, be it sexual or otherwise, I started to gleefully anticipate the ceremony. de Sade had put me into a state of near delirium or hysteria. Every anecdote would end, I knew, with one person shitting in another’s mouth. It was like being locked in a room where someone tells you the same joke over and over again until you’re on the point of insanity and joyously shouting out the punchline in unison with your captor.

In other areas, the repetition was more of a issue. I am aware that de Sade wrote the book in prison, and that it is, at noted previously, unfinished. It is likely, therefore, that even the ‘completed’ part of the text is only a draft of sorts, and so it feels churlish to criticise, but there are frequent passages that are interminable. For example, I do not know how many times one needs to be told that the Duc thigh-fucked Zelmire, but it is certainly less than forty. Nor does one really need to be told, over and over again, who took who into the cupboard, especially as you are never informed as to what happens in there. There are, moreover, other instances of this sort, whereby de Sade will keep things, certain acts or events, from the reader, because, he states, they are too extreme for this particular part of his narrative and would be out of place. Which begs the obvious question: why tell us at all then? In any case, my enjoyment was not spoiled by these flaws. I did not think, even for long periods during which I read it, that I would be able to say that I love 120 days of Sodom; and yet I do. Perhaps I am even more jaded than I thought. The shadow of the pot-bellied man looms ever larger.

HECATE AND HER DOGS BY PAUL MORAND

Have you ever met an Englishman abroad? I travel regularly, often alone, and always make an effort to interact with the locals. Most of the time people are warm and friendly, at least outwardly, but there’s an unmistakable caution below the surface. You’re English? Yes. It feels like an admission of guilt. Perhaps I should apologise? How English that would be. It’s the same in bars and hotels. The workers are happy to take your money, but it’s clear that the reputation of your kind preceeds you. You’re eyed as something like a cross between a cash-cow and a pirate. Your role is to plunder and spend. It’s the only time that I am allowed a glimpse into what it feels like to be marked, to be judged, instantly and negatively, without having done anything to justify it myself. Why are you here? I’m here to goose your women and pave your streets with the contents of my stomach.

It’s worse at the weekends. Spend two or three weeks in a foreign country and you will come to see it yourself. Or hear it, rather. The pounding drums and clattering hoofbeats of the English arriving on the Friday evening. Of course we aren’t always so savage. Quite the contrary. Our national disease is our repression, our inability to express ourselves, our shame. Being emotionally disabled is our cultural signature. It is only when we are away, when we are somewhere and something unrecognisable, that we feel free, but moral and emotional freedom is too much for our weak constitution. We are the dog that has managed to break into the larder. We are the dog that has gorged itself then shit all over the living room floor.

“I threw myself recklessly into the inescapable maelstrom of the passions with the same determination which others use to subdue them. I envied Clotilde, to whom wickedness came naturally, whereas I had to try very hard to outdo her by committing acts of unbelievable folly.”

Hecate and Her Dogs is the story of a man, now sixty, who returns to Africa after thirty years. After a brief introduction, very little of the action takes place in the present, with the majority of the novel being a retelling of his past experiences of a place he swore he would never visit again, a place where ‘I left my youth and spent the worst years of my life.’ It’s a well-worn, but always intriguing set-up. One continues eagerly, awaiting the revelation, the answer to the question: why the worst? My anticipation was especially heightened by some of the reviews I had seen. In fact, I must admit that I was drawn to the novel mostly because it has been described as ‘repellent’ and ‘unnerving,’ amongst other things. Having read it, however, I wonder if these readers were particularly sensitive or, more likely, influenced by the unsavoury aspects of the author’s biography. Morand was not, to say the least, the most tolerant or enlightened of men. It is well documented that he was an elitist, a supporter of the Nazis, and an anti-semite. While the most ‘shocking’ aspect of the book doesn’t relate to Jews or the war, Morand’s unpleasant views do make the pages feel a little grimier to the touch.

With this in mind, one might anticipate that Morand’s Africa will be something like Celine’s or Conrad’s, which is to say hostile and primitive. Thankfully, surprisingly, that isn’t really the case. The book is actually set in Tangier, and therefore the closest literary comparison would be the work of Paul Bowles, which, in spite of its more positive reputation, has always struck me as being dubious also. In any case, there is one use of the word swarthy, one line about all arabs being called Ibrahim, and various references to the laidback, easy-going atmosphere. This latter point is important, because it – the local way of life – is used to contrast the personality and values of the narrator, which is often the case in novels of this sort. However, the difference here is that one gets the impression that the author, or the narrator at least, is being critical of the European, of himself, not the African. It is also telling that the novel’s dark heart, the Hecate of the title, is also a European who [seemingly] preys upon innocent local children.

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Before considering the villain of the piece I want to focus upon the narrator in more detail. As previously noted, he is particularly self-critical. He describes himself as ‘square-shaped,’ ‘stiff,’ and ‘lacking in social graces.’ As with the Englishman abroad, he finds that new territory affords him the opportunity to reinvent himself, to indulge himself, to let himself go, but he does so inexpertly, without imagination. He did not, he writes, know ‘how to breathe.’ Indeed, his ideas about what letting himself go actually means are comically innocent, such that Morand starts to resemble a satirist: ‘I wanted to go out without a hat, stroll to the office without carrying a leather briefcase, don a suit of close-woven grey cloth, something that in Europe would have struck me as being scandalously raffish.’ I found this aspect of the narrative fascinating. It reminded me of the voice of Serenus Zeitblom in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus. Even when the narrator does eventually let down his hair, he does so by copying the style of another. In other words, he imitates Clotilde, he appropriates her fantasies and desires.

Clotilde is initially portrayed as being a ‘blank,’ as ‘lacking lustre.’ She is graceful, and attractive, but in an obvious, predictable kind of way. Again, in spite of Morand’s elitist, classist, and racist views, he appears to be poking fun at the wealthy white European, who is ‘distinguished, not distinctive.’ Yet there is, of course, something about her that is distinctive, which is her apparent sexual interest in children. I say apparent for two reasons, because one never sees her doing anything wrong, one never witnesses the acts themselves, and her admissions, if you could call them that bearing in mind their vague nature, are all given at night, sometimes in her sleep. If one did want to point the accusing finger at Morand, then one might argue that it is Africa’s role to be the corruptor, rather than simply the conduit, but I really did not get that from the novel. It could, in my opinion, have been set anywhere, it just had to be somewhere else.

Nor do I think Hecate and Her Dogs is about sex, repellant or otherwise. To focus on that in reviews is misleading, albeit understandable. Yes, the narrator is influenced by Clotilde until he finds that her perversions ‘suited my taste,’ and there is something interesting about the power of suggestion, about the malleability of our sexual fantasies; but, as I mentioned previously, that is merely further evidence of his lack of imagination. For me, this is a book about what happens when you give an average man, a repressed dolt, a bit of rope, or a lot of rope, when you give him freedom. It is not necessary that he will do something so extreme or immoral, as he does here, but, in my experience, he will certainly do something out of character, he will gorge himself. And then he will shit all over the living room floor, of course.

THE HIGH LIFE BY JEAN-PIERRE MARTINET

What a world, Mesdames et Messieurs. What a world. Like a festering, rotting pighead in space. And us? We’re the fat, and ever-fatter, maggots that feed upon it. Sometimes, quite often in fact, I see people smile, and I have to wonder ‘are they mad?’ Or am I mad? Don’t they see? Maybe that’s the way: close your eyes and smile. I’ve always known that our planet is a horror show, and so nothing surprises me. Take the men in the entertainment business, those men that are currently being outed for years of sexual harassment or misbehaviour…am I shocked? I am profoundly not shocked. It is as I expected. It is simply the case that we are looking now, yes, we are looking at them and inevitably we are finding brutality, misery, and a host of other horrible things. The whole world, I tell you, is like this. Peer into any corner, shine a light on it, and you will see the filth. Take off your gloves and draw your finger along the surface and tell me how it feels. Greasy and unpleasant, isn’t it?

The world is a blocked sink, and I refuse to put my hand in there and rummage around in the dirty water, amongst the soggy, disintegrating scraps of food. So I read. I withdraw into another world. Is it a better world? If it is, it is only by virtue of not being real, of not actually existing, so that there’s no chance of encountering the awful people who inhabit it. I take my solace where I can find it. I take it by degrees. Often, I’m not even reading. I simply hold the book before my ghoulish face as a kind of barrier, a protective screen. People tend to leave you alone if you look as though you are reading. But there are those who ask: what are you reading? Usually on trains. Sitting next to some enormous old woman who wants desperately to tell you about her gay nephew or her wretched granddaughter’s wedding. I, of course, tell the truth. I say: it’s a book about pushing an eyeball up a girl’s ass; or, it’s a book about trying to fuck a bear, only the bear has a flaccid cock; or, it’s a weird little book about a weird little man who works at a funeral parlour and fantasises about killing people.

“Dark, yawning grave, ogre’s vagina, tomb of sleep and night, night of marshes, marshes of silence, silence of death.”

The weird little book is called The High Life, and it was written by Jean-Pierre Martinet. You might think, upon finishing it: what a nasty slug he must have been to have conjured up something like that. Well, I don’t know anything about him. All people are ghastly so Martinet must have been too. I will deal with the major characters soon, if anything about them could be said to be major, but first let me say something about the minor ones: they’re vermin. The owner of the funeral parlour, for example, watches the narrator, Adolphe Marlaud, choke ‘with an irritated look’; a twelve year old girl, whom Marlaud attempts to prey upon, enters the parlour and starts to trash it; an old woman seems ‘beside herself with joy’ at telling the misfortunes of another; and Adolphe’s father, it is revealed, shopped his Jewish wife, the narrator’s mother, to the Gestapo. There are others, but I am sure you get the picture. The High Life is only twenty-eight pages long, but each page is packed, like a neglected baby’s soiled nappy, with filth of various kinds and consistencies.

Death is fairly prominent. I’ve already mentioned the funeral parlour and the mother whose fate was to be gassed at Auschwitz by the Nazis. But there is more: ‘abandoned corpses, partially decomposed young girls, mauve and green and white, calves murdered with the blows of a cleaver, at dawn, under a drizzling sky.’ What else? Adolphe’s lover attempts suicide; and Adolphe himself, as suggested earlier, develops a murderous impulse, offing the odd dog and cat along the way. But this – death – is perhaps the least disgusting aspect of the novel, if you want to call this dribble of piss a novel. The references to death barely tickle the nostrils, in the grander scheme of things. I’ve read worse; you’ve read worse; we’ve all most probably seen and thought worse. It’s the dreary relentlessness, the never dispersing, subtle smell of recently emptied bowels, that starts to unsettle the stomach. Even the style of the book is crude, with references to ‘shit, ‘jerking off,’ and ‘cum on the walls.’

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One doesn’t get to know Adolphe, in the Tolstoyan tradition. He is, in truth, barely alive as a character. Although that is the point, you might argue. ‘People generally called me a creep, or compared me to a bug,’ he says of himself; and bearing in mind his actions this actually undersells his unpleasantness. Marlaud is, in any case, very self-aware; he is not at all fooling himself. Martinet goes to great lengths to promote his character’s disagreeableness, and, although one wouldn’t call it sympathising, his woes. He is, first of all, only four feet tall [while his lover, incidentally, is over six feet in height]. He is a ‘runt,’ with a ‘urinous complexion’; he is a man so ‘ugly, so miserable’ that he has become a ‘lover of shadow and silence.’ You might want to make complex psychological deductions based on all this, but, quite frankly, I don’t have the inclination or energy. What struck me most, and what is in fact the novel’s main source of entertainment, was Martinet’s enjoyment, the glee he clearly felt in coming up with creative ways to describe, in piling on, the misery.

Consider the sex scenes with Madame C. Martinet, as Adolphe, writes about ‘her monstrous breasts unfurling upon me with the muted rumbling of an avalanche.’ And I must confess to having laughed a little. Likewise when she is said to have ‘ejected me from her tremendous vagina, leaving me on the floor like a dispossessed king.’ If there is a weightier concern, a serious point to all this, a transcendent theme, then it is in relation to power, specifically abuse of power or the feeling of powerlessness. Madame C. takes Marlaud, not against his will, but not exactly willingly either. She overpowers him, with her large body, but with her personality, with force of character, with desire, also. When Adolphe buys a gun to shoot the cats that bother his father’s grave – a man who, remember, denounced his own wife – he finds that he suddenly feels in control, even God-like. ‘I had no idea there was such strength in me,’ he says when he offs some butterflies. Which is funny, certainly, but sad and alarming too, for it seems to me that, as we as a species inch ever closer to collapsing under the weight of our own faeces, it says something revealing about how we have got ourselves in this position in the first place.

BEAR BY MARIAN ENGEL

It wasn’t a conscious decision. Reading is not my life’s passion, it is a symptom. Being drawn towards books is simply a way of drawing away from you, all of you. As a child I convinced myself that my environment was to blame, that of course I could not relate to those sorts of people, and yet I have long since left behind that environment, and those people, so what excuse do I have now? I still can’t consistently relate. To loved ones, occasional ones, anyone. Naively, I thought it would be different when I started relationships, relationships I entered into freely, with women I chose for myself. With women I like and who like me. For a while. I’m gloomy and difficult, yes, but I’m not an idiot. My choices are made rationally. For a while it was different. It is different. But the hole in which I hide isn’t big enough for two. Not long-term. It’s too cramped, and the books take up a lot of room. So they leave, and I feel relieved. For a while. Until I start to panic, because life, I think, cannot be lived in isolation, cannot be lived only amongst the dead.

“For some time things had been going badly for her. She could cite nothing in particular as a problem; rather, it was as if life in general had a grudge against her. Things persisted in turning grey. Although at first she had revelled in the erudite seclusion of her job, in the protection against the vulgarities of the world that it offered, after five years she now felt that in some way it had aged her disproportionately, that she was as old as the yellowed papers she spent her days unfolding.”

I know nothing about Marian Engel. Bear could be her first novel, her last, her only, her anything. Selfishly, I hope this is it, that she opened up to the world once, giving it bestiality and loneliness, and then turned her back on it. I must confess that the bestiality is how I ended up here. Cynically, I wanted to cross it off my reading list. I also thought it might bring a wry smile to the face of my audience, what small audience I have. Yes, you’re following me down the toilet and into the sewer. We’re all in, at this point. However, although the book is spoken of as the one in which a woman has sex with a bear, that isn’t actually the case, if we’re talking about penetration. The bear gives her oral sex, unwittingly, several times. The woman plays with the bear’s balls, I seem to recall. She bends over, once, to allow the bear to mount her; but the bear does not mount. In short, if pornography is what you are looking for from the book then you will surely be disappointed. Unless you get off on the loneliness, of course.

It is something of a struggle to remember the name of the central character. I didn’t make a note of it. If a physical description of her is given by Engel I have forgotten it. ‘In the winter,’ we’re told, ‘she lived like a mole,’ which suggests a certain look, of course, and an attitude. It is also said that the institute in which she is ‘buried’ is ‘protectively’ lined with books. How suggestive that ‘protectively’ is too. Books, her work, her ‘digging among maps and manuscripts’; these things are her life, her refuge. To the exclusion of all else? I’d say not. She fucks the director. She fucks Homer. She tries to fuck the bear, remember. Like me, she hasn’t volunteered for this, for isolation, for emptiness. She tries, she is trying, but things are going badly. She doesn’t withdraw into books, she uses them as a crutch, as company, as a placeholder. When she goes away, to the island, she takes her typewriter, which earns her a ‘look of pity.’ Because it speaks of solitude.

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The bear lives on the island, if its situation could be said to be any kind of living. Chained up, in a shed. It’s a good bear, not too bad tempered. Big, but not too big. Old. Lou, for the woman is called Lou I now think, muses that it is so very different to a toy bear. It is real. It is alive, if its state could be described as such. It is highlighted, more than once, that this is a wild creature. It can kill. It is dangerous. Potentially. The woman is told not to get too friendly with it. And yet she gets very friendly indeed, of course. There is something extravagant about a bear, I believe, and this appeals to Lou. Something ‘wonderfully strange.’ For someone who has so little in her life, who is lacking in excitement, to be on an island with a pet bear for company is stimulating. It might make her feel important. Like a queen, perhaps. Or an eccentric or decadent. The sort who populate her books. But this bear, this bear is all too like Lou, really. It is ‘tired and sad,’ rather than menacing. It is docile. It is ‘stupid and defeated.’ Like Lou.

The bear is a symbol, really. It is Lou, it is her life, it is the attentive, non-judgemental lover she never had. When she begins to show an interest in the creature, once she has earned its trust, and it has earned hers, she takes it swimming, and it starts to revive. Its coat shines. Life is beat back into the beast’s heart, as life is beat back into Lou’s. After such a shared reawakening their relationship becomes ever more intimate, as one would expect. The bear is a blank canvas, one might say. Lou can, and does, project onto it. She can make him be, can see in his ways, in his behaviour, in his mood, anything she wants; and because the bear is always what she wants he can never, of course, disappoint. And so she falls in love. Real love. A non-platonic love. A sensual, sexual love. For the bear. He ‘seemed subdued and full of grief,’ she thinks when she feels subdued and full of grief. He is like her, he feels what she feels. He is her because she makes him thus, because she models him on herself.

This is a book about sadness and loneliness, and bestiality. It is about bestiality only because it is about loneliness and sadness. The bear can’t even get an erection; his dick won’t respond to her caresses. And I don’t know what is sadder than that. To take a bear as a lover, and be unable to get him hard. An animal, with animal instincts. You can make a dog fuck a pillow, for christ’s sake. There’s loneliness, sadness, isolation, and desperation on damn near every page. The woman, Lou, in a basement. The bear in his shed, on a chain; the bear whose owner has died. The island. The man who Lou picks up, before the bear, long ago, that leaves her for another woman. He got an erection, certainly. As did the director. And Homer. But these men are attentive to their own needs, not hers. Unlike the bear, who will lick her with its ridged tongue whenever she parts her legs. At one point it is written that the woman ‘always loved her loneliness,’ but that is a lie. On damn near every page that is shown to be a lie. For Lou, life cannot be lived in isolation, it cannot be lived only amongst the dead.