Review: The Sexual Life of Catherine M.
26 February 2003
I tried to begin this review with a line to the effect that The Sexual Life of Catherine M. (ISBN: 0802117163) is, true to its reputation (BBC, Guardian), (very) explicit, but it’s also (again true to its reputation) well-stocked with observations about sex and the sexual process that are, if not exactly ‘literary,’ then about as illuminating and perceptive as such observations get. A promising start, you might think, but as I wrote more and more review the proposition grew more and more untenable. To explain:
The first half of this claim is certainly true. Chapter 4 (“Details”), for example, begins with a breezy “I really like sucking men’s cocks” [what to make of that men’s?] and continues in the same vein for almost three pages: we hear of her supposed aptitute for oral sex, we learn that having something in her mouth gives her a “more thorough feeling of being filled” than something in her vagina, we are told various technical details about her approach to oral sex, and so on. The passage finally ends with the confession that “it would be easy for me to write pages about this, especially as just describing this painstaking job has already triggered the first signs of excitement.” (Professional reviewers, I notice, seem reluctant to write that the book is arousing as well as explicit.)
But, I was surprised to discover, the second claim is harder to defend. For some reason, passages that didn’t seem trite or banal or self-evident when passed over in book form become so when presented as stand-alone quotations:
My nudity feels more complete to me out in the open than in a closed room. 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, more receptive. (91)
I do like the idea that something happens when air is “felt by an area of skin it doesn’t normally reach,” but I don’t think it has much at all to do with the qualitative difference between public and private nudity. (And wouldn’t the small of the back feel the surrounding temperature in, say, a bikini?)
Other passages flirt tantalisingly with insight before tumbling to the ground:
One weakness of porn films is to present stereotyped images of orgasm; the characters always come after a series of accelerated jerks, eyes closed, mouths open and screaming. Now, orgasms can happen with no movement at all and in silence, and you can watch them building up and then unfold. It is usually when you want to fire up or stimulate desire that—in life and films—you resort to cliches. Pretty much the same words, obscene or not, come to everyone. (178)
Well then, what is the “weakness” of porn? Isn’t it meant to provoke desire—not guide technique?
Perhaps I’m being too critical: these passages aren’t completely without merit, and it’s true that others survive the transition to stand-alone quotation quite nicely. Without doubt, some stick firmly in the mind—Millet’s insistence that a “well done” blow job “bruises the insides of the lips” (71) might prove difficult to forget—though ultimately, no one quotation is quite as sharp or perceptive as I remembered it to be.
The Sexual Life is remarkable for the explicitness of its contents, but also noteworthy is what it does and doesn’t describe. We do get (in considerable detail) the who, the what, the where, and the how many. We get descriptions of sexual fantasies and a (brief) mention of STDs. But in over 200 pages, there’s almost no mention of feelings or emotions. No sexual act seems to make her especially happy, or especially sad. Millet describes, or at least names, some of her lovers—but we do not get to know how much she loved them, why she loved them, or why she stopped. Jealousy is mentioned only sporadically, and regret only once—this to flag the only time in her life that she “vaguely regretted a sexual act.” (111) There’s no mention of pregnancy (or fear of it), contraception, or the desire to have children.
The emotional whitewash seems to affect the reader too: instead of feeling, say, envious or sorry or sad, you feel nothing. (Neither do you get the feeling that she’s been abused or taken advantage of or that she has some deep-seated psychological problem.) And so, when you read what should be the saddest sentence in the book—“I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that until I was about thirty-five, I had not imagined that my own pleasure could be the aim of a sexual encounter” (186)—you don’t think to break stride, but start on the next paragraph straight away.
In Paris there was my first lover, Claude, and he seemed to be in love with a bourgeois girl who would utter such poetic sentences as “Touch my breasts, they’re so soft this evening” without letting him go any further. This example had quickly, if rather confusingly, taught me that I could not be classed as a great seductress, and that my place in the world was therefore not so much among the women facing the men, but alongside the men. (7)
… [I] have a profound admiration and sympathy for the suspension in time in which lovers live. I could be ten years, even twenty or more, since a man has made love to a woman, but he still talks about it and addresses her as if it were yesterday. Their pleasure is like a hardy perennial that knows no seasons. (56)
I denied it, but I could not disguise from the attentive friend who met me on a nearby terrace that I had made extensive use of my mouth. A blow job, especially if it is well done, bruises the insides of the lips. If you keep on going back and forth with your mouth, it’s better to protect the aroused member by curling your lips over your teeth—at least that’s the way I have always proceeded. “Your lips are all swollen,” said my friend, telling me I was a fool. (71)
… my pleasure was never more intense than when it was the first time—not the first time that I made love with someone, but the first time we kissed; even the first embrace was enough. Obviously there were exceptions. Be that as it may, in most cases, even if what followed was not unpleasant, it was a bit like biting into the cone when you no longer have a mouthful of ice cream to melt on your tongue; it had all the attraction of a painting that you admire but on which you are feasting your eyes for the fifteenth time. (75)
I leafed through the magazines on display, cautiously turned over the shrink-wrapped ones. Isn’t it wonderful how you can be aroused so freely, in full sight and full knowledge of all the other customers doing the same thing, even though each behaves as if he or she is searching through the display racks at the local newsstand? Isn’t it admirable, the apparent detachment you have in public, contemplating pictures and objects that would certainly make you lose your composure at home? (126)
I appropriate to other people the same adherence to environment that I have myself [this mash is the result of a particularly bad translation, surely?], which makes every intimate thing—or anything that has served an intimate purpose—a sort of extension of the body, a sensitive prosthesis. If, while someone is away, you touch something that he touches, he himself is involved by his proximity to it. During an orgy, my tongue could easily lick a pussy that had just been ejaculated into by a man who had first been turned on with me, but the thought of drying myself on a towel that some woman who came clandestinely to my home may have used to wipe between her thighs, or the thought that Jacques might use the same one as some guest of mine whose visit he knew nothing about, horrifies me as much as an epidemic of leprosy. (150)
Jacques decides it would be better to go home. In the car, in the state of panic I am always in when very frustrated, I am overcome with anger. Exasperated desire is a naive dictactor that cannot believe anyone would oppose it or even inconvenience it. (158)
Nothing pleases me more than hearing that I give “the best blow jobs.” Better than that: when, with a view to writing this book, I talk to a friend twenty-five years after my sexual relationship with him ended and I hear him say that he has “never met a girl who could suck a man off so well,” I lower my eyes, in some ways out of modesty, but also to hide my pride. It is not that I have been deprived of other forms of gratification in my personal or professional life, but as far as I can see, there is a balance to be sustained between the acquisition of moral and intellectual qualities that earn the respect of your peers, and a proportional excellend in practices that flout these qualities, brush them aside, and deny them. (166)
Seeing myself in a video spreading the come that has just spurted onto me all over my breasts, I wonder whether I am not merely repeating something I have seen dozens of times on the screen. The jet is not as frothy as in the films, but it is nevertheless spectacular; the spunk makes my skin shine. Did men and women use the same rhetoric and was the erotic repertoire the same before the invention of cinema? (179)
… the more powerful the orgasm, the less “hamming it up” there is. I can confirm that in my own case. While the level of pleasure is rising, I take a very active part. As well as moving my hips, I use my arms and legs. If I am lying on my back, I spur on my partner by repeatedly kicking my heels on his buttocks and thighs. Then I reach a stage when this frantic level of activity drops. My partner is now concentrating on only one inert parcel of flesh. (179)