Every novelist understands that the sex in his book is his hostage to posterity
The trouble with insolent breasts
Every novelist understands that the sex in his book is his hostage to posterity
Geoff Dyer has written a book about D. H. Lawrence (Out Of Sheer Rage) and a book about photography (The Ongoing Moment), and in the latter he combines these two areas of interest in a disquisition on Georgia O’Keeffe’s pubic area. This is apropos the famous photographs by her lover Alfred Stieglitz. Mr. Dyer is dissatisfied by the “mass of inkdark shadow” with which the happy snapper renders her, ah, naughty bits (not the word the author uses), and compares the impenetrable jungle of Miss O’Keeffe’s pubic hair with D. H. Lawrence’s passages on the same general turf, concluding that in both instances “the dark print is dated.”
For a master of casual asides, he’s making quite a profound observation here. Anyone who surveys pictures of naked women from a century ago and then takes a stroll along the beach at Saint-Tropez will appreciate that in this particular area fashions have changed dramatically. If you’d suggested to Stieglitz that he might want to get his gal a Brazilian wax before the next session, he wouldn’t have seen the point: Brazil-wise, the thickets of the rainforest were the big turn-on back then. So, given that Stieglitz’s photographic representation has “dated,” how likely is it that descriptive passages thereof can avoid the same fate?
Nothing in a novel dates as quickly as the sex scenes. In i960, 200,000 copies of Lady Chatterley’s Lover were sold in Britain on the first day the ban was lifted—in part because of the treasures therein implied by Mervyn Griffith-Jones, prosecuting counsel, in his famous question to the jury: “Is this a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?”
To which I say: yes. Make the missus and the footman and the scullery maid read it but spare me, please. Sex in the movies has developed its own absurd conventions: watching, say, Indecent Proposal, with Woody Harrelson writhing around on Demi Moore’s bulletproof chest to the accompaniment of some bombastic power ballad, one is aware subconsciously that this is as non-naturalistic as the “mad scene” from Lucia di Lammermoor. I’m told that when the Warsaw Pact went belly up and the poor deprived Commies suddenly got the latest Hollywood flicks, they took the athletic couplings for cinéma-vérité—not only did the decadent West have bigger cars and houses but they got better sex, too—and made the mistake of trying it at home, greatly overburdening Soviet chiropractors and only adding to the strains on the fraying Russian health system. But novelistic sex isn’t like movie sex: you can’t take refuge in conventions; it reflects on you personally.
Take Alan Fürst, author of atmosphereladen spy thrillers in war-torn Europe. His deshabille moments were recently praised by two New York Times reviewers: one singled out “Mr. Furst’s famously succinct eroticism,” another called him “one of the few espionage writers who know how to write sex scenes.” By contrast, B. R. Myers in The Atlantic Monthly
says, “Furst’s erotic passages are especially clumsy,” and he cites the following: “hugging like long-lost lovers, riding each other’s bottoms through the night.”
Mr. Myers has a whole bunch of issues with Mr. Fürst, including his “exasperating” punctuation. I’m with him on that one. His commas are infuriating: “I did have a few, suitors, for a time” (from Dark Voyage, 2004). In his new novel, The Foreign Correspondent, the eponymous journalist breaks up with his girlfriend: “I have met, somebody,” he said. “It is, I think, serious.” That comma between “met” and “somebody” irritated me far more than the sex. They’re like rests in orchestral scores: you feel he’s advertising his characters’ thoughtfulness. Better that they ride each other’s bottoms through the night than they ride each other’s commas, which is how they pass much of the day.
But on balance it’s Mr. Myers who needs to get off Mr. Furst’s ass. For some years, Britain’s Literary Review has given out an annual Bad Sex In Fiction award, for which the competition is pretty stiff. In 2003, Sting presented the honour to Aniruddha Bahai, who, having beaten Paul Theroux and John Updike, was happy to fly in from Delhi to pick up the prize. He won for this overextended metaphor in his novel Bunker 13:
“She is topping up your engine oil for the cross-country coming up. Your RPM is hitting a new high. To wait any longer would be to lose prime time... “She picks up a Bugatti’s momentum. You want her more at a Volkswagen’s steady trot. Squeeze the maximum mileage out of your gallon of gas. But she’s eating up the road with all cylinders blazing...”
That’s certainly banal. But, on the other hand, one could imagine the lads down the pub talking about their birds in similar fashion. It may be that Mr. Bahai is brilliantly evoking the banal sexual imagination of his protagonist. A subsequent Bad Sex awardwinner, Tom Wolfe for I Am Charlotte Simmons, is more problematic. He’s a better writer, but precisely because of that he seems very self-conscious in his attempts to find le mot
HE WOULDN’T HAVE SEEN THE POINT OF A BRAZILIAN WAX. BRAZIL-WISE, THE THICKETS OF THE RAINFOREST WERE THE BIG TURN-ON.
juste. He keeps going on about Charlotte’s “mons pubis,” which is one of those phrases that always reminds me of the queen of Australian comedy, Dame Edna Everage: introducing a show from her hilltop retreat, she declared, “Everyone is welcome to Mount Edna.” But “mons pubis” is the least of it once Wolfe hits his stride and the fellows start exploring “first along the side, down to her ilial crest, and up to her armpit and then more toward her abdomen down to the gully that ran from her ilial crest to her crotch.” And if you think you’re lucky to grab a piece of ilial crest on a first date, wait till Wolfe gets to the “pelvic saddle” and “otorhinolaryngological caverns.”
Lionel Bart, the composer of Oliver!, once told me about meeting Richard Rodgers to discuss a possible show together. In the wake of Oscar Hammerstein’s death, Rodgers was looking for a new lyricist, but he had a few concerns about Bart’s work. There’s a song in the show Maggie May ostensibly improvised on the spot by a hooker to her dozing lover. “It works,” said Rodgers, “but there are impure rhymes.”
Bart replied: “That’s because she’s not a very good lyric writer.”
That’s a better defence for sex scenes. When most of us look back on memorable romantic encounters, we can perhaps single out a particular image or sensory recollection, but if we had to recount the whole thing from A to Z we wouldn’t make a very good job of it. What I like about Alan Fürst is the way he manages to find something particular to the occasion: in a bathtub moment in The Foreign Correspondent, Christa “held her lower lip, delicately, between her teeth and lay back against the porcelain curve.” Aside from the coitus getting interruptus by that brace of commas, I’d say that’s a fine specific image: it sounds like a real detail a real person really noticed. Fürst is an American writer who deals almost exclusively in Continental characters and, though B.R. Myers complains that sexwise “the Europeans tend to come off as visitors from another planet,” one of the novelist’s neatest tricks is the way his sex bits sound like they’ve been translated from the original Czech or Croat. If Geoff Dyer is right about “datedness,” to be able to do period foreign sex scenes is quite a trick.
Ian Fleming, one ofFurst’s predecessors in the espionage field, is an instructive guide here: in every other adventure or so, James Bond would run across a pair of “insolent breasts.” What a masterful phrase, ingeniously covering whatever the reader’s tastes might run to in this particular region. But flesh it out, so to speak, and I suspect almost every novelist understands the sex is his hostage to posterity. Whenever I’m in need of a laugh, I turn to one of my favourites—Judith Krantz’s mega-blockbuster Princess Daisy. It starts conventionally enough:
“Oh, yes! she thought, opening her lips to him, tumbled and craving and daring. She arched her body toward him, nudging his hands toward her breasts until they were clasped and claimed.... He bent to the glorious task, dimly aware that never before had life flowed through him without the static
and interferences of thought, never had he been so close to drinking the elemental wine of life. He tasted it on her lips and on her nipples and on her belly, his whole skin drank thirstily of her, and when he thrust into her, he knew he had arrived at last at the source, the spring...”
But, after all that arching and nudging and clasping and claiming and drinking and thrusting, Mrs. Krantz understands she needs to bring things down to earth:
“Afterward, as they lay together, half asleep, but unwilling to drift apart into unconsciousness, Daisy farted, in a tiny series of absolutely irrepressible little pops that seemed to her to go on for a minute.”
Attagirl! When it comes to sex scenes, if you can’t break new ground, at least break new wind. M
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