Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The puff of desire

At the TLS, Robert Irwin's amusing musings on a new (and voluminous!) anthology of erotic literature (edited by Gaetan Brulotte and John Phillips):
For my taste, far too many obscure French hacks of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have been awarded entries. To judge from the Encyclopedia, France leads the world in the production of erotic literature, with China a poor second. Just as every country should have its own airline, so it should have its own pornography. Holland, The Happy Hooker notwithstanding, “has produced but few writers of erotica of its own whose works have been able to stand the test of time due to their inherent quality and/or the extent of the scandal they caused”. Ireland, meanwhile, is “not a country readily associated with the erotic”. Arabic and Persian erotica (the area I am most familiar with) is well covered by learned and capable authorities (except that I am not sure that all the erotica ascribed to the sixteenth-century Egyptian religious scholar Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti really is by him). It is good to come across Zakani’s definition of a “virgin” as “a noun with no referent”. The articles on Persian erotica by Paul Sprachman and Dick Davis relay many good things, including “the puff of desire” that rises from the pages of the romantic epic Vis and Ramin, a description of Vis’s brilliantly orchestrated accidental striptease, a defence of the eroticism of the chador, and a quotation from a medieval mirror for princes to the effect that boys are best for summer and girls for winter.

But I had been hoping that the Encylopedia’s coverage would be trashier. The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies once remarked of pornography that it was “rather like trying to find out about a Beethoven symphony by having someone tell you about it and perhaps hum a few bars”. While there are many who read erotic literature in order to get some sort of ersatz sexual pleasure out of the reading, there have always been plenty of young people who read the same books simply in order to discover what sex is. In the Encyclopedia’s rather good article on “Women’s Magazines”, Janice Winship is quoted: “It was disappointing that my mother had only Women’s Weekly. Mrs Marryat gave little away on her problem page. But I used to love the romance and adventure of the serials . . . mainly because of one (or so I remember it) highly erotic scene in which the heroine lets down her sari to reveal and offer up her nakedness to the man she loves”.

The Encylopedia’s entry on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos observes that “no instruction in the mechanics of sex can be obtained from reading Les Liaisons dangereuses, outside of the fact that it is often performed in bed and often at night”. Most novels about initiation into sex do not perform that task for their readers. I remember that in the 1950s and early 60s, it was jolly difficult to learn about sex from reading novels. Books like Peyton Place, Angélique and Forever Amber gave little away, though the undressing scene in Richard Mason’s The World of Suzie Wong was more helpful.

1 comment:

  1. God, I love almost everything Irwin writes for the TLS!