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review 2013-12-04 07:41
Thérèse et Isabelle
Thérèse et Isabelle - Violette Leduc

In the mid-1950s, Violette Leduc wrote a novel called Ravages. The first hundred and fifty pages comprised a semi-autobiographical depiction of two schoolgirls in a torrid lesbian relationship, which Leduc said she hoped would be ‘no more shocking than Mme Bloom’. Yes they said Yes it is more shocking yes. Her publishers refused to print it, and the novel appeared without its opening section in 1955 (and did very well). Ten years later, a different publisher agreed to print the excised material as a stand-alone novella, although they still insisted on certain cuts for legality: this was the original 1966 form of Thérèse et Isabelle, the fully uncensored version of which did not appear in French until the year 2000, nearly thirty years after its author had died.

It is very explicit in places, but also deeply poetic. Leduc said her aim was to ‘render as minutely as possible the sensations experienced during physical love’ and while at times this feels like a slightly limited goal, she succeeds at it brilliantly. In terms of purely physical sensations, this short book contains the best sex scenes I've ever read. And yet they're not all that sexy – to me, anyway – because it is purely physical sensation: there is almost no emotional background, no build-up, no characterisation of either Thérèse or Isabelle that goes beyond each girl's overwhelming desire for the other.

Nevertheless the language is remarkable. Leduc has a tendency to come out with these gnomic, existential remarks, which don't always make perfect sense but which demand to be quoted for their sheer inventive pleasure:

La caresse est au frisson ce que le crépuscule est à l'éclair.
(The caress is to the shiver what dusk is to the lightning-bolt.)

Quand on aime on est toujours sur le quai d'une gare.
(When one is in love, one is eternally on a railway-station platform.)

Je la regarde comme je regarde la mer le soir quand je ne la vois plus.
(I watch her the way I watch the sea in the evening when I can no longer see it.)

Ma bouche rencontra so bouche comme la feuille morte la terre.
(My mouth met her mouth as a dead leaf meets the earth.)

J'entrais dans sa bouche comme on entre dans la guerre
(I entered her mouth the way you enter a war.)

At times these lapidary flourishes work very well; at other times, they topple over into high-flown nonsense (‘I was seized by the glove of infinity’, and much more in the same vein). There is also something a bit…oppressive about the tone for my tastes, with zero sense of humour and much earnestness. Admittedly these characters are only seventeen, and sex does tend to feel like the end of the world at that age, but still, wow!, talk about intense. Just hours after hooking up, Thérèse is already fantasizing about cutting off the hands of everyone else that touches her new lover, while Isabelle is raising the prospect of the two of them jumping off a cliff together so that neither outlives the other. It made me laugh because of the whole running joke in the LGBT world that gay women are super clingy super fast (you remember the classic gag: what does a lesbian bring to a second date? A U-Haul). At the same time I was impressed by it, just because of how few writers are attempting this sort of thing now.

I became fixated on the pronouns. They were still referring to each other by the formal vous until nearly halfway through the story! It was blowing my mind. You would think by the time you're knuckle-deep inside another person that one of you would have coughed politely and said, ‘Actually, do you mind if we tutoie each other?’ It's one of those little things that make me realise how much mental space is separating me from this world of 1950s provincial France.

All the more reason to experience it, though. The book is short and it builds, like a good quickie, to an intense and powerful climax where all of Leduc's characteristics work to best effect. An orgasm is captured in words like you would hardly believe possible (in a riot of synaesthesia: ‘my eyes heard, my ears saw’), and there are several more flashes of unexpected simile (Thérèse, trying to learn how to give oral sex, describes her gestures as feeling ‘like a scratched record repeating itself’ – this is fantastic).

For post-climactic comedown, Leduc leaves us with two final sentences that are the more devastating for being so simple after all the poetry that has gone before. It's a beautiful piece of work – limited in what it sets out to do, perhaps, and a little overblown at times, but nonetheless studded with frantic and extraordinary delights.

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review 2013-09-15 00:00
Feathery tickles from the little creatures nestling in their underwear
Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh - Robert Irwin

This is the sort of slim, unserious novella that a charitable critic might call a jeu d'esprit and a less charitable one a complete waste of time. The style has been aptly summarised by a previous reviewer as ‘Orientalist porn’, and sure enough the whole thing feels like an extended riff on a Jean-Léon Gérôme painting, perhaps this one:

The Grand Bath at Bursa, 1885

The setting is the closed world of the imperial harem in Ottoman İstanbul. Orkhan, a relative of the sultan, has spent his life locked away in a cage: finally one day he is released, and hailed by the harem girls as their new ruler. But he quickly realises that there is something more sinister going on behind all the sensuous luxury on display, and there's every chance he might not make it out alive.

The approach is episodic and hallucinogenic, with poor Orkhan stumbling tumescently from one steam-room to the next, desperately trying to assert his authority over a series of horny concubines, bored laundry girls and mystic priestesses, who always seem to know a lot more than he does. There is a dwarf, there is crocodile sex, there is a voluptuous fortune-teller who practises ‘phallomancy’ and ‘vulvascopy’. There are Arabian Nights-style anecdotes, such as when the harem develops an infestation of those Persian fairies known as peris:

They would clamber into the stocking tops of the concubines and ride about in this manner. They used to tiptoe into the girls' knickers and snuggle there for warmth and soft comfort…and, of course, the girls liked them being there for they would receive feathery tickles from the little creatures nestling in their underwear.

Like sexy crabs.

Irwin is probably the world's foremost expert on the Thousand and One Nights and has written several scholarly works on it; there are doubtless more references here that I'm picking up on, although I spotted quite a few. The scene where Orkhan is instructed on what to call the parts of a woman's body (culminating in ‘the Tavern of the Perfume-Makers’) is unmistakably modelled on the well-known Tale of the Porter and the Young Girls (where if I remember rightly the same anatomical area is called ‘the khan of Abu Mansur’).

It's all quite playful and tongue-in-cheek, but you have to wonder what exactly the purpose is. (‘No purpose at all,’ one character says tellingly, ‘save my pleasure in the stringing of words together and in the telling of it. Must everything have a purpose?’) If there is a message, it has something to do with turning away from so-called higher concerns and concentrating on more accessible, earthly pleasures:

Foolish people think that the ultimate mystery of life resides in the spirit. The wise know that it is found nowhere save in the flesh.

This doesn't put me off Irwin: he's a very interesting and rather neglected writer with some clever ideas. However, this is definitely a minor work – though diverting enough for the few hours it takes to read it.

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