Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Lessons of the Project

I have immersed myself in sex. I am reading it, writing it, listening to it on audio book, not the noises of sex (as one might listen to whale songs or the chirrup of dolphins), but the classic books about it. I have read many books about sex in the past, but always for pleasure and never with a view to becoming an expert in classic sex literature, but this year I have a deadline to deliver a novel that references the great works of the genre. The first task then has been to identify the great works. This is no easy task. The list is quite extensive.

I had the basics down. I had read Nin's "Delta of Venus" and "Little Birds" and some novels by Georges Bataille. I had read Reage's "The Story of O" and Nicholson Baker's "Vox" and a pile of sexual memoirs that I dipped into when I was writing my own. But if you begin to lift the lid of the genre then you realise you have discovered a veritable Pandora's Box of terrors and delights. I hadn't, for example continued my initial struggles with de Sade who I found stuffy in his language and a little pointed in his relentless pursuit of transgression. I had opened Fanny Hill and backed quickly away from the pomp and powder of the age in which it was written. We all have our particular tastes. That is what I have been discovering for myself. Some of the classic sex books capture my imagination immediately and some leave me a little cold, and dare I say it, dry.

I am beginning to discover that for me, use of language is more important than the plot. I am aroused by the placement of words, the flow of sentences, the hint of broader themes lying just beyond the bodily delights. Some of the less physical of the classic texts are actually more sensual. James Salter for instance woos us into submission with his relentless longing in "A Sport and a Pastime". "Young Adam" a book by Alexander Trocchi which has an unsettling sexual undercurrent led me to discover his more traditionally sexual works each equally disturbing and arousing. My favourite discovery so far has been Yusinari Kawabata, a Nobel Prize winning Japanese author whose novella "The House of the Sleeping Beauties" is a mesmerising treatise on sex, death and aging and clearly the cornerstone for Julia Leigh's Australian film "Sleeping Beauty". It is a novella about sex and yet there are no actual descriptions of the act itself. Set in a kind of brothel where old men pay to sleep beside the naked drugged and sleeping bodies of young girls, the protagonist struggles with his nostalgia for lost youth, his own encroaching impotence, the idea of death and his memories of sex. There are hints of sexuality in the book, the text is infused with it, and yet the sparse prose leaves the details of it completely up to the reader. It is our job as reader to describe the details of the sex in the theater of our imaginations. The book is perhaps more potent because of what remains unsaid. It is a book that continues to haunt me even as I move on from the reading of it. I am now discovering the lewdness of Felix Salten's "The Memoirs of Josephine Mutzenbacher" and enjoying the fact that Salten was the author of one of my childhood favourites, "Bambi" which was turned into a very wholesome Disney animated film. It is these simple juxtapositionings that bring me the most pleasure in my strange and varied research.

Sometimes, reading sex book after sex book, I become immune to the descriptions of genitals. What is left is the sensuality of language, the rythm of it, the blowsy beauty of a string of words slipped together by a skilled craftsperson. Kawabata is a master of it. Anais Nin has flashes of brilliance. Salter leaves you breathless. Nicholson Barker manages it with a playful wink and I am facing Nabokov's longest and most complex work, "Ador and Ardor", with trepidation. It is a sex epic that has been likened to Ulysses and hefting it around in my handbag and struggling with the clever but incredibly complex wordplay I can see why. I am just at the beginning of my year of reading and there is still so much to discover, but even at this early stage I feel inspired to put some of these books in your hands, fellow readers. Stick with me and I will hand you some rare gems indeed.

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