The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

A few years ago, Olivia Judson burst onto the scene with Dr Tatiana's Sex Advice To All Creation. Various animals wrote to this biological agony-aunt asking for tips for better sex and procreation, and she gave them very pertinent advice. How to avoid being eaten by your mate after sex was one important topic, especially when you are a few hundred times smaller than her. A successful television show followed.

A bit later, Isabella Rossellini got into the act with her online series of videos titled 'Green Porno', which explored the sex lives of various fauna. These were gross yet funny; I watched one or two.

It turns out that the very clever Alessandro Boffa beat both women to it with his exploration of love, obsession and beastly antics, You're an Animal, Viskovitz. The hapless Viskovitz is desperately in love with the seductive Ljuba, but no matter what his incarnation - a mantis, a shark, a sponge, a scorpion - he is constantly thwarted, either by his bad timing, or biology, or the pressures from his friends or competitors (and it's always the same trio: Lopez, Zucotic, Petrovic). The wondrous Ljuba makes eyes at him, yet invariably he has to settle for the homely Jana. Animal behaviour to illustrate the human condition can be dry and academic, but Boffa, a biologist by training, has a facility with expression and superb humour, and this is lovely, whimsical stuff.

Animal sex can be smutty, which allows us to segue into Alan Bennett's twofer, titled Smut: Two Unseemly Stories. Bennett has an unjudgmental touch with much sympathy for his characters, and he wields it lightly here. In one story, a widow joins a local teaching hospital as a diagnostic aid; the professor is attracted to her; the students think her 'cool' because she has allowed her bedsit tenants to perform sex acts in her presence in lieu of rent. Bennett explores sexual awakening in middle age: the widow is impressed by the versatility and energy of the young tenants and recalls that she had never been quite as enthusiastic with her husband. Although she doesn't appear to be much aroused by what she sees, she veers between heightened interest and indifference, and her main concern remains 'what will other people think if they knew?' In the other story, a gay man with an overbearing mother and a distant father marries a woman he considers silly. The dynamics in the family are in constant flux, and everyone's imperative to maintain their   secrets and superficial relationships provides the humour and pathos in the tale.

On the one hand, there are families that successfully hide their loves from each other, and on the other, there are entire societies that keep an aggressive, claustrophobic eye on everyone. The resulting atmosphere of suspicion and poison, parochiality and patriarchy, love and desire, is sparely described in Wajdi Ahdal's  A Land without Jasmine. Set in Yemen, a lovely girl is an object of barely suppressed lust by nearly all the men she encounters. Her neighbours, local shopkeepers, her professors, all assume that she wants to seduce them. Polite smiles are taken as invitations. No matter how demurely she conducts herself, she stirs loins. The girl disappears one day, the police get involved, and the story lurches from one self-serving point of view to another. This is a furious, explicit polemic against the systematic brutalisation of women in traditional Arab society; small wonder that books like these forced Ahdal to leave the country to save his life. He is back in Yemen now, but who knows whether his much-needed voice has the audience it deserves?

And finally we have the frankly peculiar Story of the Eye, by Georges Bataille. Reading it reminded me of Guillaume Apollinaire's nutty, frenetic and surreal Les Onze Mille Verges: Or, the Amorous Adventures of Prince Mony Vibescu, a bonkfest that is too funny to be erotic. (Oh, and it could have been in my sub-200-page read list, except I've read it already.) But where Apollinaire was light-hearted, Bataille is obsessive. Geometrically unfeasible contortions abound in this debut novel, which has far too many multiple orgasms to have any resemblance to reality. (Or, perhaps, I've just led a very sheltered existence.) Roland Barthes' textual analysis led to hidden meaning and much philosophising - so why is the book promoted as erotica? Besides the obvious intersection between sex, murder, madness and religion, what does it offer? It might have been avant-garde when it first appeared in 1928, but today it feels forced and pedestrian. I'm baffled, baffled, I tell you.

(For some utterly bizarre reason I can't fathom, several of the books I've got from the library as part of my exploration of the sub-200-page range deal with sex. And I'm only up to the letter B! As you see above, we have an Ahdal, a Bataille, a Bennett, and a Boffa. Were it not for the Ahdal, I'd have given this blog the title of Birds and Bs.)


sakura said...

I'm baffled by Bataille's Story of the Eye too...

Feanor said...

Check out the Apollinaire - it's much funnier at least. What Christmas plans?

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