Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Some notes on sex in words

1) A while back I praised Lawrence Block's Lucky at Cards (1964), a sharp little crime novel about a card cheat. In that post, I neglected to mention the book's one real flaw--one which bedevils many a writer, crime and otherwise: the sex scenes.

The success of noir frequently depends on the ability of an author to convey the powerful pull of a dangerous woman, and Block holds his own there:
I saw the legs first--long and slender, and a skirt bending at the knees. I folded my cards and had a look at the rest.

She wasn't quite beautiful. The body was perfect, with hooker's hips and queen-sized breasts and a belly that had just the right amount of bulge to it. The hair was the color of a chestnut when you pick the husk from it. She had the hair bound up in a French roll. It was stylish as hell, but you started imagining how this female was with her hair down and spread out over a white pillow.

The face was heart-shaped, with a pointed chin and wide-spaced eyes. Green eyes. There were little tension lines in the corners of those eyes, and matching lines around the mouth. Her mouth was too full and her nose was a little too long, and that's why I said she wasn't beautiful, exactly. But perfection always puts me off. There's something dry and sterile about an utterly beautiful woman. This one didn't put me off at all. She kept me staring hard at her.

But when they get to bed . . .
The room was on a high floor, so no one could have seen us, but we never thought about that at the time one way or the other. The lovemaking was too fast, too furious, too compulsive. There was deep need and dark hunger, and flesh merging with flesh, and an orchestral swell out of Tschaikovsky that led to a coda of pure Stravinsky.

That vital dissonance was always there. That harsh and bitter beauty that tossed the conventional harmonies out the window.
Suddenly things are all cloudy, portentous, and overblown.

I don't mean to take Block in particular to task here. What he's succumbed to is the inherent peril of the sex scene in any kind of literature. Too much specificity starts to sound like porn; too little tends, it seems, to create a sort of vacuum, into which such pretentious nonsense as Hemingway's earth-moving orgasms begin to creep in. It's inherently difficult. I think Murakami, for one, usually handles sex pretty well, if only because he keeps it within the affectless range of his ordinary prose, letting it be simply something else that might happen to a person--though, of course, it can end up, even for his characters, being much more.

2) Block at his worst at least never describes a penis as a "blade of flesh," as Max Allan Collins did in a passage I've already taken him to task for. Good god, it's been months and I still can't purge that horrid phrase from my mind. Sorry to make you suffer with me.

3) I tend to side with those who choose simply to pass over the details--the waves crashing on the shore approach. I like, for example, the following scene by Anthony Powell in A Buyer's Market (1952), wherein the narrator, Nick Jenkins, having just come from a funeral, loses his virginity in the back room of an antique shop to a rackety left-wing revolutionist named Gypsy Jones--later referred to by Jenkins's best friend as "La Pasionara of Hendon Central." Though Powell is without a doubt circumspect to the point of obscurity in this passage, it is of a piece with his presentation of Jenkins's thought processes throughout, and it seems particularly suited to this situation, when Jenkins, viewing himself as, in a sense, late to the having-had-sex party, thinks on the event:
The lack of demur on her part seemed quite in accordance with the almost somnambulistic force that had brought me into that place, and also with the torpid, dreamlike atmosphere of the afternoon. At least such protests as she put forward were of so formal and artificial an order that they increased, rather than diminished, the impression that a long-established rite was to be enacted, among Staffordshire figures and papier-mache trays, with the compelling, detached formality of nightmare. . . . I was conscious of Gypsy changing her individuality, though at the same time retaining her familiar form; this illusion almost conveying the extraordinary impression that there were really three of us--perhaps even four, because I was aware that alteration had taken place within myself, too--of whom the pair of active participants had been, as it were, projected from out of our normally unrelated selves.

In spite of the apparently irresistible nature of the circumstances, when regarded through the larger perspectives that seemed, on reflection, to prevail--that is to say of a general subordination to an intricate design of cause and effect--I could not help admitting, in due course, the awareness of a sense of inadequacy. There was no specific suggestion that anything had, as it might be said, "gone wrong"; it was merely that any wish to remain any longer present in those surroundings had suddenly and violently decreased, if not disappeared entirely. This feeling was, in its way, a shock. Gypsy, for her part, appeared far less impressed than myself by consciousness of anything, even relatively momentous, having occurred. In fact, after the brief interval of extreme animation, her subsequent indifference, which might almost have been called torpid, was, so it seemed to me, remarkable.

A "brief interval of extreme animation." Now that's as good a brief definition as I've heard . . . unless, that is, you're Sting.

Of course, for those willing to attempt writing about sex, it can provide fodder for plenty of comedy, or pathos--or both. Kingsley Amis chose the "both" option in this passage from The Old Devils (1987):
Most of those whose marriages have turned out less than well, say, might have been considered to have their ideas of how or why but not to know much about when. According to himself Peter was an exception. If challenged he could have named at least the month and year in which he and Muriel had been making love one night and roughly halfway through in his estimation, what would have been halfway through, rather, she had asked him how much longer he was going to be.
The whole thing, especially in the context of the rest of the novel, is sad, but it's the "in his estimation" that elevates it simultaneously into the realm of comedy.

5) According to his biographers, when it came to sex, Kingsley Amis ought to have known. A review in the Literary Review of a new biography by Zachary Leader explained that Amis's operating philosophy seems to have been
If it moves, fuck it. If it doesn't, drink it.
From that review I also learned that once, when Amis fell asleep on the beach, his first wife wrote on his ample stomach
One Fat Englishman. Will Fuck Anything.
Need I have specified "first" wife?

6) Thinking of sex as comedy has reminded me of a favorite poem, Robert Herrick's "The Vine" (1648):
I dreamed this mortal part of mine
Was metamorphosed to a vine,
Which crawling one and every way
Enthralled my dainty Lucia
Methought her long small legs and thighs
I with my tendrils did surprise
Her belly, buttocks, and her waist
By my soft nervelets were embraced.
About her head I writhing hung,
And with rich clusters (hid among
The leaves) her temples I behung,
So that my Lucia seemed to me
Young Bacchus ravished by his tree.
My curls about her neck did crawl,
And arms and hands they did enthrall,
So that she could not freely stir
(All parts there made one prisoner).
But when I crept with leaves to hide
Those parts which maids keep unespied,
Such fleeting pleasures there I took
That with the fancy I awoke;
And found (ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a stock than like a vine.

I owe my knowledge of this poem to Campbell McGrath, who included it on his syllabus for an extremely good poetry writing class I took as a freshman in college. If you don't know McGrath's work, Spring Comes to Chicago (1996) is a good place to start; I owe him at least that much of a plug in exchange for his introducing me to Herrick.

7) And, finally, speaking of sex in possibly inappropriate places (like the classroom): at my office, someone has recently put on the fridge a magnetic poetry set specifically geared to an office. Last week someone arranged
Office affairs teach collegiality.

This week, it's become
Office affairs teach ennui.

I have to admit: I have my doubts about both sentiments.

1 comment:

  1. I always knew there was a reason I always loved Stravinsky.