How long?

Hilary Mantel

  • The Literary Companion to Sex: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry edited by Fiona Pitt-Kethley
    Sinclair-Stevenson, 415 pp, £18.00, February 1992, ISBN 1 85619 127 3
  • The Love Quest: A Sexual Odyssey by Anne Cumming
    Peter Owen, 200 pp, £15.50, November 1991, ISBN 0 7206 0835 X

Fiona Pitt-Kethley’s favourite novel is a 16th-century Chinese work called Chin P’ing Mei. This book, she believes, was written as an act of vengeance. The author imbued each of the 1600 pages of his manuscript with poison, and presented it to a politician against whom he had a grudge. He knew that the minister, who had a huge appetite for pornography, would lick and turn each page, and so do himself to death. The 415 pages of this anthology won’t kill you – nor will you go blind – but you may from time to time feel queasy. An anthology of sex is something of a bathhouse, back-alley enterprise. Here are passages without antecedent or consequence, brief, sometimes anonymous; sometimes gratifying enough, in a casual sort of way.

Writing about sex is difficult. It is hard to describe good sex without resorting to cliché, without being coarse, obvious or prurient. Bad sex is easier to write about, but it is not interesting unless it is put into a psychological context. Bad writing is never interesting, whether it is about sex or anything else. Fiona Pitt-Kethley admits in her introduction that there is a lot of bad, dull writing about sex; her criteria for selection were ‘realism, humour or the unusual’. The question of humour is a fraught one, though. Of course sex may be incidentally funny – anything may be that. But people who claim it is intrinsically funny (perhaps nothing is that) may be avoiding thinking about it, for reasons of their own. In this anthology, much of the supposed humour is puerile: two thousand years of sniggering behind the hand.

In her own poetry and in her travel book Journey to the Underworld the compiler has been frank, even insistent about the breadth of her own sexual experience; she likes to be photographed in poses that make the most of her bosom. She has gone about her compiler’s task with great diligence, rescuing from the realms of obscurity many authors who should have remained there. She has adopted a conventional, chronological approach, rather than arrange her subject-matter by sexual activity: ‘If I had done that, there seemed to be a distinct possibility that the lazier reader would select his/her favourite kink and only read a certain section. I want to make you work harder than that.’

So we begin with the Bible and move on to Greece and Rome. Where the existing translations lack frankness Fiona Pitt-Kethley has supplied her own. Her versions sometimes swing in a ludicrous way between starchiness and slang: so a phrase from the Satyricon comes out as ‘When I was a kid I mucked around with my peers.’ And there is no need to re-translate, for the sake of plain speaking, the account Suetonius gives of Tiberius’s goatish habits on Capri; Robert Graves’s translation is sufficiently graphic for most tastes.

The Middle Ages and Renaissance pass with incomprehensible anecdotes about lusty millers, many pages of Rabelais, Aretino’s account of a gang-bang. There is the odd snippet of useful information, like this from Reginald Scot’s The Discovery of Witchcraft: ‘to procure the dissolving of bewitched and constrained love, the party bewitched must make a jakes of the lover’s shoe.’ It seems a piquant variation on sipping champagne from a slipper. But writing about sex in this era – as in the ages before, and the ages to come – seems little more than variation on a few simple themes: boys boasting about the size of their member, and how long they can keep it up: how much they made her bleed, and how the bitch wanted more. It is intensely depressing, misogynistic, anaphrodisiac; the weight of the collection is towards pornography rather than erotica.

Fiona Pitt-Kethley is no doubt aware of this, and one can sympathise with her in her largely futile search for female writers to provide another point of view. The Restoration brings us Aphra Behn’s Betty Flauntit, with the age-old female cry: ‘No matter for his Handsomeness, let me have him that has most money.’ But is anyone enjoying themselves? The age is obsessed with:

Pox upon Pox, most horrid and most dire!
And Ulcers filled with Hell’s Eternal Fire.

This section of the anthology is a litany of ‘fies!’ and ‘faughs!’, a procession of cuckolds and whoremasters and bawds. A flash of wit from The Country Wife is welcome: ‘Good wives and private soldiers should be ignorant.’ It is irritating to have no dates or details about the authors, but the best things here are the familiar ones. Marvell’s Coy Mistress travels down the centuries and sometimes changes sex. As Joe Orton puts it: ‘When you’re dead you’ll regret not having fun with your genital organs.’ And John Whitworth:

Enough of solitary vice.
Better to carve yourself a slice
Of life, for, as the poet said,
There’s fuck-all fucking when you’re dead.

The 18th-century section is surprisingly thin, with Swift showing himself the master of cultivated and highly-wrought disgust for the female body, and de Sade thrown in for a make-weight. Like the century which follows, it breeds some despicable doggerel, compared to which Pitt-Kethley’s version of ‘Eskimo Nell’ is a marvel of freshness and rhymer’s ingenuity. The 19th century is the century of ‘bawdy wishes, all in conflict, all in tumult’, as ‘Walter’ puts it in My Secret Life; the 20th century offers, as Pitt-Kethley puts it in her introduction, ‘everything from bestiality to vibrators’. And, predictably, Erica Jong; and Lady Chatterley enjoying in Mellor’s iron bedstead ‘such a clean passion’; and Alexander Portnoy huddled behind a billboard, violating a piece of raw liver on his way to his barmitzvah lesson. On the evidence here, since women gained the freedom to write about sex, they have done no better than men. One of the few passages that might entice you to read the original is from Lisa Alther’s Original Sins; it is refreshing and funny because she is writing not just about sex but about the people to whom the genital organs are attached. By contrast, there is a passage from Wendy Perriam’s The Fifty-Minute Hour which offers as little incentive to lubricity as any of the 18th-century descriptions of chancres and nodules.

Perhaps it is not Perriam’s fault but Pitt-Kethley’s, for taking the passage out of context? This is the difficulty with the whole enterprise. In her acknowledgments the compiler says that she approached the Nabokov Estate for permission to use an extract from Lolita, and was rebuffed, the Estate’s representative claiming ‘a firm policy of granting permission only for anthologies relating to the art of literature; requests for anthologies regarding sex per se are consistently denied.’ Pitt-Kethley takes umbrage: ‘Whether his estate likes it or not, Nabokov was a remarkably good writer about sex.’

This is to miss the point. No doubt some of the hacks the compiler has resurrected are incapable of misrepresentation, but the more able authors are ill-served by having their writing about sex put into a separate category from the rest of their writing, as if they were 95 per cent artist and 5 per cent pornographer. Usually, when an author writes about sex, he is trying to make his reader’s imagination work for him; what is held back, as much as what is stated, gives force to what is on the page. But Pitt-Kethley has made her viewpoint on this clear: ‘I have much more sympathy with a doggerel poet than with the elegant writer who can’t say what he means.’ She hardly need explain. If elegance were prized, this would be a very thin book. And after all, it’s size that counts, you know.

If there are problems in writing about sex, Anne Cumming hasn’t been discouraged by them. The Love Quest is the second volume of her memoirs; it begins in 1952, and finds the former debutante, actress and intelligence officer in mid-career, with one marriage behind her and her second looking shaky. At the beginning of the book her husband Charles is about to take a long business trip to the South Seas. An actor she knows slightly arrives at her house and finds her inconsolable. ‘“But Charles has only gone for three months,” he protested, patting me on the fanny. His hand rested there a little too long.’ Presumably this is the American usage, or it is difficult to think what a decorous length of time might be. But with Cumming you can never tell. Until this point she has been faithful to Charles, ‘the first man to give me an orgasm every single time we made love – without fail, without difficulty, wherever, however’: but she is so lonely and angry that very soon ‘I lay in Eugene’s arms between the pink sheets waiting to feel guilty,’

When she doesn’t feel guilty, it is a revelation to her. Next day she arranges two months’ leave from her job with the British Council, buys a set of red luggage (because it is vulgar) and departs for North Africa. In the course of her travels over the next few years she will meet William Burroughs and Paul Bowles, and a number of other people who she hints are famous but who must be protected by pseudonyms. She also encounters any number of eager organs.

The first belongs to a man who had just come third in the Tour de France, a fact which inexplicably excites her. ‘All I can remember about him was his remarkable muscle tone and his beautiful strong thighs.’ The vagueness is understandable: ‘I like a man from the waist down.’ But elsewhere – as she leaves North Africa for Iraq, and then for a long sojourn in Rome – it is her powers of recall that impress the reader. How does she remember each orgasm in such detail? Did she take notes, postcoitally? Or is it simply that the settings are unforgettably exotic, the acts so athletic? Visiting the pyramids, knickerless, she indulges swiftly with her cicerone: on horseback.

As a traveller in remote regions, she’s of the artless ‘something will turn up’ school, and she writes unpretentiously and provocatively of the places where bits of the red luggage get left behind. Her descriptions of sex are not always so happy: ‘His moustache had tickled me into tingling bliss.’ And her tastes are simple ones: ‘He was great at foreplay and once penetration began he was like an automatic drill.’ It’s difficult not to admire her enthusiasm; and these were the days when only enthusiasm was infectious. ‘You gay men taught us the joys of sexual freedom,’ she says to her friend Max. A shot of penicillin would cure anything you might pick up, and there is nothing to stop you having sex with someone before you’ve learned their name.

At first it seems that she’s enjoying what men have always enjoyed: guilt-free, impulsive, uncommitted sex. The note of pathos in the book is mostly disguised by the author’s relentless jauntiness, as she scatters her favours and her nostrums around Europe and the Near East: ‘You can always make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Goodwill to all men is what counts.’ But she remains obsessively in love with her husband Charles, who has no intention of being faithful to her; she recognises that her casual affairs are a way of trying to please him, to loosen the grip of her own emotions. Her state of mind is interesting. She has found that (contrary to what nice girls are told) she doesn’t need to be in love to enjoy sex: but once her attention ascends above the waist, she is prone to fall in love all the same (just as nice girls are warned they will). And as she gets into her forties, people notice that she is ageing but regard her as less ‘mature’ than her own daughters. The double standard operates: for women, maturity and conformity are the same. A middle-aged man with half her joie de vivre would be a hero to his friends. Still, as she says, one does not go back, one moves forward, especially when one is a Sagittarian.’ Musing on her life’s experience, Max asks her a question. ‘So, for you, the Arabs are best?’ ‘Yes, although I prefer them one at a time. And in a romantic desert setting if possible.’ Who would not? There must be some distraction from the unsleeping tumescence, the everlasting thrusting and squelching. Inside the cover of her book Anne Cumming is photographed supine, bejewelled and alluring, one bare breast pointing to the reader. Fiona Pitt-Kethley has not thought of this, yet.