There's group sex on the fourth page and a chapter that begins "I really like sucking men's cocks." But the most shocking thing about "The Sexual Life of Catherine M.," an unfettered memoir that has become a bestseller in France and is just now being published in the United States, is that it isn't particularly shocking at all. A good quarter of the time, it works as pornography (and I use the term in a descriptive sense, not a judgmental one); the rest of the time it's a rumination on the nature of desire and pleasure and the experience of living a life that is specifically arranged to let desire and pleasure have their way with you. It's titillating, explicit, dryly funny and sometimes exceedingly puzzling.
The only truly shocking thing about it is that it was written by a straight woman and not a gay man.
The author of "The Sexual Life of Catherine M." is Catherine Millet (her real name), an art critic and the longtime editor of the French journal Art Press. Millet, who is now in her early 50s, has written eight books of art criticism. In Vogue magazine last year, Francine du Plessix Gray characterized her as "a demure woman ... who wears white dimity blouses with her prim black suits."
Since being a teenager in the 1970s, Millet has had sexual encounters with hundreds -- in fact, a countless number -- of men. Millet has taken and been taken in public parks, in sex clubs and cozy apartments, at birthday parties that would segue gracefully (or feverishly) into artfully arranged orgies. She also recounts a memorable episode in a delivery van parked outside the Soviet Embassy in Paris, where she was visited by a succession of men who rocked her world so hard that her friend Éric, her protector and cruise director during such sessions, had to bring the evening to a close partly because the van was in danger of tipping over.
"The Sexual Life of Catherine M." is a dare to every human being, particularly every woman, who claims to be sexually open. No woman has ever written a book like this. Millet speaks with so much matter-of-fact assurance about her sexuality and her exploits that she's bound to make enemies, even among those who insist they're anything but prudish. (Beware any human being who begins a sentence with the innocently sinister phrase "I'm no prude, but ...," inevitably a prelude to superiority and judgment.) Millet is unapologetic about her adoration of cocks, and lots of them, preferably all at once. And she never adopts the half-defensive, half self-congratulatory tone of so many women writers who fancy themselves sexually free; her sentences never scream, "Look what a groovy libertine I am!"
Millet is too busy for that: Too busy taking on all cummers, allowing herself to be stroked and pawed, masturbating alone or with a partner, perfecting the art of the blow job. She wants to be where the action is and, in pursuit of it, lives out a glorious perversion of the Puritan work ethic. No idle hands for her; she likes to keep busy. "In the biggest orgies in which I participated ... there could be up to about 150 people (they did not all fuck, some had come to watch), and I would take on the organs of around a quarter or a fifth of them in all the available ways: In my hands, my mouth, my cunt and my ass. Sometimes I would exchange kisses and caresses with women, but that was only ever secondary."
To put it any other way would be coy: Millet likes to fuck. And, being a critic -- in other words, a person for whom observation and participation are indistinguishably intertwined -- she likes nothing more than to think and to talk about it. "The Sexual Life of Catherine M." isn't a titillating read masquerading as an intellectual treatise: It's unapologetically both. But what's refreshing about it is the way Millet naturally assumes that we're interested in knowing why she thinks and feels as she does, instead of trying to convince us that we should be. Her raw confidence works like a charm: We hang on every word.
At least, almost. There are patches of "The Sexual Life of Catherine M." that are term-paper dull. Millet wastes a lot of gas, for instance, pondering the pros and cons of fucking publicly in bucolic settings and in urban ones: "[An urban space] presupposes the presence of others, an audience of fortuitous strangers who might penetrate the aura of intimacy which emanates from a partially naked body or from two bodies soldered together. Those same bodies out under the clouds, with only God as their witness, are looking for the opposite sensation; not to make others come into the pocket of air in which their rapid breathing mingles, but, thanks to their Edenic isolation, to let their pleasure spread as far as the eye can see. The illusion there is that their ecstasy is on the same scale as this expanse, that the body that houses them is dilating to infinity."
A friend of mine once put it better: "Hooray! Hooray! The first of May/Outdoor humping starts today." But if you can forgive Millet her occasional episodes of overintellectualized flatulence (she is French, after all), "The Sexual Life of Catherine M." holds you tighter than a pair of handcuffs.
Millet's narrative meanders, but she's certainly able to focus sharp attention on what she likes and why she likes it. She writes openly but almost a little shyly about her body, acknowledging that, like all other women, she can't see it as others do. She likes her ass, and enjoys offering it freely; she likes being looked at, admired, toyed with. She explains why, as much as she enjoys sex with multiple partners, she could never be a prostitute (part of the reason is that it entails many of the same preliminary niceties of traditional courtship, a minuet Millet loathes -- she prefers to get right down to it).
She also explains, in the best way anyone could, about the challenges and difficulties of her chosen life in relation to her longtime partner (Millet has had an open marriage with one man, off and on, since the '70s). A brief passage on migraines and how they change her observations about her own body -- and even her very existence -- is fascinating, particularly if you've ever suffered the pain of one yourself.
Not long into the book, Millet's descriptions of tangled limbs, spelunking tongues and many, many stiffened cocks achieve a kind of somber formality; as you grow accustomed to such details, they become less and less explosive, although not necessarily less erotic. In that respect, Millet's vivid descriptions of various arrangements and tableaux carry on the tradition of Sade. And her freedom with the language recalls Henry Miller, although her prose has a more elegant polish.
She recounts her experiences with one lover who seemed to heighten her anticipation and pleasure by making appointments that she had to move heaven and earth to keep: "These meetings were always at an ungodly hour for anyone trying to carry on professional activities that were just a tad dependent on office hours: between eleven o'clock and midday, between half past three and four o'clock in the afternoon ... the day before I could already feel the nervous tension in my snatch subjected to the vibrating of the seat on the Metro while I looked forward to our reunion. The feeling could be so maddening that I sometimes preferred to get off a few stops before my destination, to calm myself down by walking. That man could lick my snatch indefinitely."
Millet's book reads as if it couldn't have been written by a woman -- at least, no woman we've yet met. It's miles away from the psychically and physically detached erotic burblings of Anaïs Ninny (who got paid by the page -- and it shows). It's significantly different, even, from the more modern, determinedly kinky, femme-macho writing of Pat Califia -- for one thing, Millet's book isn't a work of fantasy or fiction (and her descriptions of various scenarios are so vivid and resolute that you never once believe she made any of it up). And beyond that, "The Sexual Life of Catherine M." never reads as if it were consciously written to arouse us -- any erotic charges it sets off are simply inherent in the details Millet chooses and the way she lays them bare.
That may sound odd when we're talking about an explicit sexual memoir, but it's one of the most enthralling qualities of Millet's book. She's not rattling off textbook images of things that might potentially make us hot, but explaining with great care and thought the things that turn her on -- our imaginations are left to wander happily through the book, and our libidos are free to respond, or not, at whim. Her recurring preference is for being taken and attended to by several men at once (a common enough female fantasy), but she has no masochistic leanings. (Some of the situations she has found herself in sound inherently dangerous, but there's also a sense that many of her encounters were carefully arranged with friends or friends of friends, and she counts many current and former lovers as friends as well.)
Millet has a sense of humor, too. She describes a scene in which she can't help giggling after a lover intentionally pees on her -- she doesn't pass judgment on him for it, but it simply isn't her thing. He's offended by her response, and years later when they meet again, he reminds her of her deficiency: "There's one thing you're not good at, and that's being pissed on."
"The Sexual Life of Catherine M." is only on its surface a book about sex; it's really a book about living, which is why it's certain to anger some people even as it delights others. So much pornography created for and by women is weighed down by its own timidity, as if it were trying its damnedest to be hot and yet not offend delicate sensibilities at the same time. I once tried to watch a Candida Royalle movie and nearly fell asleep in the time it took the two central characters to pack their nice picnic lunch, find the appropriate grassy, romantic spot and look around appreciatively at all the pretty trees around them. When the frisky pair finally took their clothes off, the woman kept her hiking boots on, a nature-babe affectation that only made the whole scenario more dismal.
In both movies and literature, there's plenty to be said for cutting to the chase, even if many of us enjoy all the flirtations and preambles in real life. Millet is a model of efficiency -- she doesn't want to waste her time or ours. Her sensuality is written on the page not in blurred curves and soft moans, but in a sign language that recognizes the beauty of a good stiff cock, and in the sense of fulfillment and heightened self-knowledge that comes with taking charge of it. Whether you share Millet's predilections is beside the point; what matters most is not what she says but how she says it. There are always going to be those people who wonder why anyone should speak as freely as Millet does about such a private thing. Millet's response, one that races far beyond the question, is, Why not? There's no shame or embarrassment in "The Sexual Life of Catherine M.," except for that we bring to it ourselves.