It’s not supposed to be a big deal anymore, a book about sex by a woman who has had plenty: What of it, buster? ”The Story of O,” ”The Happy Hooker,” ”Fear of Flying” — the shelves have been well stocked for decades with explicit talk from frank and lusty women. Yet when The Sexual Life of Catherine M. was published in Europe last year, the gasp was heard clear from Paris: Here was Catherine Millet, a 53-year-old French editor (of the magazine Art Press) and the author of eight books of art criticism, offering up her orifices for cross-eye-inducing close study. Millet cashed in her intellectual cred to write about years of group sex immediately following the disposal of her virginity, of gang bangs and orgies, and of her inoculation against disgust, even when rutting with the foulest-smelling partner on the dirtiest floor in Paris.
The garrulous ladies who lunch in ”Sex and the City” would be speechless. (The French critics raged or applauded; most gratifying for Millet’s purposes, they bought a ticket to her literary peep show.) Millet’s ”Sexual Life,” with its ”Story of O”-ish porn title, was a huge best-seller in France. And now the chicly scandalous memoir comes Stateside with a generous first printing in anticipation of equally robust sales.
If Adriana Hunter’s jerky translation is anywhere near the original, the author’s narrative voice suggests a jumble of Penthouse; ”Our Bodies, Ourselves”; and The New York Review of Books. With the brisk authority of a university lecturer, Millet spreads her legs, hands out speculums (and magnifying glasses and miners’ lamps), and stares back in challenge — a living art installation, a Woman As Receptacle who’s docile, she says, ”not because I like submission…but out of a deep-seated indifference to the uses to which we put our bodies.”
Indifference, it becomes clear, is Millet’s armor as she dares her audience to deny her the right to screw whom she wants, how she wants, with as many at a time as she can accommodate, in whatever circumstances she pleases — and to describe the stuff with the same humorless swagger afforded to men. ”Every reasonably original sexual exploit, far from debasing me, was in fact a source of pride, like another milestone in my quest for the sexual grail,” she declares. (No one’s denying her — not even her husband, who likes to take naked photos and videos of his wife.)
Millet styles herself as a free spirit without personal definition, an explorer without goals, a liberated woman who has ”squatted on a mirror and looked at my genitals, but that only provided me with a confused impression.” This adventurer who came of age with Ms. also presents herself, maddeningly, as gaily uninformed about the basic operation of her own female equipment. ”I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that, until I was about 35, I had not imagined that my own pleasure could be the aim of a sexual encounter,” she writes. There’s no mention of AIDS, or birth control, or sexually transmitted diseases other than ”a touch of the clap”; she does, however, offer detailed description of her migraines and how she once fit in a sex partner between bouts of headache-induced vomiting.
Those primed to flip the pages looking for the dirtiest rendezvous, then, will find their hopes fulfilled: Madame M. has done it everywhere, with everybody. And she’s particularly proud of her prowess at oral sex, as well as of the ”supple waist” that allows her to be twisted, Gumbylike, as required. But the unexpected reaction to Millet’s confessional may be this: Although readers of ”The Sexual Life of Catherine M.” enter into a more intimate relationship with the author’s butt than most have with their own, those same readers exit this graphic document of one woman’s sex life unenlightened about the author herself. Or, indeed, about the chemical mysteries of female erotic desires.
What’s most shocking, it turns out, is not the nakedness with which Millet parades her history, but the veils she pulls over her own eyes to protect herself from really feeling anything. ”As time went by,” she writes, ”my shyness in social situations was replaced by boredom.” Catherine M.’s dirtiest secret is not that this haute provocateur likes it any which way, but that she’s unable to achieve a satisfying climax of insight. She’s wide open to sex, but she’s the opposite of sexy; she’s impenetrable.