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Cover Review

What's Love Got to Do With It?

THE SEXUAL LIFE OF CATHERINE M., By Catherine Millet, Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, Grove Press: 210 pp., $23

June 09, 2002|MARIO VARGAS LLOSA | Mario Vargas Llosa is the author of numerous works, including "The Feast of the Goat: A Novel" and "Letters to a Young Novelist."

Legend has it that on his wedding night, the young Victor Hugo made love eight times to his chaste wife, Adele Foucher. As a result of this record-breaking feat by the impassioned author of "Les Miserables," his bride was left staunchly opposed to this type of activity. (Her winding adulterous adventure with the less-than-attractive Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve had more to do with spite and revenge than carnal pleasure.)

Scholar Jean Rostand laughed upon hearing this account of Hugo, comparing it to feats in fornication achieved by other animal species. For example, the romantic bard's eight consecutive effusions pale in comparison to the 40 days and 40 nights during which the male ape copulates with the female without resting for a single moment. However, thanks to a seasoned Frenchwoman, Catherine Millet, amphibians, rabbits and the other great fornicators of the animal kingdom may have met their match in the lowly human species: someone capable of measuring up to them--alas, even defeating them in gross quantity of copulations.

Who is this Catherine Millet? A distinguished art critic, 53 years old, the Parisian editor of ArtPress and the author of works on such themes as conceptual art, painter Yves Klein, designer Roger Tallon, contemporary art and avant-guard criticism. In 1989 she was the commissioner of the French section of the Sao Paolo Biennial and, in 1995, commissioner of the French Pavilion of the Venice Biennial. Her fame, however, is much more recent. It is the result of a sexual autobiographical book, "The Sexual Life of Catherine M.," which has caused considerable commotion (Le Monde called it "absolutely staggering") and topped the bestseller list in France for a number of weeks, selling 350,000 copies. It has been eagerly awaited in America ever since Francine du Plessix Gray praised the French edition nearly a year ago, in the pages of Vogue, as being possessed of a style "as elegant as any French pornography since Sade." Edmund White called it "the most explicit book about sex ever written by a woman ... that is the opposite of lurid."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 12, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 25 inches; 898 words Type of Material: Correction
Translator's name--The review of "The Sexual Life of Catherine M." that appeared in Sunday's Book Review should have noted that the review had been translated from Spanish. The review, written by Mario Vargas Llosa, was translated by Roger E. Norum.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 16, 2002 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 14 Features Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Translator's name--Last week's review of "The Sexual Life of Catherine M." should have noted that the review had been translated from the Spanish. The review, written by Mario Vargas Llosa, was translated by Roger E. Norum.

I will say right now that the work of Millet is of much greater merit than one might glean from the ridiculous uproar that has helped to publicize it and also that those who venture to read it solely for the erotic or pornographic halo that adorns it will be disappointed. The book is neither a sexual stimulant nor a processed imagery of erotic ritual but an intelligent reflection, crude, unusually frank, that at moments adopts the clinical prose of a medical report. The author approaches her own sex life with the icy obsessive detail of miniaturists who build ships inside bottles or paint landscapes on the heads of pins. I will also say that this book, while an interesting and valiant work, is not exactly pleasant to read, for the reader is left with a vision of sex that is nearly as exhausting and depressing as that which Madame Hugo suffered following the marital attacks of her wedding night.

Millet began her sex life at 17, rather late for a girl of her generation--that of the great May 1968 social revolution. But she began immediately to make up for lost time, making love right and left, in every possible region of her body, at a truly maddening pace, until reaching numbers that I imagine must have far exceeded the thousands of women whom the compulsive liar Georges Simenon, in his autobiography, boasts of having taken to bed.

I insist on the numbers because she does so herself in the lengthy first part of her book, titled simply, "The Numbers Game," where she documents her predilection for partouzes, promiscuous sex and group orgies. In the '70s and '80s, before the sexual liberation movement lost momentum and fell out of fashion all over Europe with the arrival of AIDS, Millet--described as a timid woman, disciplined and rather meek, who in sexual relations found a means of communication with her partners seldom achieved in other aspects of her life--made love in private clubs, in the Bois de Boulogne, on the shoulders of highways, in the vestibules of buildings, on public benches, in private homes and once in the rear of a truck, where she serviced dozens of applicants in just a few hours with the help of her friend Eric, who managed the line outside.

I say "applicants" because I don't quite know what to call the author's fleeting and anonymous partners. They aren't clients, of course, because Millet, although she lavished her favors with a boundless generosity, never charged for them. For her, sex was always enjoyment, sport, routine, pleasure but never profession or business. In spite of the abandon with which she carried on, she claims that she was not once the victim of brutality, nor did she ever feel in danger. Even in potentially aggressive situations, she would simply voice her displeasure so that her sentiments were respected. She had lovers, and now has a husband: a writer and photographer who has just published a book of nudes of his wife.

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