Posts Tagged ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’

Some thoughts on sex in literature

September 25, 2018

I’ve thought about this topic for a long time, and also about how to write sensibly about it.

Literature at different times has reflected all of life, and that inevitably includes the sexual side; the age and its attitudes have determined what it was acceptable to write about. The earthiness of Rabelais does not approach the depth and sophistication of the novel; not does the bawdiness of Shakespeare and his times. But when we get to the 18thcentury and the beginnings of the novel, the potential for exploring sexual experience is there.

51-h9ana0tL._AC_US218_512-zoayHzL._AC_US218_Sex and seduction are there in Fielding’s Tom Jones, though not described in any detail but we are left in no doubt as to what takes place; similarly the earthiness of Defoe’s Moll Flanders accepts a full and very complicated sexual life for the heroine. There is also the famous Fanny Hill, by John Cleland. Here the focus is completely on sex and sexual enjoyment: must we therefore class it as pornography? That’s another question which the entire subject raises: what is the primary purpose of any description of sexual activity: is it an integral part of the story, or is it primarily there to arouse the reader?

51myrirOQhL._AC_US218_51UfiU57zXL._AC_US218_The late 18th, and the entire 19th century took a very different approach, by eliminating the subject almost entirely. Some of the female characters in Jane Austen’s novelshave babies, so there must have been sex. Sometimes characters exhibit what we might today call desire in the presence of someone of the opposite sex (of course) but this is so hidden in convoluted language that a reader may well miss it. In the later Victorian novel, sex produces children out of wedlock – Adam Bede by George Eliot, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy immediately spring to mind, and both of these novels explore the terrible consequences of sexual ‘sin’. And yet during those times erotic fiction was certainly written, published and circulated – such matter seems to be one of the items on sale in Mr Verloc’s shop (along with condoms) in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and I think it’s Molly Bloom in Ulysses that enjoys reading the novels of one Paul de Kock (!).

Admission that humans have sex and enjoy it becomes clearer as the 20thcentury progresses. The horrendous guilt felt by Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man after his nocturnal visits to prostitutes is displayed in detail; as are Molly Bloom’s sexual fantasies in the famous final chapter of Ulysses, and Leopold Bloom’s furtive self-pleasure as he watches girls playing on the beach in an earlier chapter. And then there is D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, subject of the famous obscenity trial in 1960. I remember my astonishment at reading it as a teenager: the openness about sex and pleasure, and the earthiness of the language and the experience. And, a little later, how toe-curling it all really was: innocence and experience…

51hZouI7EcL._AC_US218_51Bo55QmNrL._AC_US218_Nowadays it seems anything goes in the land of fiction, except writing well about the subject, so much so that there are the famous Bad Sex Awards, given annually to particularly bad writing about love-making.

51cxBPbzYKL._AC_US218_I’ll mention one novel that I found interesting in its approach to sex: Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. There’s an oddity about a novel set in the mid-19th century, butwhich was written towards the end of the 20th, with the feel of those times, the attitudes of those times and characters clearly part of those times and yet, unlikecharacters in novels actually written in the 19thcentury, openly having sexual thoughts and experiences. I think that Frazier does it all very well. The flirtatiousness between Ada and Inman is convincing, as is his desire for her; it makes the characters so much more real. At one point later in the novel, while she is waiting for news of him, Ada masturbates while thinking of him. It’s not described in detail; indeed, without careful reading a reader misses it, yet this reads like the genuine Ada we have come to know through the novel. So does the consummation of their mutual desire when they are finally reunited in the final pages of the novel. It’s clear, yet not flaunted, almost in the manner of a genuine 19thcentury novel that did encompass its characters’ sexual acts, if you see what I mean; Frazier gets it just right, in my judgement.

There’s an interesting contrast in matters sexual – as well as in so many other areas – between two 20th century dystopias, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Huxley’s Brave New World. In the latter, sex is so commonplace, communal and consensual, having been completely separated from pregnancy and reproduction, that it’s almost meaningless in our terms (for the characters in that novel are not humans, surely); in Orwell’s novel sex, at least for Party members, has been overlaid with such revulsion and obscenity, and the Party is supposedly working on how to abolish the orgasm, that  Winston and Julia’s furtive sexual pleasures become acts of rebellion against the Party.

In the end I’m not at all sure what I think about the whole topic. I’m aware I’m a man writing about the subject and therefore my presentation here, and my take on these matters may only speak for half of the human race. I can see that there’s clearly a dividing line – though fairly obscure – between literature and pornography. Even if not pornographic, I can see descriptions of sex in novels working on the reader’s imagination, in different ways dependent on their innocence or experience, perhaps. And then the myth of realism, about which I’ve written in the past, comes in to play too: much of the ordinary stuff of daily life is in fact omitted or edited out of the most ‘realistic’ works of literature, where characters are usually not described cleaning their teeth, shaving (pace Joyce), going to the toilet (pace Joyce again), cooking and eating (and again) or having sex… unless there is a specific and particular plot or character-linked reason for including such mundane activity. So sex in a novel must have some significance rather than merely being gratuitous – perhaps.

Once again, I will be interested in my readers’ comments.

 

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Fail!

March 3, 2014

Occasionally I give up on a book. And there are some writers I cannot be bothered with! Time for some confessions, as well as a few reasons…

As a student of English Literature, I had to read a Dickens novel (Hard Times) and a Hardy novel (Tess of the D’Urbervilles); I’ve never bothered with either writer since. Hard Times was short(er) and political and moderately interesting, but I have never once wanted to engage with one of the written-by-the-yard doorstoppers that are sometimes televised as costume dramas. What I’ve read about Dickens suggests he’s over-sentimental and rather maudlin at times. Similarly, Tess was just about OK, but I felt oppressed by the ridiculous sense of fate and doom hanging over the eponymous character all the time, and I have gathered that a lot of Hardy is like that, so I haven’t bothered. It may sound shocking, and surely arrogant, but I don’t have the eyeball time to waste. I’ve managed to get away from the feeling of ‘ought’ and don’t feel guilty.

I tried a Thomas Mann novel once (I think it was Doctor Faustus) and was bored, and gave up. I’ve persisted as best I could, three times now, with Lolita, and failed: as a teenager, in middle age, and more recently, and have given up again; I find the characters so creepy, weird and in the end uninteresting. Sorry.

I’ve read a lot of Soviet fiction, and enjoyed it, challenged by the themes and issues, and the writers’ attempts to write their ways around the censor; the post-Soviet Russian fiction I’ve read (yes, I have finished some novels) I have found tiresome and tedious in the way they revel in gratuitous violence, crime and sex; when they have got this out of their newly-liberated (?) system, then maybe there will be something worthwhile…

Arnold Zweig‘s The Case of Sergeant Grisha – a novel set on the Eastern front in the Great war I began several years ago and then got side-tracked from; I ought to go back to it and probably will. Hermann Broch‘s The Sleepwalkers intrigued me but in the end lost me; Hazlitt‘s essays have been reproaching me from the shelf for over ten years; I want to read Robert Musil‘s epic The Man Without Qualities, but have yet to find myself in the mood; I began Herodotus and then got waylaid by something more gripping, but must go back to it.

I often wonder what is going on. Clearly there is a ‘reading association’ issue here for me: one book may suggest another, so I acquire it with the best intentions, but an association leads me on to something else, and the moment passes, the book remains on the shelf, perhaps never to be opened. Then I do feel guilty, but I know there’s actually very little I can do about it; I cannot programme my reading schedule and stick to it. I have noticed that if it’s a book  I’ve downloaded to my e-reader, I find it easier to give up; owning a physical book makes me feel a bit guiltier.

Why do I give up on a book? And how do I decide? Sometimes the decision is  a deliberate one: I’ll give a book about an hour, or sixty pages or so, to get me really engrossed, and if it doesn’t, then I will give up, usually because I know there’s something else waiting that I will enjoy. Sometimes, as I’ve suggested above, the moment just passes.

When I was planning retirement, I fantasised to myself that I would spend a year reading Shakespeare, and a year reading science fiction, and a year reading travel writing, and somehow deepen my acquaintance with different writers and genres: well, it hasn’t happened, and I don’t see it happening.

Next: growing up? or out of?

Why I read…

January 14, 2014

2008_1227stefsphotos0001I’ve loved reading for as long as I can remember.

The first book I was ever given was Winnie The Pooh, and I never looked back; the first book I ever bought myself was with a Christmas book token (anyone remember those?) – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It cost the amazing sum of 3/6 (for those who never met real money, that’s the equivalent of 17.5pence). I’ve never looked back from Holmes, either.

As a child I wore our the children’s section of Stamford Public Library, with daily visits during school holidays. At the age of 12 they let me loose on the adults’ section… James Bond was a revelation. I hoovered up everything I could at school, and was astonished to be paid a grant to study literature at university, where I lay on the bed, reading huge numbers of books, some brilliant and others dire. After that, I received grants to read for two more literature degrees… and then spent my working life teaching English, mostly centred around reading & literature. And now I’m retired and can and do read to my heart’s content.

And there are often times when I ask myself what I’m missing, what I’ve missed, through having my nose in books all this time. When I got too uppity as a teenager and argued the toss about everything with my father, he would remind me that you can’t learn everything from books. He was right, even though he was the one who had encouraged me to read, to study and to learn. And I realised that actually, by reading, I could learn from the experiences of others as they wrote about themselves.

I read because I can enjoy (vicariously) the lives and experiences of others.

I read to escape from myself and my world, sometimes.

I read for pleasure.

I read to stimulate my mind and my brain, to make myself think.

I read because I’m seeking information.

All of those in no particular order. There have been failures, some of which may shock people: I have no time for Dickens; I read Hard Times at university because I had to; it was fair, but I have no desire to read any more. Similarly, I had to read Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but have never felt the urge to explore further. An unopened copy of Jude the Obscure is on the shelves somewhere. I tried to read Mein Kampf once, but it bored me stupid and I gave up. (I also fell asleep in the cinema trying to watch Triumph of the Will). Several people at different times tried to persuade me to read Nabokov’s Lolita; I’ve had three goes, and failed – it makes my flesh creep. It took me thirty years to tackle Saul Bellow; I managed to get to the end of The Adventures of Augie March, and it was okay, but…

If you want to know what I really like, then I point you to the page somewhere on here called ‘My Lists’.

I calculated, from the reading log I’ve kept since the age of 18, that I’ve read over 3000 books since then. It doesn’t really seem very many, and I know that I have lots to re-read, along with the large piles of unread ones: I hope I’m granted enough life and eyesight to get through them all. I’m certainly not going to change the habit of a lifetime…

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