Posts Tagged ‘The Secret Agent’

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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Literature and terrorism

August 24, 2017

Recent events in Spain and else where turned my thoughts to this topic: pretty nearly everything in real life has been the subject of fiction at some point…

When I think about how terrorism has been portrayed in novels I’ve read, I instantly go to Joseph Conrad, whose The Secret Agent is the best example I know. Written a century ago, it’s still a masterpiece of the suspense genre, as Conrad uses his technique of non-sequential narrative to great effect. So, from the outset we know there is a terrorist outrage in London, but we don’t know who carries it out, or the consequences, until much later in the book, and it’s the narrowing gap in our knowledge that draws us ineluctably and frighteningly forward. It’s hard to say much more without ruining the plot, so I won’t… but the interplay between the plotter and his wife is marvellous.

The time when Conrad was writing was the epoch of nihilism, as well as that of plots against the Russian monarchy, so terrorism and its consequences rears its head in other of his novels, too, perhaps most notably in Under Western Eyes. And Conrad’s attitude to terror and what it seeks to achieve seems to mirror ours today: the perpetrators are warped and deluded people, devoid of conscience and humanity, expecting their outrages to change people’s minds and bring about some kind of momentous change, which it never does: the innocent die and life goes on.

If our minds unconsciously turn to the Middle East when someone mentions terrorism, then perhaps we should go back further in time, reflecting on the Western interference in other nations’ affairs, which is allegedly the prime mover for many of today’s attacks. In the Sherlock Holmes canon, John Watson is an ex-army doctor who has served in Afghanistan and been invalided out because of an injury from a ‘Jezail bullet’. So we’ve been interfering in that country for a century and a half, and still haven’t learned our lesson. In Naguib Mahfouz‘ brilliant Cairo Trilogy, for a vast part of which we are unaware of British rule in Egypt, a demonstration against it suddenly intrudes with powerful and tragic consequences when the beloved son of the family is killed. Remind me again, exactly why the British were ruling Egypt?

A more modern example I’m aware of is in Michel Houellebecq‘s novel Platform when Islamic militants attack a holiday resort favoured by Westerners; Julian Barnes, in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, recalls an actual incident when hijackers took over a cruise ship in the 1970s 0r 1980s, I forget which…

I’ve mentioned before how much of the world that was open to us to travel in my younger years is now closed to us because of the risks and dangers: no more hitch-hiking along the hippy trail through Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan to India. And it’s rather more perilous for travel writers to make their way through such countries, too. Gone is the physically arduous but not politically risky travel of the 1930s; people still make their way through the territory, but always looking over their shoulder, aware of the possibility that some group may find their presence unwelcome and challenge it, or worse.

I know that hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I can’t avoid the knowledge that the world is a dangerous place largely because we in the West think we have the right to do what we please where we please, economically and militarily; equally, it’s perfectly possible that if we weren’t behaving like this, maybe some other nation would. Lines we drew on maps over a century ago are still wreaking havoc on lives in the Middle East and by proxy here at home, and it seems to me that very few people are minded to ask the right questions about what should be done.

Joseph Conrad: Almayer’s Folly

December 1, 2014

51HlPDwijGL._AA160_I discovered Conrad at university, and have always enjoyed his novels, perhaps partly because he was Polish. I have the impression of a novelist slowly fading into obscurity, perhaps because his major theme – white men’s colonisation of the world – is now deemed to be part of the past, and can therefore safely be forgotten. Perhaps Nostromo and The Secret Agent may survive, along with the supreme Heart of Darkness.

Almayer’s Folly was Conrad’s first novel, and it seems to foreshadow much of what came later. Almayer, the white Dutchman who has never seen Europe, stuck in the middle of nowhere in the Dutch East Indies, fails to make his fortune, loses out to other commercial rivals, makes an unhappy marriage with a native Malay woman, and eventually disowns his beloved mixed-race daughter because she chooses a Malay… and the background is small groups of people squabbling with each other, striving to get one up on each other, trying and failing to outwit the Dutch masters. It feels almost tragic: why did he waste his life on all this?

And this is what, to me, Conrad seems to understand, as a result of his own origins, and his travels as a merchant seaman in those faraway parts of the world – it is all a waste. Colonialism is a nightmare, an insanity for the people engaged in the actuality of trying to make it work. He has been criticised for not being politically correct in his approach to race and to indigenous populations; this is of its time, I think, and does not invalidate his picture. Conrad is very perceptive, in many ways.

He sees the sadness of a white man isolated in alien surroundings – where he does not belong and never can, where he can never be happy because he does not understand – lonely, prey to all kinds of disease and illness, fearing those who must live there because they belong and can be fulfilled. Almayer’s life, like the lives of many others in his novels, leads a wasted and pointless existence, driven by never satisfied cupidity, dreaming increasingly crazed dreams of a wonderful future to mask the empty present.

And the outsiders, the colonists are resented and loathed by the indigenous people: Conrad sees this clearly and presents it mercilessly; they delude themselves when they think otherwise. The only ones who get anything from this are the anonymous, faceless ones that inhabit the mysterious Brussels offices in Heart of Darkness.

Of course, Conrad’s perceptiveness did not stop any of this. But he saw through it all, from a white man’s perspective – and who else’s could he see it from? – and presents an indictment of a dreadful episode in our history through fiction, just as others have detailed it in personal narratives and historical analysis. I do not think we should overlook his achievement.

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