August 07, 2002 09:21pm
Literature or Porn?
by: Jocelyn Noveck
(PARIS, FRANCE) -- At the top of a narrow staircase in a small, austere office building, Catherine Millet greets a visitor with a businesslike handshake.
Dressed plainly in a knee-length black skirt and top, with Mary Janes on her feet and only a touch of lipstick for color, she looks for all the world like the respected art critic, editor and intellectual she has been for 30 years.
Can this really be Catherine M. - as in "The Sexual Life of Catherine M.," the explicit sexual autobiography that has shocked, titillated, amused and angered readers across the globe?
"I'm actually very shy," Millet says with a wry laugh. It is one of many incongruous but believable comments she makes in an hour-long conversation. "I hate to ask directions in the street, and I hate to introduce people at parties."
One of the things the 54-year-old does not hate is sex. As hundreds of thousands of readers now know, in her 20s and 30 Millet frequently trysted with multiple, anonymous partners - dozens in a night: on park benches; on the hoods of cars; in stadiums, saunas, alleyways, parking lots; in trucks, or in a van parked outside the Soviet Embassy; at upscale Parisian orgies, attended by up to 150 people.
Much of Millet's book deals with group activity. Yet, she is surprised that so much attention has been focused on that one aspect. "I mean, the book is about many other things, too," she says.
"The Sexual Life of Catherine M." is occasionally about art, or the philosophy of art, its author being the editor-in-chief of ArtPress, a respected monthly. But such scholarly musings are so jarringly interspersed with the hard-core stuff that it is often just plain funny.
For example, at one point Millet suggests that someone should undertake a study of "why eminent art historians such as Andre Chastel and Giulio Carlo Argan have focused increasingly on architecture." Then, without warning, you're at a parking lot in western Paris.
"All I had on were my shoes," she tells the reader, "having slipped off my raincoat before getting out of the car." a line of men awaits. What these encounters have to do with architecture is any reader's guess.
Millet's book has been a huge best seller in France, where it came out a year ago. Across the world it has sold an estimated 500,000 copies and been translated into more than 20 languages, including English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Dutch, Finnish, Hebrew, Greek and Chinese. The English version, which came out in June, hit No. 7 on the New York Times best-seller list.
Not surprisingly, the book's critical reception has been wildly uneven.
Some reviewers have praised it lavishly. Novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called it "eloquent," and Francine du Plessix Gray called it "As elegant as any French pornography since (the Marquis de) Sade." the eminent Le Monde newspaper pronounced it "absolutely staggering."
However, author Judith Thurman, writing in the New Yorker, dismissed it as "An ostentatiously obscene work of erotobabble."
There are many who see Millet's book as a sexual manifesto for the liberated woman, a woman not afraid to unabashedly seek her own pleasure. At a recent reading at the English-language Paris bookstore Wh Smith, readers rose one-by-one to praise her for expressing her freedom. And some asked for advice on sexual pleasure.
What's odd though, is that these readers seem not to have read the book very carefully; some even confessed to not having read the book at all. Because "The Sexual History of Catherine M." does not seem to be much about either liberation or pleasure.
Millet says she finds "freedom" in her work and her life as an intellectual, but not in sex. She turned to sex because she found it painful to communicate in other ways. "I was reticent in social relationships and I saw the sexual act as a refuge," she writes. "My true clothing was my nudity, which shielded me."
As for pleasure, there's this startling observation in the book: "Until I was about 35, I had not imagined that my own pleasure could be the aim of a sexual encounter."
Sitting one afternoon in her office, a spare room filled with art books, Millet fretted about the proposed cover of the Hungarian version, a provocative picture of a woman. She thought it was too crass.
She's clearly happy with her newfound celebrity but is uneasy because her book intrudes on conversations with friends, colleagues and acquaintances. "If I weren't careful, it's all we would ever talk about," she says.
She's also quite insulted by insinuations that she wrote it just for the money. "There are easier ways for an art expert to make money than to write such a book," she says.
In the end, Millet says she wrote the book because she felt that no writer had ever before been honest in writing about sex; she wanted to make sex less ideal and de-romanticize it.
In many ways, Millet accomplishes those goals. In a particularly sad paragraph, she lists what she got in return for her years of sexual favors: A pair of sparkly orange stockings that she never wore; an ethnic dress; an Yves Saint Laurent bath towel; a plastic brooch; taxi and air fare.
She also got much better teeth - "thanks to an excellent dentist who never sent me a bill."