Lady Chatterley’s Brother: Why Nicholson Baker Can’t Write About Sex, and Why Javier Marias Can

By Scott Esposito and Barrett Hathcock

$2.99, 74pp. The Quarterly Conversation Publishing

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“An exciting new project.” — Chad Post, Open Letter, Three Percent

The New Yorker: In the News: Atwood Goes Eco, Coetzee in Texas

Boston Review: Noted critic and editor Scott Esposito writes: “If literary criticism is to truly play a part in moving literary culture forward, we need more than reviews.”

National Book Critics Circle: Roundup: Tomas Transtromer, Justin Torres, “Why We Need Long Critical Essays,” and more

Damian Kelleher: The TQC Long Essays seems, to me, to be a call for a more participatory literary scene in English, one that provides springboards from which an informed, reasoned, intellectual but enjoyable discussion can take place. Lady Chatterley’s Brother could be such a springboard, and I hope it is. The two essays contained within are informative and entertaining, and they have avoided the dreaded curse of academic writing. They have been written not only to be argued with, for the reader to agree or disagree, but also to encourage a response.

The Mookse and the Gripes: Strongly recommend Lady Chatterley’s Brother by Barrett Hathcock and @ScottEsposito

“If traditional literary criticism is a bunch of old fogies in tweed peer reviewing one another into oblivion in some horrid windowless conference center meeting room, then this exchange of minds is like two readers down at the pub, sharing pints and thoughts, sitting in the dark corner talking, maybe getting a little drunk, maybe getting a little loud, raising their voices and the eyebrows of the regulars bellied up at the bar. I find that a hopeful image. If the future of literary criticism is this kind of impassioned conversation, a commerce of loves and anger, then literature itself still has a crucial role to play.”—JC Hallman, author of In Utopia, and editor of The Story About the Story: Great Writers Explore Great Literature.

These are excerpts from the ebook Lady Chatterley’s Brother: Why Nicholson Baker Can’t Write About Sex, and Why Javier Marias Can, available for sale in ePub, MOBI (Amazon Kindle), and PDF October 17, 2011.

The book’s authors are Barrett Hathcock and Scott Esposito, and it is the first in the series TQC Long Essays, published under the auspices of the online periodical The Quarterly Conversation.

Lady Chatterley’s Brother consists of two long essays, each approximately 35 pages in length: “I Know It When I See It: Nicholson Baker’s Sex Trilogy” by Barrett Hathcock, and “Just Do It: Javier Marias’ Sexless Sexuality” by Scott Esposito. Each essay is excerpted below.

From “I Know It When I See It: Nicholson Baker’s Sex Trilogy” By Barrett Hathcock

Welcome to the heavy petting zoo

What on earth is Nicholson Baker up to? The 54-year-old American author of some eight previous books of fiction and four books of nonfiction, one of which has won the National Book Critics Circle Award and more than one of which has been a national bestseller, has now written his third sex novel—House of Holes. And by sex novel I mean a book that is both about sex and graphically depicts sex, a book that would easily be rated NC-17. And it’s by far his dirtiest book yet. It’s by far the dirtiest book I’ve read all year, all decade, the dirtiest book I’ve read since Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theaterthat book features, as a main plot device, more than one person masturbating over a lady’s grave, a book about which Martin Amis said, “You toil on, looking for the clean bits.” House of Holes easily outstrips this. It is one long, multi-chaptered, multi-charactered all-stops-pulled, organ-swelling, organ-grinder of a novel. There simply are no clean bits. You’ll either be aroused, shocked, or so bored you’ll start pondering how you and Baker ended up in this hot mess in the first place.

And if you find yourself in this place of bewilderment, you might start wondering how the culture ended up such a predicament. How did the culture produce and then praise such an artifact? Baker’s book, for all its explicit sex, has not garnered so much as a blush from the literary journalism set. Instead it’s received warm chuckles and long admiring explications in the nation’s major periodicals. Just what is going on and how did we get here?

* * *

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) —
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
—Philip Larkin, “Annus Mirabilis”

As with other now well-articulated 20th-century feelings, Larkin might not be saying anything that others hadn’t simultaneously said, but he gets us there faster, and with more eloquence. The British ban on Lady Chatterly’s Lover ended in 1960. It had previously been published in 1928, first in Italy and then in Paris, but was still deemed obscene in other countries. When it finally transformed from obscenity to literature in Britain, the book became an iPad-like sensation, men lining up before bookstores opened. The entire Penguin print run of 200,000 copies sold out the first day. The book contained several sex scenes where the sex wasn’t always elided between bits of description. Here the sex was an actual act worth describing, though in contemporary terms the sex is laughably, almost touchingly, soft-focused and tender, and, dare I say it, sweet. There is even Connie’s naïve, glorious wonder at the male member, the original portable handheld device:

And afterwards, when they had been quite still, the woman had to uncover the man again, to look at the mystery of the phallos.

“And now he’s tiny, and soft like a little bud of life!” she said, taking the soft small penis in her hand. “Isn’t he somehow lovely! soon his own, so strange! And so innocent! And he comes so far into me! You must NEVER insult him, you know. He’s mine too. He’s not only yours. He’s mine! And so lovely and innocent!” And she held the penis soft in her hand.

He laughed.

“Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in kindred love,” he said.

“Of course!” she said. “Even when he’s soft and little I feel my heart simply tied to him. And how lovely your hair is here! quite, quite different!”

“That’s John Thomas’s hair, not mine!” he said.

“John Thomas! John Thomas!” and she quickly kissed the soft penis, that was beginning to stir again.

Along with sex scenes like this one, the book contained those two favorite, explicit, imminently bannable words (they rhyme with duck and punt).

This is what passed for taboo-breaking prose in the first-half of the twentieth century. This is what had people printing out illegal copies and sneaking them around like cocaine. But then, as we know from TV, the Sixties happened, in all their hip-hugging, tie-dyed glory, and then the deluge: Tropic of Cancer, Couples, Portnoy’s Complaint—and these were the works of literature. These were the enduring aesthetic artifacts of the era. This was not pornography, but these male novelists were boldly going where no prose writer had gone before, or at least not as cavalierly, wearing a pith helmet and binoculars. They were explorers of lust, Neil Armstrongs of hard-ons, Columbuses of cunnilingus, newly freed to bring us the news from below the belt-line.

And of course the Ansel Adams of oral sex was John Updike. In 1968, after publishing Rabbit, Run, the first in his Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom tetralogy, and three years after Of the Farm, his shortish lyrical exploration of the farm that dominated his Pennsylvanian adolescence, Updike published his fourth novel, Couples; like Chatterley, it became an instant bestseller. Updike’s face adorned the cover of Time magazine, location par excellence of middlebrow approval and mass popularity. The book was an encyclopedia of suburban smut, an explication of adultery. Writing in the April 7th issue of The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review, Wilfrid Sheed called Couples a “fiendish compendium of exurban manners” but praised its commitment to a scientific-like accuracy:

But although Updike does call all the parts and attachments by name, so does the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And if this is a dirty book, I don’t see how sex can be written about at all.

Anyhow Updike’s treatment of sex is central to his method, which is that of a fictional biochemist approaching mankind with a tray of hypersensitive gadgets.

As with his frequent use of contemporaneous historical events—it’s the Kennedy assassination in Couples—there is a documentarian tendency in Updike. He is not just expressing some inner vision; he is trying to capture the texture of lived American life as it passed him by. Nicholson Baker himself, writing in U&I, his excellent autobiographical essay about his infatuation with Updike, speaks knowingly and perceptively about this very characteristic. Here is Baker contemplating the then still-distant funeral of Updike:

The notion of all those thoughtful, likable, furrowed, middlebrow brows lowered in sadness seemed momentarily strange, after all of Updike’s lively and shocking and un-Emersonian writing about nakedness, fucking in piles of laundry, pubic hair like seaweed, dirty Polaroids, his next-door-neighbor’s pussy, and the rest—but then it seemed absolutely right. Updike was the first to take the penile sensorium under the wing of elaborate metaphorical prose. Once the sensation of the interior of a vagina has been compared to a ballet slipper (if my memory doesn’t distort that unlocatable simile) the sexual revolution is complete: just as Emerson made the Oversoul, the luminous timeless sphere of pure thought, available to the earnest lecture-going farm worker, so Updike made the reader’s solitary paperback-inspired convulsion an untrashy, cultivated attainment. . . . they would be mourning a man who, by bringing a serious, Prousto-Nabokovian, morally sensitive, National-Book-Award-winning prose style to bear on the micromechanics of physical lovemaking, first licensed their own moans.

Here we don’t just have explicit sex but aestheticized explicit sex, and in Baker’s particular vision, an eloquent, prurient, cultured artifact—literature that aroused as much as it described. In eight short years, literature had gone from Lawrence’s brazen use of “cunt” to Updike’s “cunt’s petals”—smut with a high gloss.

And of course the following year saw the publication of Portnoy’s Complaint, another barbaric yawp of human sexual longing and frustration, this time Jewish and masturbatory and synonymous with rage—sex as a form of rage. Roth and Updike are both interesting writers for all sorts of reasons, and one of the best is how they kept writing about sex from distinctly different perspectives—Updike with his documentarian quest combined with a religious attention to detail; Roth, the lapsed Jew, the stone-faced nihilist, exploring sex as vicious satire, as a plundering against death, the flopping of a fish on the boat, sucking poisonous air. The sex in Roth is hardly ever enjoyable, for the reader or the character; it is always a symptom of a larger malaise and often the opposite of Updike’s lab-lit, ecstatically precise examinations. Or, if it’s pleasurable, it’s pleasure thrown in the face of a castrating society. He offers us two satyrs with different pedigrees: David Kepesh—the protagonist from three separate novels: The Breast, The Professor of Desire, and (the best Kepesh novel) The Dying Animal—and Mickey Sabbath from Sabbath’s Theater. In The Dying Animal, Kepesh pursues sex as the culmination of cultured civilization, with the annual seduction of a promising student beginning at the end of his course in “practical criticism” in his home library. (I suppose “impractical criticism” doesn’t end in fellatio.) On the other side, Sabbath pursues sex in a death-defying rage, since the “fuck of his life,” Drenka, dies from cancer in the book. Sex is the busy frenetic physical activity that takes place over the void of death. Hence multiple characters actually masturbate over Drenka’s grave. (This lack of metaphorical subtlety, I would argue, fatally wounds the novel.)

After these novels with their cornucopia of sexual exploration, there isn’t much left to do, sexual exploration–wise. The rest of televisual culture quickly caught up with literature’s new high end of explicitness, and we live with the consequences everyday. I’m not trying to turn into Old Man Critic here, bemoaning our moral turpitude, but we do live in a world where an illicit sex tape almost seems like a valid career move. But I don’t have to tell you that we’re a sex-saturated culture. You’re reading this, if at all, on your electronic book-like device, which is most likely connected to the Internet, which can reach any manner of sexual deviancy and fetish almost instantly. Rubber ducky foot fetish? Yes, we have a site for you. A little bit of Google word salad and one actually begins to believe what Roth said about American society way back in that innocent year of 1960 in his essay “Writing American Fiction”:

The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.

With the maturation of the Internet, we now finally have quantifiable proof of his idea. The question is not so much whether or not a celebrity will ever disrobe for the camera, but when. The deployment of one’s nudity is merely a career move posing in the drag of artistic integrity. Or maybe it is artistic integrity and careerism simultaneously. You start with a “real” sex tape and end with a fictionalized one; it all ends in the same place: women showing their pink parts to strangers under various veils of self-justification, more grist for the male gaze.

I’m not trying to be a killjoy here. I like looking at highly paid, beautiful people just like everyone else inAmerica. And I’m not saying that this nudity or sexual simulation is a symptom of the downfall of our way of life. I’m not arguing for the reinstatement of the Hays Code. Instead, what I am interested in is how ho-humly prevalent all this sex is in pop culture . . .

From “Just Do It: Javier Marias’ Sexless Sexuality” by Scott Esposito

I’m not so stupid as to argue that pornography doesn’t work—it obviously does, even if it’s more to do with its status as a cultural object and the rituals associated with its use more than the actual stuff of the smut—but I am going to argue that it only works in a very limited, broken sense, and that there are other things that work much better. I’m sorry to say, however, that this is literary criticism, not some do-it-yourself manual, so those looking to end their porn addiction—or those who simply want to do a better job of pleasuring themselves—won’t find much here by way of direct instruction. Yes, it’s true, I’m going to talk about pornography, sex, sexuality, desire, and seduction, but I’m going to do it in the context of books. In particular the curiously chaste books of Javier Marías, a writer who has made a very successful career writing about men, women, love, and sex, but has yet to write a single scene of pornography, insofar as I have read him. For that very reason, his books, in my humble opinion, rank among the best literary commentary on the nature of sex and sexuality in our times. Marías may not necessarily understand women, but he gets the spaces around them: he knows quite a bit about why men like women, knows more than most guys about why woman like men, and best of all, he’s an expert observer of how the genders interact. This essay is about how sex and sexuality exist on the written page—Marías’ pages—what has been deemed sexy in the past and is not generally though so any more, and what could be sexy right now and should be sexy in the future, in that day when Western man (and woman) reaches peak porn and decides that he (and she) are ready to encounter desire from a different angle.

Love and Longing

In 1986 Javier Marías published El hombre sentimental (published in English in 2003 as The Man of Feeling), the first novel in his mature period as a writer. Before that, between 1971 and 1978, he published three derivative novels that can be called apprentice works. These three were not necessarily bad books, but they were clearly not Marías speaking in his own voice so much as they were Marías trying on the voices of others. After those books, in 1982, Marías published the still untranslated novel El siglo (“The Century”), something of a predecessor to the mature novels that would follow.

Then in 1986 comes The Man of Feeling, a small classic that lays out the base of Marías’ style and thematic concerns for the productive decades to come. Almost as if he knew he was on to something important with The Man of Feeling, Javier Marías takes a very particular indulgence, something that he has not seen fit to do in any book since: he appends a short afterword to it, explaining to us how to read his book. Although this afterword is unnecessary (the beauty and precision of Marías’ prose already tell us everything we need to know), it is nonetheless a splendid distillation of the ideas inherent in that book, and I am happy to have it. It is the most concise and artfully worded statement I have yet encountered from Marías on the nature of love, anticipation, and desire.

The afterword, and the novel that has come before it, make a wonderful rebuke to something that French theorist Jean Baudrillard called “the production and management of all liminal and subliminal pleasures, the micro-processing of desire.” Baudrillard made that statement in a 1979 book titled De la seduction, published as simply Seduction in 1990 in English, and what he’s talking about is an admonishment against all who hail the orgasm. People, he’s saying, don’t you realize that there is a lot more to sexuality than that moment of pleasure that concludes the sexual act? In Seduction, Baudrillard goes so far as to envision a kind of sexuality without orgasm. The book is thus a complete rebuke to pornography, which privileges the “production” of an orgasm more than anything else, and which is wholly contrary to seduction. The book is an almost eerily compelling companion to the sexual subtext Marías explores in his novels, and we will lean on Baudrillard’s book throughout this essay.

But to return to Marías: the afterword to The Man of Feeling is like a distillation of the themes that are enlivened on the book’s pages. In fact, it is a distillation of a very distilled novel—though Man of Feeling features some of Marías’ trademark digressiveness, it is a short and direct book that is necessarily much more straightforward that his later, more gangly novels. The Man of Feeling is really about just one thing: the process of falling in love with a woman, right up to the brink of that love’s consummation. It begins with a chance encounter on a train—a mysterious beauty to stoke our narrator’s imagination, accompanied by two men. One of the men, we learn, is a wealthy businessman who has kept her for years in hopes of one day seducing her. The other man is her paid companion, a man to keep her busy while her husband sees to his business deals and imagines ways to win her love. The book is the story of the man who eventually does seduce the woman, and you’ve probably guessed who that man is. It’s the narrator, of course, an opera singer with a honeyed voice who spends his days turning his body into an instrument of beauty, reminiscing over past loves, and drinking plenty of wine.

Within this frame, the novel caringly lays out, moment by moment, each step in the development of a physical and emotional desire that makes a man want to be with a woman every single day. It ranks right there with Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterful The Remains of the Day in grasping that warm flame of longing with the cold stuff of language; it is all about straining toward that which one longs to hold—(notably, the woman herself remains a ghost through this man’s passionate remembrance of his affair with her)—and then, in retrospect, longing to grasp again that which has gone away.

In other words, the book attempts to nail down a certain kind of passionate, transient love which anyone who has ever felt knows resists all attempts at fulfillment—which, by its very nature, cannot be fulfilled because its fulfillment is its death. It is the kind of love that is the opposite of conjugal love—the love that precedes the obligations and familiarity of marriage, that builds up to what Marías has despairingly called the “now what?” of fulfilled desire. If we are to trust Marías’ public statements, it is the kind of love which this man, who has known many women but has never married and says he intends not to, has much experience with.

But the afterword. In telling us how to read his book, Marías writes, “I do believe that love is based in large measure on its anticipation and on its recollection. It is the feeling that requires the largest dose of the imagination, not only when one senses its presence, when one sees it coming, and not only when the person who has experienced and lost love feels a need to explain it to him or herself, but also while that love is evolving and is in full flow. Let us say it is a feeling which always demands an element of fiction beyond that afforded by reality.”

In this modest but classic little appendix to a modest but classic little novel we have nothing less than the précis of all of the thousands of lustful, aching pages that Javier Marías’ will write on love in his mature phase as a novelist, a phase that of course continues to this day. Notice where Marías asserts that “love is based in large measure on its anticipation and on its recollection”; love is something that most of the time—let’s say 90 percent of the time—requires the absence of the object of one’s love. Love is something we live with because we conjure it with our imaginations: we look forward to being with our beloved, we look back on those times when he or she meant more than any other thing on Earth. Nothing kills this kind of love more surely than its fulfillment. It only exists with a powerful element of fiction; that is to say, when the feelings between two individuals have not been fully uncovered, when one another’s identities and intentions are not fully known. As Marías has written elsewhere, “telling the story is what kills, what entombs, what secures and delineates and solidifies our face, profile, or nape.” Fixing reality fixes love; expose the face of our lover to the light of day and you have . . . you have Marías’ 1992 novel A Heart So White. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Javier Marías Is a Sexy Author

These thoughts on love are the key to Marías’ thoughts on desire, which is to say his thoughts on sexuality—it is this foundation that makes him a consummate writer of sex in an age when even brilliant writers attempt to locate it in the dead, excessive reality of pornography. While we’re talking about porn, let’s make one thing clear: Javier Marías is not a porn man. His male protagonists may ogle their way through a sea of breasts and thighs and napes and calves, but I will put good money on the fact that none of them would find pornography in the least stirring. Marías was born in 1951, which means he came of age in the era when any idiot with a negligible amount of disposable income could buy all the dirt he wanted, and yet it is hard to imagine him ever partaking. In his Paris Review interview he forcefully declares that he is careful never to describe a woman as “beautiful”; this discerning care over each and every word is seen in his descriptions of women, whom are rarely naked and always made sexy not by the exposure of body parts but by the suggestion of them beneath the lines of their clothes. Whereas a writer like John Updike will wallow in a bare nipple for paragraphs, Marías will tell us just a tiny bit about the gossamer silk that covers one, seducing us toward that rare, electric moment when what lies beneath is just glimpsed. This restraint is in keeping with Marías’ character. He’s an old school kind of guy—one of his few weaknesses as a writer is a predilection for crotchety statements about the crass youth of his country. Narrow-minded as he at times comes off, he has a point: for an observer of human interactions as perceptive as Javier Marías, it is appropriate and reasonable to be disgusted when the art and elegance that can exist within sexuality are trampled by a vulgar license. Marías understands the excitement in anticipation, the beauty in watching the subtle shifts and flows, the occasional jump by which two people sexually attracted to one another give vent to that sensation. It is this long, slow embrace—and not some busty centerfold showing you her snatch—that spins out the sexual energy in Marías’ fiction.

The public persona that Marías has crafted speaks volumes, even as the actual Marías speaks very little . . .


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