Sunday, January 28, 2007

Men And Women's Sexual Experience In Fiction--Plus, Help?

I'm in the middle of reading Norman Mailer's The Castle in the Forest, the first book in what is projected to be a trilogy Bildungroman of Adolf Hitler, and what struck me about, particularly after glancing over J.M. Coetzee's review, is the depiction of Alois Hitler's (Adolf's father) sexuality.

In Mailer's strangely affecting telling, Alois was raised on a farm, got off the farm into the Custom's Service in order to wear a uniform and boss other people around, and slept with every woman he could trick or seduce or bully into bed--including an aunt, half-sisters, and a niece. Not a nice person, not one I particularly identify with--but there's something in the way Mailer describes Alois's sexual drive--and then later, in its dying away--that just surprises me, in the way the adolescent sexuality evoked in Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man did, as completely and utterly different from mine.

These books begin to describe for me what sexual experience feels like from a man's perspective. It's hard for me to specify what, exactly, were the qualities that seemed so different, but, to be crude, a lot of it had to do with the penis. Alois calls his "the Hound" and blames it, loves it for his philandering; he feels separate from it and manages (poorly) his life to accomodate its almost alien needs. I don't have a copy of The Portrait of an Artist right now, but I vividly remember the narrator's sense of wonder at an unexpected erection; like a scene in a movie in which the protagonist approaches an impressive landscape, he grabs at himself and exclaims, "My God, look at that!"

These better descriptions of male sexuality, while they are specific enough to be utterly different from my own experience, are human and vulnerable; they make me aware of frailities and anxieties I wouldn't otherwise understand. Joyce's description of a young man's not being in control of what his penis is doing is so beautiful that it's become almost a false memory, of discussions had or not had with this or that lover.

(And here comes the part where I ask for help.)

I was discussing all of the above with my honey, and he asked me what books I'd recommend for him to understand women's sexuality in this way. And I was stymied. Not only did nothing come to mind, but I wasn't even sure that as a woman I would know what to recommend to a man when I read it. So, I turn to the wisdom of the internet:
What works of imaginative writing communicate best--vividly, sympathetically, phenomenologically--the way women experience sexuality?


Anonymous John Thullen:

Well, Jane Smiley has a new novel out which hangs its structure on "The Decameron".

Haven't read it, can't remember the title, so I'm a lot of help.

I'll follow this thread; these questions fascinate me.

Generally speaking, I think men are more romantic and sentimental (inadequate word) regarding physical sex than women know, and of course, men can't figure out what's what when it comes to womens' perspective on things.

I think we all want the same thing in all its glory -- in physical and romantic love.

We just can't get the watches synchronized, but mainly because men's watches seem to have a very short time horizon.

But, I know nothing. By the time I do, Stephen Daedalus' epiphany with his friend will be beyond me.

The movie "The Philadelphia Story"
is very wise on all of this.

1/29/2007 12:03:00 PM  
Anonymous John Thullen:

Sorry, I forgot to add that Henry Miller talks about his own Stephen Daedalus discovery of the sovereign life of his member in "Sexus", "Nexus", and "Plexus" and the "Tropic" novels.

Less artful, crude, but there it is.

1/29/2007 12:09:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Oh yes, Henry Miller was also a grand and very surprising discovery for me as a young woman. I only read the "Tropic of Cancer"--reading more, I feared, would have dispersed the experience of my first encounter. But what surprised me in Miller was the sameness--the ecstastic glory--under or beyond the crude language. I'm looking (at least right now) for novels that express well a kind of difference in sexual experience.

1/29/2007 01:12:00 PM  
Anonymous ac:

The Lover comes to mind. Though what I really remember is the description of the room. The shutters and the heat.

And you know what I like? The poems of Erica Jong. They're all about capturing sexual feeling and emotion.

I remember some essay of Lucy Grealy's that struck me, in which she's talking about losing her virginity. She was disfigured, and lost it very late, had waited seemingly forever, and then went on kind of a spree. It's fairly sad and not typical, but I was struck by it because she goes into some detail of her physical experience.

I'll think of other things. That's just off the top of my head.

1/29/2007 08:56:00 PM  
Anonymous ac:

I know: the earlier stuff of Edna O'Brien.

1/29/2007 09:42:00 PM  
Anonymous ac:

The Country Girls - good, honest, peasant sexiness, fresh from the convent school

1/29/2007 09:46:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

The Lover--I remember that heady atmosphere more than anything specifically physical. The shutters were something else. Duras's other frequently assigned in college French classes novel, Moderato Cantabile also has some wonderfully alinear evocations of sex. But the eroticism of both of these books is so wrapped up in the narrative of the forbidden that I don't know how helpful they'd be in helping to bridge the gendered sexual-existential gap.

I'm going to have to look up all the other pieces you mention--especially that "good, honest, peasant sexiness," which could either be wonderful or awful, depending on the writer's skill.

I knew you'd have more recent work by women to suggest. Yayyyy, ac!

1/29/2007 10:26:00 PM  
Anonymous ac:

Ah well, Edna O is 1960s and may be about all the forbidden. But she very much tried to be a female James Joyce, so thought it would work for you. I was thinking of more recent stuff, like Susan Minot ("Lust", The Rapture) or Lucinda Rosenfeld's What She Saw..., but the writing's not as evocative.

The latter two are readily accessible to you, so you can see for yourself.

1/29/2007 10:42:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

My goal here is to find descriptions of female sexual experience that will be evocative for men. It's so difficult to guess what might catch a male reader's imagination as different, and hey! wow! in the way that Joyce stunned me. That you compare the Edna O. to Joyce is already a big marker for me, mind you, and I'll, um, meander over to check out the Minot and Rosenfeld, to be sure.

1/29/2007 10:53:00 PM  
Anonymous John Thullen:

Molly Bloom's soliloquy in "Ulysses" might be a place to look, even though written by a man.

Yes, if I recall from long ago, Erica Jong is pretty good on this. Edna O'Brien, too, maybe.

But it occurs to me that I find imaginative writing by women on the female sexual experience to be vaguely disappointing. It is either too much like men's writing on the subject -- blunt, specific and concrete, perhaps crude, situated squarely in the physical (all of which I find pleasing from men but kind of incomplete if it is a woman's evocation) -- or it is couched in vague, airy, language hinting at the physical but trying to place the experience on some other plane -- spiritual, extraphysical, emotional, etc. --also unsatisfying as an evocation, for some reason.

Didn't D.H. Lawrence grapple with this -- the essence of the sexual experience for men and women?

(Hey, I'm not this picky in bed ... just saying! We're talking literature.)

In fact, the evoking of the male and female sexual experiences seems to suffer from the same difference in meaning and communicated importance as the sexual experiences themselves ... no one seems to quite get at it, except for Stephen Daedalus, for men.

.... notwithstanding how good the sex and love happen to be.

1/30/2007 01:03:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Didn't D.H. Lawrence grapple with this -- the essence of the sexual experience for men and women?

Well, see, that's the question! (I found Lawrence's attempt at describing female sexual experience very interesting! but ultimately unconvincing. As an adolescent I did read the relevant chapter in Lady Chatterley's Love a number of times, for literary reasons, of course.

The standard romance novel has three to four explicit sex scenes. Lots of "manhoods" and "exquisite sensations": these scenes appear to be mixed together from some master template, and they're all embarrassingly idealized.

I do of course love Molly's soliloquy, but it doesn't quite fit the bill here. I'll have to look into the Jong and O'Brien.

1/30/2007 04:31:00 PM  
Anonymous John Thullen:

Helen Gurley Brown?

Sometimes the colors are brighter in the shallows.

Maybe she's on to something.

1/31/2007 01:50:00 AM  
Anonymous ac:

Two things: I'm not sure if it was clear, but I was recommending Jong's poems, not Fear of Flying. The latter might fit what you're looking for, but I did not particularly like it.

And Matt was mentioning The Love Letter over at teo's. I was wondering if you'd like or HATE Cathleen Schine's earlier novel, Rameau's Niece which is about an 18th C scholar who discovers an unpublished erotic novel that has interesting effects on her own life. There may be a copy near you.

2/15/2007 11:04:00 AM  
Blogger Jackmormon:

Hm! I'll look for her poetry.

I've heard of the Schine! Thanks.

2/15/2007 12:08:00 PM  

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