Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Man for the Asking by Catherine Breillat

One of my favorite things to do when I'm in the city is to plunder the shelves of our two local Half Price Books outlets. When I first began patronizing the stores, I took little notice of the racks near the registers that contained bagged, pocket-sized editions of books published decades ago. At the time I didn't feel I had any need for them, and breezed past without perusing their offerings to the more desired literature and lit criticism aisles. Recently, however, I've gone through each wire rack and found more gems than I can possibly carry home with me, all for two to five dollars apiece, and I feel a bit embarrassed that it took me so long to discover these out-in-the-open treasures.

I'm not sure where they come from - estate sales, perhaps, or maybe attic evictions. The books themselves are in general very well preserved, some of them over forty years old without a single crease in their spines. The titles range from much-lauded cult fiction (I've seen several editions of Vonnegut for offer, as well as Rand) to raunchy and un-PC Men's Adventure titles of an era long, long gone (one Perry Mason novel, The Case of the Black-Eyed Blonde, in particular had me chuckling), and even to smut. Yes, occasionally an erotically-charged, naked-woman-on-the-cover title sneaks its way in, and I'm always tempted to pick it up and run chortling to the registers with it so I can sit in my car like the dirty little dork I am and pretend I'm thirteen all over again while skimming the pages for the good stuff.

(An aside, to the librarians at my hometown Public Library - As an adult bibliophile, I am very and truly sorry for how my friends and I defaced all of your romance novels back in my junior high years. Please understand that despite our immaturity we meant well by underlining the sex scenes for any subsequent borrowers. I now do all of this utilizing notecards. Many apologies and a sincere thank you for stocking all that free sexiness for me back in the day.)

One of these porn-but-not-quite-porn novels, Catherine Breillat's A Man for the Asking/L'Homme Facile, called out to me with its cover. It wasn't so much the nude woman reclining with a silk sheet between her thighs and her arm masterfully obscuring her nipples that did it as it was the announcement above the picture, "BANNED IN EUROPE! The shocking novel by a 16-year-old French girl," that caught my eye and refused to let me go.

A teenager wrote this? Okay, let me scrounge around my pockets and fish out two bucks.

At a hundred and twenty-six pages, A Man for the Asking is a very quick read; however, its length is somewhat misleading as the text itself is dense, twisting and extremely challenging to follow. Rather than provide the reader with a straightforward, albeit dirty, narrative, Breillat shoves a speeding stream-of-consciousness down the reader's throat and expects them to keep up as the pace works itself into a fever pitch at roughly the halfway mark, the end delivering them teetering over the edge of what-the-hell-did-I-just-read territory.

D.P. (go ahead and giggle - I did) is a promiscuous young man whose every thought, eventually, turns to sex. Amongst his countless conquests, he has an on-again-off-again mistress, the equally promiscuous Playboy model Françoise, though he lusts after L., a young woman of seventeen or eighteen that he spots on the street one evening. He immediately begins to fantasize about sleeping with her, but she disappears and he returns home to prepare for his nightly bacchanalia, which usually consists of drinking in a nightclub that reminds him of a "red vagina" and taking a scantily-clad woman back to his home in the early morning.

Eventually, however, after meeting Françoise at the club and indeed bringing her home (and engaging in an encounter that involves the use of Vaseline), he receives a phone call at five in the morning from L., who has discovered a note card left on her car that D.P had written his number on. She wants to meet for breakfast. Françoise is angered, but he manages to convince her to leave, allowing him to embark on his newest erotic pursuit.

This is where things become quite strange.

Throughout the narrative, it is quite clear that most of the action is internal. The prose is comprised mostly of D.P.'s thoughts, interspersed with snippets of dialogue or real movement, though the bulk of it is only in his head - memories, fantasies, idle thoughts, word plays, etc. It is difficult to discern fact from fiction, what he perceives and what is actually taking place. In places, it feels as if reality and the events in D.P.'s head have melted and oozed together into some incredibly vivid sexual collage.

Breillat (or her translator - I wish I could read French to see if this tactic was employed in the original manuscript) tosses fake vocabulary into the narrative, tucked neatly inside the long, winding sentences full of parenthesis and breaks in focus. These words, all vividly sexual in nature, are highly reminiscent of the "Twat did you say? I cunt hear you, I have an ear infuction and forgot to take my peniscillin" game every school kid in America plays at one point or another. For example:

And the purples and the blues
but especially the pink of an indecent lubricious sexcitement down to the tips of the fingers designed to bring the blood bursting out of his sides or even better the fragile tautened skin of his sex.
[in the context of watching World Cup games on television] it is to make a profession of this:
running after a round ball, a balloon about to burst, the painful abortions of pussy-willyous who came up against a grown man and got caught on the prickle that holds the roll of hundred-franc notes at the end of the evening.

-when the world turns upside down and his mistress has only one hand to service him with (not that she is one-armed; on the contrary: she is manyhanded in the interweaving of her wellmade handmade Puy lace for a handjob on the thigh. Her wellmade vaginal well, a natural well, a geyser from her throat spewing back the lukewarm sperm while a reciprocal discharge is taking place at her crotch that throbs to the selfsame stroke of the hand;
he is losing his head: a hand with the properties of a mouth: or is it all his ivagination).
Chinese puzzle: how many times does the cast bread multiply and how many times can the Penix rise again from its ashes after taking flight like an arrow, poised then broken.

It is confusing and incredibly entertaining to read through these passages, chugging along as efficiently as can be expected given the nature of the text, only to stumble across a dirty made-up word. There is one every few pages, and as the coherence of the plot drops away and the narrative becomes ever denser the new words that crop up become more and more vivid.

D.P. meets L., they eat onion soup (at five in the morning?) and, despite the fact that she asserts that she does not want to sleep with anyone who will not love her unto death, L. accompanies him home. She then proceeds to accept his offer of a bath, puts on his robe, allows him to strip naked and they drift off into an odd sleeping-but-not-sleeping state (she especially; he appears more awake, as the story belongs to him and he continues lusting over her to the point of pain).

I normally do not spoil reviews but, seeing as how this book is no longer in print and has been out in America since 1969, I'm making an exception. Brace yourself:

D.P. is so in love with L. that he kills himself. He commits seppuku with his own penis.

But the reason for all this,
the sole superb gesture is accomplished by his penis as it plows slowly through his belly in the traditional rite of the Samurais. It goes in first from the top, just under the breastbone, it has to make several tries before the flesh makes an opening, but he puts up with it without understanding why by tearing off his lips so as not to scream and struggle,
nor to swoon away
which would make his tool soft and useless,
when the flesh is opened, it goes slowly down right to its root then comes back up to make a horizontal gash toward the left where the heart is.
Then he drags himself over to L. and gets down on his knees
and his hands that had gone down to his belly shove his guts back and make him a soft unctuous mattress and cauterize his wounds
that is the solemn difficult moment when his hands take out his heart
during the infinite shortness he has left to die in he places it slowly and with devotion between her legs the last throbbings in her organ make sumptuous delicate love to it that becomes violent when the final jerks become synchronized with his own:
then everything grows calm again and his heart takes its place for ever in her vagina which itself has found its final place after having experienced the most marvelous of orgasms.

I... I don't even know what the fuck anymore. The neophyte critic in me sees something remarkable here, something profound beyond the thick veil of textual trickery and mind-bending narrative. The eternal thirteen-year-old in me, pen hand exhausted from all of the underlining, is giggling her ass off. At this time, I'm not sure which viewpoint is dominant.

There is definitely something quite strong in this text, be it insight or stupidity. The fact that I am unable to clearly determine its nature leads me to believe it must be insight, as art, for me at least, with my short attention span and desire to see and know everything simultaneously, is a slippery and tricky thing to keep hold on for long. Regardless, this is perhaps the best way I've ever spent two dollars out of my pocket and two hours of my life.


Calliope said...

Very surrealistit with a little Cockteau thrown in for good pleasure.

Peaky Lee said...

No mention of the fact that this 16-year-old became a famous director of philosophically-smutty films? If you weren't aware, you should see Anatomie de l'Enfer (Anatomy of Hell) first. She turned it into a book as well (this sounds backwards, but to my understanding that was the order of things).

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