The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet, translated from the French by Adriana Hunter, New York, Grove Press, 2002, $23.
Until last year, the name Catherine Millet hardly connoted the subject of pornography. Millet was known as the longtime editor of the French (and now bilingual) art magazine Artpress, and the author of several books on art, including a useful and well-written survey of French art from the 1960s onward. By way of complete disclosure, I should note that I have been published in Artpress, although I never had direct dealings with Millet. In the early '90s we met several times when I lived in Paris and covered the French art scene for an American art magazine.
Only one of these occasions comes back vividly to me for reasons that will shortly become obvious: It has to do with her handshake, very firm and positive, though in my innocence, I did not think of the various uses to which such a grip could be put. If memory serves, we were at a symposium held at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, which we left at exactly the same moment, shortly after a scene had taken place in which I had been maligned by my French counterpart, a female French historian of the Vichy era.
That day, Millet was dressed in a chic beige suit, not particularly revealing, strands of her dark straight hair were falling on her face, more or less hiding the famous brown eyes. Overall, she emanated a guarded presence, but also a certain feisty fleetiness. No sooner had she extended her hand to me and shaken it vigorously than she was gone. Gone back to work, I then assumed, knowing nothing of her sexual diversions.
Prior to the publication, and now translation, of her autobiography, gossip concerning Millet's sexual life -- as far as I knew about it -- focused on two successive love partners, the Parisian art dealer Daniel Templon in the early stages of both their careers in the 1970s and, later on, the philosopher-novelist Jacques Henric.
It so happened that I got to review Henric's book La peinture et le mal for Artpress. I guess they wanted someone removed from the Parisian scene to do the job. Rereading my prose, I see that I noted a certain crudeness of voice in Henric's book to which I reacted in kind. I spoke of asking some men friends if it were true that the paintings by the Protestant painter Mondrian had never given them a "hard on," so as to test Henric's theory that Protestantism had killed the sensuality of painting. Obviously even from a great distance, men like Henric have a way of veering a woman's writing to the subject of sex.
If one is to believe what one reads in Millet's autobiography (and the author's memory falters between a fantasy world and the real one), unbeknownst to most of us, Millet has been carrying on voraciously and with innumerable partners ever since she lost her virginity (a small tale in itself). In four episodes, rather flatly entitled "Numbers," "Space," "Confined Space" and "Details," she suggests that as far as sex is concerned, she has seen it all: Sex in a twosome, sex in a threesome, multiple partners and partner swapping in orgies (as in "numbers"); sex performed outdoors ("space") and sex performed in tiny uncomfortable spaces ("confined space"); oral sex and anal sex and even vaginal sex ("details").
Possibly, "seen it all" is the wrong expression here, for it implies being a sometime victim, and Millet does not see herself that way. A better word then would be "tried" as in "she has tried it all."
And here lies the difference between her self creation and the women depicted by the Marquis de Sade, but also by Georges Bataille, whose famous The Story of the Eye comes to mind as a possible source for our author. In both books, only first names are used, and the characters are not defined aside from their sexual being. Both texts are a stylistic tour de force.
And in both books, there is a crescendo of sexual excess, though the Surrealist image of a blue eye staring blindly from inside the ring of a woman's ass in Bataille is visually more poetic than Millet's description of the uncanny encounter of a colicky intestine and an aroused prick. But, and this is the difference, in The Sexual Life of Catherine M., nobody goes mad, nobody dies.
Indeed, one of the most revealing aspects of this book has to do with the codes and taboos respected by the protagonists: Millet is the one who leads the way to the site of the orgy (be it the underside of an empty stadium outside Paris, a clearing in the Bois de Boulogne, the lowest level of a parking garage near the Pont de St. Cloud, the fashionable club for devotees of group sex on the rue de Chazel, or the apartment of a wealthy swinger). But, when she poses in the back of a van, her ass at the ready for visitors, there is no fighting over who will get in first, second or . . . 20th. A voyeur bouncer-friend organizes the line-up and puts an end to the sance.
As for distinguishing between an unfriendly member of the police des bonnes moeurs, an interloper and a willing new partner in a tryst, that too is left up to a lookout, and no incident ensues. Furthermore, in the so called "couple culture" of Millet's set -- for couples do form, even in a free sex culture (Jacques Henric, known as Jacques in her book, has figured in her life for many years) -- it is taboo to invite another sexual partner into the bedroom shared by the couple, but it is all right to engage in intimate activity anywhere else in the home.
Good manners are respected if the official partner makes his entrance at the wrong time. In such a situation, "sorry, old chap," is all that is expected of the male visitor, who then makes a quick exit.
While nobody goes mad in the little world described by Millet, when the tables are turned and Millet discovers another woman in her partner's life, is there no suffering on her part? Millet has a hard time sticking to the rules of the "couple culture" and cannot disguise her jealousy. Speaking of Claude (the first husband) she writes: "It pained me every time Claude was seduced by a woman whom I judged to be prettier than myself. . . . I really would have loved it if I, the girl who gave the best blow job, the one who was always first to get going at an orgy, hadn't been short, with eyes that are slightly too close together, a long nose, etc. . . . With Jacques [the second husband], my jealousy took the form of a terrible feeling of being supplanted."
So, behind the bravado looms a vulnerable woman, someone who knows that whatever her talents, sexual or intellectual -- she is at risk of being "supplanted." These hints of humanness will endear her to women, and so will her incidental descriptions of an upbringing in a poor dysfunctional Catholic family, and the implied admission that it takes far more than a good brain for disadvantaged persons of the female sex to empower themselves.
This being said, Millet's book addresses a far larger public than that of feminists searching for new role models. Readers who take pleasure in descriptions of the sex act will enjoy themselves, and those who are interested in learning new how-to-do-it techniques will not be disappointed either.
I for one like Millet best when she is either bored or distracted. The former happens at intello dinner parties when, to amuse herself, she tells of playing footsie just to see what will happen. The latter takes place at the end of an impromptu fuck in the countryside as, still bent over, she sees the world upside down between her and her partner's legs. "I let Jacques come; he paces his thrusts more slowly until the final three or four of orgasm, while my mind abandons itself to another fulfilling pleasure: floating freely, it hovers over and follows the contours of each hill, clearly distinguishing each from the next, and sinking into the ink magic of the mountains in the background..."
The first situation suggests that Millet is at heart not a listener nor a talker but an observer, the second one that visual impressions stay with her even while she is "otherwise" engaged, and together those traits remind us that though she may want to project the image of herself as a female vampire, she remains through it all a professional art writer.
So why did she do this book? On that score, tongues will wag as detractors will speak of her as having prostituted first herself then her writing in order to become a millionaire. But what if unzipping a man's fly, fingering one's way to the object of interest, adroitly and enthusiastically cajoling it with hands, lips and tongue outdoes -- as far as Millet's pleasure is concerned -- the give and take provided by most art experiences today?
After a lifetime devoted to convincing her readers that unraveling the mysteries of contemporary art was worth the effort, she may well be confiding in this autobiography that writing about and enjoying unbridled, uninhibited sex is incomparably more rewarding to her and far more empowering than editing art criticism.
MICHLE C. CONE, Ph.D., is a New-York based critic and historian. Her latest book is French Modernisms: Perspectives on Art before during and after Vichy (Cambridge 2001).