"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Exposure: Catherine Millet The Sequel

There has been a fair amount written about the current literary season or rentrée in France and one of the high profile titles is by Catherine Millet, author of the notorious The Sex Life of Catherine M. which was translated, for reasons that aren't hard to find, into 45 languages. It contained a remarkably frank account of her lifetime of sexual libertinage and perhaps some of her readers were expecting more of the same with her latest. It is called Jour de souffrance or Day of Suffering (but an epigraph from the standard French dictionary Robert points to another meaning of that phrase - a window that looks out on to someone else's property without giving right of access). The theme of the book is sexual jealousy, the bit that got left out of the last one. CM's discovery of this phenomenon dates from her discovery, on the table of her grand Paris flat that she shared with her long term partner, the writer Jacques Henric (who presumably consented to join her in this act of intimate self-display) of a photograph taken by her husband of a naked young woman, pregnant, together with a notebook in which he records another sexual infidelity. The book is about the shock of this discovery, its effect on her subconscious life, the series of "crises" it puts her through, and her ultimate survival. The irony that someone attached to her own "vie libertine" should be outraged by someone else doing the same thing should properly flash at us in large neon letters. But CM doesn't see it this way. In one passage she disdains on aesthetic grounds to go down the trite and commonplace road of "what is sauce for the goose etc" and seems to argue that her varied sexual life was her thing or "truc" and that everyone knew about it which makes it OK but Jacques' secret sexual life was not on the table so she is right to be devastated by the discovery of it.

If this sounds like a bit of highbrow smut it isn't. Catherine Millet is a distinguished art critic and writes with forensic insight into her own mental processes and reactions in a way that could easily have become narrow and obsessional but somehow it doesn't. Her references to artists are always relevant and insightful and there is more about her early life as a rebellious schoolgirl in a Paris suburb falling in with poets and artists and becoming an art critic and editor of art press and her dreams of becoming a writer. There are some fine Proustian moments as when she picks out a long blonde strand of hair from what she thought was her motorcycle helmet (she is short-haired) and realises she can never wear it ever again. As a companion piece to the earlier shocker it is more reflective and more introspective. It won't sell like hot cakes like its predecessor but I think it is the better book.

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