[This is the text of the book review from episode fifty.] [This text corrects my statement in the podcast that Sartre wrote The Stranger–it was Camus.]
The books being reviewed this week are two by Georges Bataille, who has not one, but two French names I can’t pronounce easily. I picked these up when I met up with Eros a few weeks back and all I knew was that the author was well-respected and the first book today—Story of the Eye—regularly makes must-read lists.
Not knowing what it was about, I flipped the book over and saw the words ‘explicit pornographic fantasy’ and ‘sexual quest involving sadism, torture, orgies, madness and defilement’.
Right. Oh, and look, they have another of his books. Let’s have that then, as well.
I haven’t fallen so profoundly for an author’s words since reading Nabokov for the first time. This was when I had a credit card and no sense of financial self preservation and I went out and bought all of his novels and started reading them in chronological order.
Some writers do things with words that make me want to absorb everything they’ve written.
In Harry Potter there’s this thing called a Pensieve, where memories are rendered into a liquid and another person can immerse their face into another person’s thoughts, basically, and see what they experienced.
Some authors make me want to do that. I want to smoosh my face into the crotch of the book (really called the gutter, but I like crotch) and absorb the words that way. Just let them wash over me.
Luckily, Bataille doesn’t have a large number of books.
Before I get too much more moony-eyed over this guy—there are people who probably shouldn’t read this one. So I’ll do the, ‘You might be traumatised for life’ warning now then tell you about the book. The author gets really graphic about some things so it’s not like he merely mentions something and I think my listeners are delicate flowers.
If you have a horror of eye wounds or things being done to eyes… stay away. There’s a reason the book is called Story of the Eye.
There’s a very graphic… well, everything is graphic… one of the graphic scenes is of a bull-fight. If you’re put off by scenes of rampaging animal cruelty then there’s an entire section you’ll want to skip.
Finally, if you’re offended by sacrilegious acts, then woo boy, there’s a whole scene that’s key to the plot that will send your pulse racing in a bad way.
On the other hand, if you’re into sacrilegious acts—no skipping ahead!
If you’re neither here nor there on those, but you’re into pee play, boy, do I have a recommendation for you. Urine is wildly popular with the two main characters and seems to be an intrinsic and uncontrolled part of their play, much like how the protagonist in The Piano Teacher simply had to urinate whenever she became aroused.
This is the opening of the book:
I grew up very much alone, and as far back as I recall I was frightened of anything sexual. I was nearly sixteen when I met Simone, a girl my own age, at a beach in X. Our families being distantly related, we quickly grew intimate. Three days after our first meeting, Simone and I were aline in her villa. She was wearing a black pinafore with a starched white collar. I began to realize that she shared my anxiety at seeing her, and I felt even more anxious that day because I hoped she would be stark naked under the pinafore.
She had black silk stockings on covering her knees, but I was unable to see as far up as the cunt (this name, which I always used with Simone, is, I think, by far the loveliest of the names for the vagina). It merely sturck me that by slightly lifting the pinafore from behind, I might see her private parts unveiled.
Now in the corner of a hallway there was a saucer of milk for the cat. “Milk is for the pussy, isn’t it?” said Simone. “Do you dare me to sit in the saucer?”
“I dare you,” I answered, almost breathless.
The day was extremely hot. Simone put the saucer on a small bench, planted herself before me, and, with her eyes fixed on me, she sat down without my being able to see her burning buttocks under the skirt, dipping into the cool milk. The blood shot to my head, and I stood before her awhile, immobile and trembling, as she eyed my stiff cock bulging in my trousers. Then I lay down at her feet without her stirring, and for the first time, I saw her “pink and dark” flesh cooling in the white milk. We remained motionless, both of us equally overwhelmed…
Suddenly, she got up, and I saw the milk dripping down her thighs to the stockings. She wiped herself evenly with a handkerchief as she stood over my head with one foot on the small bench, and I vigorously rubbed my cock through the trousers while writhing amorously on the floor. We reached orgasm at almost the same instant without even touching one another. But when her mother came home, I was sitting in a low armchair, and I took advantage of the moment when the girl tenderly snuggled in her mother’s arms: I lifted the back of her pinafore, unseen, and thrust my hand under her cunt between her two burning legs.
I dashed home, eager to masturbate again. The next day there were such dark rings around my eyes that Simone, after peering at me for a while, buried her head in my shoulder and said earnestly: “I don’t want you to toss off any more without me.”
My note after after was: Literature!
So that’s how our narrator meets and begins his debauchery with Simone.
He and Simone are outside one day doing dirty things with one another and are seen by another person, Marcelle. (Marcelle is a woman—it’s one of those French names that sounds the same for either sex but is spelled differently depending on the sex.)
She is a delicate, conservative creature, but is swept up into a threeway. Of course, with these two—it’s not an ordinary threeway. It’s a crazed-fucking-in-a-violent-thunder-storm-menage.
Marcelle is later horrified by having participated and tries to avoid them, but is eventually coaxed to a small gathering.
What takes place at the gathering isn’t all entirely spelled out—surprisingly—but what is given to us… Well, it sounds like Caligula would have had a great time.
This sends pious Marcelle round the bend and she’s packed off to the asylum, which is in a castle some distance away. Because France.
Our intrepid debauchees, however, are now obsessed with the girl and are determined to break her out. But! They’re teenagers and only have bikes. Still, sexual obsession is what it is, so off they go and nearly die. As you do.
That’s only the beginning, though. One unpredictable thing after another happens and they wind up wandering over various parts of Europe doing a variety of morally questionable things.
Tonally, it reminds me of Camus’ The Stranger—it’s not long before the narrator is contemplating some Existentialist concepts. But he’s also on the brink of physical and mental collapse at the time and that will make anyone question the point of life.
It’s very French. Besides the Camus thing there is a touch of de Sade’s libertine philosophy, as well. None of the characters are sympathetic and it’s rather literary. If you’ve read any French lit and didn’t care for it I don’t know if you’ll like this one.
If you’ve not read any before, well, this would be a hell of a place to start.
This book had really detailed, unusual fantasies on behalf of the characters. Portnoy ain’t got nothing on these people. I was impressed.
For example, five pages into the story we have this:
That was the period when Simone developed a mania for breaking eggs with her behind. She would be a headstand on an armchair in the parlour, her back against the chair’s back, her legs bent towards me, while I jerked off in order to come in her face. I would put the egg right in the hole in her arse, and she would skillfully amuse herself by shaking it in the deep crack of her buttocks. The moment my come shot out and trickled down her eyes, her buttocks would squeeze together and she would come while I smeared my face abundantly in her ass.
There’s an obsession with eggs that I thought must be based on an actual kink the author had witnessed it was so unusual. Luckily, this was the Penguin Modern Classics version and included extra bits and pieces including a writing by the author about where the imagery came from.
It was so much worse/fascinating than I would have ever guessed. I’ll put in spoiler tags on the text of the book review next week for those of you who don’t intend to read the book for whatever reason, but great day in the morning.
As promised: Spoiler tags! It had to do with his father, who had severe health problems, including blindness. He couldn’t relieve himself on his own so a young Bataille watched his father urinate a lot and was intrigued by the glazed over, half-expression on the man’s blind eyes when eliminating. Eyes and eggs and, later, bull testicles are all a similar metaphor and are used in similar, perverse ways for sexual enjoyment.
In terms of writing the author is masterful at conveying much with little. The novel itself is more a novella—it’s 65 pages long—but a lot happens.
If you opt to read this one—and I can absolutely understand why a person both would and would not—I highly recommend getting the Penguin Modern Classics edition. Besides the extra piece by Bataille, it also includes an outline for a sequel that sounds…bracing, and an essay about pornography by Susan Sontag that was mind-blowing.
There was also a short piece by Roland Barthes explaining the metaphor of the eye, which was useful because I thought I was missing something.
Rating this one is nigh on impossible. Some people wouldn’t make it fifteen pages before barfing and throwing the book across the room.
Other people would be like me and say, ‘More? More books by this person?’
Basically, you’ve heard the review—hopefully you can work out if it’s for you based on this.
The second book in this episode is L’Abbe C.
It’s less blatantly profane as well as less straightforward with what’s happening. If you need everything to be spelled out and resolved this is not the book for you. If you’re comfortable with ambiguity in your fiction then here’s some ambiguity for you.
There’s a framing story where a man named Charles gives a manuscript to a narrator—the manuscript is about the events leading up to Charles’ brother’s death. This is right at the beginning—it’s not a spoiler.
Then we read the manuscript, written from Charles C’s point of view, which is the bulk of the novel.
Charles is something of a libertine and he’s been involved with a woman named Eponine since they were very young. So has his identical twin brother, Robert, who is a priest.
They’ve all been friends since childhood, and, later, Charles and Eponine became lovers. The woman eventually became a prostitute, which has never bothered the author of the manuscript, but it greatly disturbed the priest—even before he became a member of the clergy.
She was a bit too licentious for his taste and it was what sent him down the path of being a giant stick in the mud.
He started ignoring her and avoiding her in the small town they lived in, until he moved away.
Once he became a priest, she taunted him by calling him facetiously ‘L’Abbe’ as though he were supposed to be above the lesser mortals.
Eventually, due to various circumstances, Robert winds up moving back to where they live—it’s never named—and Eponine is determined to have him. To sort of corrupt him for his judgment of her all of those years.
I thought I knew what was going to happen, but I was wrong. Bataille didn’t take the obvious route, I’ll give him that.
It’s a story about two people obsessed with one another (Eponine and Robert) and the person trapped between them.
It’s also about people who don’t fucking communicate.
The twins have a…strained relationship where they don’t express what they think or feel well and at one point Robert explains something then his solution to the problem is: ‘We just shouldn’t talk anymore.’
What?! There are other options than just not speaking anymore. It’s not like you’ve been going gangbusters on that front, as it is…
The end of the book is a few pages written by Robert then a some more pages by the original person who had been given the entire manuscript and that allowed a few more bits and pieces to fall into place, but I still had many questions. Books like that can have a dream-like quality that’s not entirely unpleasant to give yourself over to, even if, at the time, you want to strap the characters down and do whatever you have to to extract a straight sentence out of them.
Though this one wasn’t as explicitly explicit, it had its moments. There was a particular quote I wanted to share with you.
She bit my lip so fiercely and savoured her fear so intensely that I was strongly aroused myself. Moving with calculated violence, I changed my position, and my body became as taut as it could be. There is no pleasure more voluptuous than that which attends such deliberate anger. I felt as if I were being rent by lightning which continued to strike, as if prolonged by the immensity of the sky.
L’Abbe C is more of a very intense character study than traditional novel. If you’re going to give Bataille a try I’d recommend Story of the Eye first (unless you think that one would give you the yurks).
I’ll be reviewing other books of his in upcoming episodes. If you’ve read any of his, please leave a comment or email or note in the FetLife Group—I’d love to have a conversation about it.