The deuxieme instalment of our Par Femme Book Club unfolds the pickings of deeply committed reader and writer, Laura Bannister. Erecting her daily workspaces in different New York public libraries, the freelance writer and editor of Museum prefers to position herself amid the action: uninterrupted, panoramic views of towering bookshelves; the promise of growing cleverer by osmosis on slower days. Here are six sensual, oft smut-tinged reads chosen by Laura:
1. The Beautiful Poem (1967) by Richard Brautigan
This isn’t a book, it’s a sparse little verse. Whatever; Brautigan writes about sex in a manner I find attractive: sober, unvarnished, explicit. He talks about pissing post-coitus and making circles with one’s tongue (nice idea!). According to my recent Google searches, he’s become something of a Tumblr poetry hero. I’m sure he’d find that amusing if he wasn’t dead.
2. Future Sex (2016) by Emily Witt
Late to the game on this one—I listened to the Longform interview with Emily Witt where she discussed Future Sex, and it had been on my to-peruse list for ages. On reading, I enjoyed what The Guardian termed Witt's “nagging puritanism that supposes pleasure will be punished, abstinence rewarded.” It felt relatable to the mindset of many people I know. This is a book, I guess, of field reports and diary entries, each dispatched from a different (hetero)sexual frontier: the filming of an orgy for BDSM website Public Disgrace, a gathering of polyamorists. It’s a sort of ad-hoc chart of monogamous behaviours, with Witt as the apprehensive, curious guide.
3. Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov
My pick of the more perverted classics. This brilliant, disturbing book is about a turpid, brutal, leering, paedophilic professor and his young "nymphet" Lolita, a pubescent victim of sexual assault. Reading it as a teenager blew my mind and terrified me and made me realise what was possible with prose (more than anything else I was consuming at the time, until Ada, the tale of an ingrown family, and Despair). For instance, take this explosive little passage: “You have to be... a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs―the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limbs, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate―the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognised by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.” Lolita also led me to the (sexless) topic of Nabokov as a lepidopterist, his great pleasure outside writing. I find it very satisfying to watch grainy videos of the Russian-American novelist chasing butterflies.
4. Narcissus and Goldmund (1930) by Herman Hesse
Included this book because I’ve been the walking-cliche-backpacker reading Herman Hesse in the thick, oppressive heat of Goa, and in the mountainous McLeod Ganj, and on various mosquito-netted bunkbeds in southeast Asia and Sri Lanka, and I can accept this image of myself, perhaps even embrace it. (A necessary FYI: I have never owned a bongo or a hacky sack, and I do not enjoy group tours of any kind.) For a couple of years, all I wanted to read was philosophical fiction, stuff that played out the eternal conflict between flesh and spirit, between the emotional and contemplative man—presumably because I’d grown up in the Anglican church and found the tension relatable. This novel fit the bill. It's about two medieval men and their fractured bond: one who indulges in every pleasure of the flesh, the other content with monastic scholarship. There’s plenty of descriptions of sex and lust, of desire in myriad forms, but there’s also a deeper (and I’d say, homoerotic) connection between the two men, a student-teacher relationship that occasionally becomes inverse.
5. The Daemon Lover (1949) by Shirley Jackson
Joyce Carol Oates called this “deeper, more mysterious, and more disturbing than The Lottery.” What a recommendation! Thank you, Joyce! In this little gothic horror short story (which borrows its title from a Scottish ballad), a woman is engaged to be married, but can’t remember what her fiancé looks like. A desperate hunt ensues. The narrator becomes less credible. This isn’t really a sexy read—but it’s about people, (dis)connection, delusion, obsession, unfulfilled fantasy.
6. Switch Bitch (1974) by Roald Dahl
Pervy, twisted stories for adults. Amid the collection is ‘Bitch,’ a short story originally published in the July '74 edition of Playboy. I don’t want to plot-spoil, but this thing is a semi-debauched feast feat. Dahl’s recurring character, Uncle Oswald, amid oodles of olfactory wordplay and plenty of sex. I’ll leave you with a choice quote: "...the two of us were millions of miles up in outer space, flying through the universe in a shower of meteorites all red and gold. I was riding her bareback... "Faster!" I shouted, jabbing long spurs into her flanks. "Go faster!" Faster and still faster she flew, spurting and spinning around the rim of the sky, her mane streaming with sun, and snow waving out of her tail. The sense of power I had was overwhelming. I was unassailable, supreme. I was the Lord of the Universe, scattering the planets and catching the stars in the palm of my hand.”
Read Par Femme Book Club: Melissa Kenny.