Steamy French memoir goes global One of the most talked-about women in France last year was Catherine M. And, the subject she talked most about was… sex. Catherine M. seduced French readers with graphic descriptions of sexual escapades in Paris swingers’ clubs, on hoods of cars parked in the Bois de Boulogne, in staircase landings and on office desks.
The character Catherine M. is the real-life art critic Catherine Millet, and she says the tales are true. “The sexual life of Catherine M.” has sold more than 300 000 copies in France alone and nearly a million in Europe since it appeared in 2001. Already translated into 11 other languages, the book hits British book shops in May and US bookstores in June.
The memoir is a startlingly uninhibited study of one woman’s lifelong pursuit for sexual gratification. Long, elliptical sentences and a classical style reflect the book’s self-conscious endeavor to be literature.
Seated in her 12th arrondissement loft in a somewhat unkept corner of Paris, Catherine Millet, in a fur-collared sweater and fishnet stockings, smoothes a crease in her skirt.”I intended to address an intellectual audience,” Millet says, “but as I’ve been traveling around Europe to present the translations, I’ve been surprised to discover that I reached the general public as well.”
Before coming out with her memoir, Millet was best known as the distinguished art critic and founder of France’s leading art review, Art Press. She has written eight books of criticism in that field, and contributed actively to the renown of the Sao Paolo and Venice biennials.
Perhaps the unexpected profile of a libertine sex adventurer cloaked in intellectual attire explained the book’s immediate appeal and precluded disparaging critiques. The daily Le Monde heralded it as “excellent, wonderfully written, absolutely staggering,” and Millet as a revolutionary, “for talking about her sex life like no other woman has done before.”
Born in 1948, Millet came of age at the dawn of France’s sexual revolution. She calls herself a direct beneficiary of 1968. “I was extremely lucky to have grown up during that time, but after I turned 40, I started asking myself a lot of questions. How is it that I’ve been happily married to Jacques Henric for 20 years while enjoying total sexual freedom?”
The idea behind the book was born. “I finally realized that my experience of sexual liberty didn’t correspond at all with the reigning ideas of my generation. It was said that you had to live in total transparency, and tell everyone everything,” she explains. “In short, I think that was much more complicated than we expected… With Jacques, our open marriage works because we believe in discretion. I would never come home after leaving for a weekend and say, ‘Hey, you’ll never believe the hunk I spent the weekend with!’ – If he did that to me, I’d be devastated.”
The memoir became an attempt to reach out to other women “in an act of complicity” by exploring her singular relationship to sex. “Until the idea of this book came to me I had never really thought about my sexuality very much,” she writes in the first chapter. “I did, however, realize that I had had multiple partners at an early stage, which is unusual, especially for girl… I lost my virginity when I was 18 – which isn’t especially early – but I had group sex for the first time in the weeks immediately after my deflowering. On that occasion I was obviously not the one who took the initiative in the situation, but I was the one who precipitated it – something I still cannot explain to myself.”
Millet considered the idea awhile before she actually began writing. “I needed someone to push me to do it,” she admits. That, ironically, turned out to be Henric.” Shortly after her opus appeared, her novelist and artist husband published a book of nude photographs of Millet, taken on train platforms, and in other public spaces. Their loft is covered with these arresting shots, emblems of the voyeuristic penchant the couple shares.
“I had no idea how to start, [until…] Jacques said, ‘Why do anything different? You’re a very methodical girl, so precise when you talk about art, why don’t you write this book just like your other ones?'” Millet agreed.
She began taking notes, triggering a 30-year-long mass of visual souvenirs of her encounters. Then, she phoned former partners who had remained friends. “Everyone found the idea very funny,” she says, “but they all agreed to meet me to exchange memories and verify that I had remembered things correctly. Honesty was very important to me.” When the time came to write, Millet agonized over every word, determined to be as precise – as graphic – as possible.
The exactness Millet achieved made the translators’ work particularly challenging. Adriana Hunter, the British translator for both English versions, says “The sexual life…” was the most difficult book she’s ever worked on because of the nature of French sexual vocabulary. “I had so much trouble with this word, ‘le sexe de l’homme’,” Hunter remembers. “In French it’s such a perfectly neutral word [meaning sex organs or gender]. It’s not sexy, or dirty, and it’s not scientific either, like ‘penis.’ In the end, I settled for the word ‘member.'”
Millet encountered similar reactions in speaking with the other translators. “Not every language is as rich in sexual vocabulary,” she says, “plus, the equivalent of a French word in another language might not have the same resonance. Sometimes it’s much more vulgar.” Hunter’s translation remains literary, but the tone does fall victim to sweeping shifts. One has many more urges to chuckle or shudder, and often to squirm.
Overall, the reader is left scratching his or her head, perplexed by this particular psyche – no matter how eloquent, honest and straightforward it appears. One question, arising half out of curiosity, half out of repulsion lingers: what hasn’t Catherine M. revealed? “You think you’ve said everything in a book,” Millet says, “but then, inevitably, people approach you with other questions, showing you that in fact, you’ve never said everything, in fact… No, not at all.”