The Word Made Flesh does it again
Une Orange sur la table
Ta robe sur le Tapis
Et toi dans mon lit
Doux présent du présent
Fraîcheur de la nuit
Chaleur de ma vie
- Jacques Prévert
05 Dezembro 2013
04 Dezembro 2013
13 Novembro 2013
BOULEVARD OF BROKEN DREAMS
Few streets in the world are as famous as this one, but we tend to see it through a screen, darkly. Laura Barton gets under the skin of Sunset Boulevard
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2013
SIX IN THE morning, Beverly Hills. The air is filled with the aroma of expensive lawns, warming in the pallid sun. Plastic-bound copies of the LA Times lie before wrought iron gates, watched by security cameras, a chatter of birds, a glimpse of pink sky. Stand quite still on the sidewalk here, and the neighbourhood draws into focus. Box hedges, orange trees, the scent of magnolia. The ineluctable neatness of here.
For several blocks, Sunset Boulevard is home to LA as we know it—millionaires and billionaires, Oscar-winners and entrepreneurs, supermodels and TV shrinks. And over its high fences you catch flickers of affluence: a floodlit basketball court, a sliver of turquoise swimming pool.
But stand a little longer, and you see things that do not fit so neatly. Close to where Sunset meets the curve of Foothill Road, a woman waits at a bus stop. She is nondescript—black coat, white trainers, scarf, short hair, Trader Joe's bag. She speaks softly, as if her voice might ruffle the grass.
Her name is Petra, and she is a 64-year-old live-in housekeeper. She talks of how she moved to Los Angeles from Peru over two decades ago, and of the longing she still feels for home. Today is Sunday, her day off, so she is going to the Catholic church, two bus rides away in Culver City. The Number 2 bus draws up, and she is swallowed by the soft hiss of the doors. As the bus slides by, the faces in the windows are all Hispanic or black, all weary.
The street resumes its steady composure. A red sports car hums towards the coast, and a woman in white walks in circles in the middle of Arden Drive.
This is a story of belonging and not belonging, of preposterous wealth and immense poverty; of how, in a city where people love to be seen, so many can slip through the cracks unnoticed.
It is also the story of a single street, Sunset Boulevard, a 22-mile vein that goes from the coast to the clutter of downtown, past Sunset Strip, the Church of Scientology and on through Silver Lake. And of how, if you should choose to walk that street, from sunrise to sunset, you will come to see a city unadorned and unmade, a city at odds with itself.
SUNSET WAS ONCE a cattle trail. In the 1780s it ran out of the Pueblo de Los Angeles, west towards the sea. It remained a dirt road until the early 1900s, when it was paved and polished to fit the intentions of a burgeoning city. "The paving of Sunset Boulevard is one of the most important public improvements attempted in Los Angeles," said the Los Angeles Herald in 1909, "and because of this fact has been attended with more than the customary amount of difficulty." The bickering between the rival contractors dragged on for two years, with the Board of Public Works finally awarding the contract to Barber Asphalt, for $181,733.16.
Within a generation, it was given another make-over. In the early 1930s, Sunset Strip—the mile-and-a-half-long stretch that runs through West Hollywood—was paved with thick Portland cement and Warrenite Bitulithic, to match the growth of glamorous casinos and nightclubs along its route.
In the years since, Sunset Boulevard has become shorthand for what Los Angeles represents in the collective imagination. It is the Chateau Marmont and the Whiskey-A-Go-Go, the Hollywood Palladium, Schwab's Drugstore, the Directors' Guild of America and the Hustler store. It evokes extremes, from the spangled American Dream to seedy, untempered excess; the wild and peculiar destination of a country forever looking West.
California is not the draw it once was. Although nearly 740,000 people move there each year, 840,000 leave—many of them heading to Texas and Arizona, where the living is cheaper. Even the Mexicans are going off it, deterred by California's unemployment and an emerging middle class back home. But Los Angeles bucks the trend. In 2010-11, it had 100,000 more people moving in than moving out—along with over 40m tourists, who come for the theme parks and the studio tours, the shopping and the nightlife and the hope that they might just spot a celebrity. Because this is what beckons the newcomers to Los Angeles' hearth: the great, fiery possibility of it all.
AT ALMOST THE precise point where Beverly Hills turns into Sunset Strip, and a short way back from the edge of the pavement, a man of about 50 sits selling Star Maps. Manuel's last job was sewing in a factory, but a lack of business led to job cuts, and now he spends seven hours a day sitting here in the semi-shade, in which time he hopes to sell "maybe four, five, six" maps.
Manuel is not alone in this enterprise. All along Sunset Boulevard you see the gawpers passing by in open-top buses, the Primetime Hollywood mini-trucks full of tourists, all waiting for their cue to snap pictures of Frank Sinatra's former home, or the Rainbow Bar and Grill, where Joe DiMaggio took Marilyn Monroe for their first date, or the shrub that Lindsay Lohan flattened with her Mercedes (she was subsequently arrested). As much as its streets are lined with high-rise towers and Art Deco mansions and Spanish-colonial houses, it is really the myths that make the architecture of this city: the whispered names, the tales of who lived, loved and died here.
It is still early as Sarah the photographer and I reach Sunset Strip; the streets below the high-rises lie smooth and quiet. We can still smell the early lilacs of Beverly Hills, hear the low call of wood pigeons as we pass City National Bank, billboards for Guess jeans and Jack Daniel's. Scratched on an electricity cupboard is a warning: YOUNG HOLLYWOOD WILL PAY.
At this hour, the Strip is largely populated by late-night stragglers and morning street-sweepers. The cleaners in their orange tabards work head-down, tidying all evidence of the evening’s revelry—broken glass swept from patios, beer bottles fished from eucalyptus hedges. A group of young women in short skirts, bare legs and leopard-print heels totter by in a cloud of boozy laughter. In a bus shelter sits a young man wearing shorts, a Chanel earring and elaborate sunglasses, ready to make his weekly journey home from an electronica club. His name is Jake. "I live far," he says sleepily. "It’s in LA county, but it's far." When a woman jogs past, he looks faintly baffled by this strange collision of night and day.
Past the Viper Room, where River Phoenix died 20 years ago, and the clairvoyant and the tattoo parlour, and the window of the Hustler store, with its gimp masks and its stripper shoes and the huge sign that reads: "The Screaming O—Have One Tonight". Past the car-rental store where you can lease a Bentley, the better to impress your date or your business associates. Past the gaggle of Nickelback fans camped outside a plush hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of them. And on to Book Soup, which has occupied this spot for nearly 40 years. Nicholas, a 63-year-old beautician, is flipping through Paris Match. "I love this place," he says. "It's the only civilised place on the Strip. I first started coming here way back in the early Eighties, when I had a little nook up there, a salon, and the choice was either to come here or get drunk in the bars."
He loves the smell of books, and he likes to buy the European magazines. "It gives me a different perspective," he explains. "There's more truth, more reality than flash. At my age I can't deal with fluff, I need something more in my brain. My daughter says to me 'Dad, what are you doing here? This is La-La Land!'"
LA-LA-LAND is a nickname that seems to have spread from the 1970s onwards, a way to capture the strange and dreamy affectations of this city. To walk Sunset is to be struck not only by the deliberately outlandish characters but by the many mentally disturbed people on its sidewalks: the woman rooting through bins who growled on approach, the man masturbating in a car park, the slink-eyed souls muttering darkly to themselves on street corners.
Then there was the peculiar encounter not far from the intersection with La Brea Avenue, as a normal-looking young man hurtled towards us on a skateboard. He was bare-chested, carrying a guitar and eating an ice cream, and it was only as he drew close that we saw something fractured in his eyes. "Save us!" he barked as he skated by. "Before they all kill us!"
And if the air soured then, it was just as suddenly sweetened by the chirruping of a man sitting among the plants on the verge, his hair a tangle of ribbons and purple plastic, swigging Bud Light from a large water bottle. "I'm in the penthouse!" he called brightly. It would be wrong to say we had a conversation. He spoke as if a string had been pulled to make him talk. Why had he come to Los Angeles, I asked, and he gave a disconcerting grin. "I'm tropical, like a dolphin!" he hollered. "You don't put it in the snow!"
He propositioned us, and upon our polite refusal he launched into Carly Simon's "You’re So Vain". We all sang it, from start to finish, there on the sidewalk.
Back on the Strip, when the day was still young, we stopped by Mel's Drive-in, a 24-hour, 1950s-themed diner offering burgers and pancake stacks and Coke floats. They were playing "Dancing in the Street" and "Beauty School Drop-Out" on the jukebox, as a waitress with bouffant hair and bright pink lipstick delivered a plate of waffles to a plump woman in a leatherette booth.
At the back, a young woman sat sketching on sheets of hotel notepaper. She was dressed in high-stacked shoes and elaborate eyeliner, and at her elbow sat a half-eaten bowl of apple pie. She frowned when I asked her name and stared for a while. The light through the window made her skin look ashen and her eyes hard. "Sun," she replied eventually.
Sun (above) was born in Belarus and moved to Israel as a child before heading to New York eight years ago to work in a clothing store. Somehow she ended up in Los Angeles, running away from a bad relationship and arriving with a dream of recording with Marilyn Manson. Her voice is heavily accented, her glower at odds with the California day. "I'm super-tired," she says suddenly. "I didn't sleep for like a week."
She tells us she has just been released from jail, where she had been placed for trespassing at the Four Seasons Hotel. "I was just there writing lyrics," she insists, "I was really inspired. And a gentleman…" her sentence trails off then revs up again: "I've been arrested twice in the past week," she says. "The first time was because I started throwing tampons into people's cars. I shouted 'Free tampons everyone! Free tampons!' I was so bored, I needed company, and some guy was walking past and I took the headphones from his ears and I told him 'Whoo! Let’s go party!' But he was scared and he ran away. And then the police stopped me and said 'Are you OK miss?' and I said to them 'I want to drive your car!'" And then she was arrested. Now, she says, she has all these papers—she waves the court documents, squints at the small, dark print. "I wish I could throw them away. I wish I could make toilet paper out of it."
Now she is unsure what to do. The bad relationship was psychologically harmful, she says. “It was hard for me to recover. I thought OK, my goals are acting, art, writing. But they won’t give you the papers for work. And it creates legal problems.”
She is wondering if she can stay with friends, or squat in an empty office block she has seen on Rodeo Drive, but she is more pressingly concerned by a romantic entanglement with a guy named Alex. "We met on Valentine's Day last year," she says. "We met at noon-time in Hollywood. I said to him 'I want to see your eyes.' And I took his sunglasses off and I thought 'Oh! I love him!' I was hypnotised. I said 'I love your brown eyes.' And then we went and bought contact lenses." She sighs. "I don’t understand the differences between hanging out, dating or a relationship here in America. He started telling me he was sleeping with other girls. I wonder what the reality is? Is it a test?"
She shows us her sketches, and her notebook, full of lyrics and half-ideas, doodles and elaborate plans for an ecosystem that will cool the Earth. "I'm writing things to fix the world," she explains. "It sounds stupid, because I don't even have a place to be right now. I have a couple of cents left. But I feel like I have nothing to lose. When you have complete freedom, you realise you can actually survive without money and without sleep." Sometimes, she adds, "you see the moon in the middle of the day. And so sometimes I wonder if this is for real or if I've been punked."
Somewhere between Sun in the diner and the tropical dolphin of a man near La Brea lies a story of this city's lost and lonely and weak, of how easy it is to lose your footing here, to lose your self and your sense of purpose, your job, your home, your friends, your mind. Perhaps the most la-la thing about Los Angeles is the apparent absence of a sufficient safety-net to catch the vulnerable.
THE LOS ANGELES region has one of the highest concentrations of homelessness in America. In the two years from January 2011 to 2013 the number of people living on the streets in the LA city area has increased from 25,539 to 29,682. And it's estimated that a quarter of these people suffer from a severe form of mental illness.
Many congregate downtown, in the area known as Skid Row, with its cardboard-box shelters and shopping carts. "The poor man's underworld," the Pulitzer-prizewinning journalist Hal Boyle called it in 1947. "A cross-section of American futility, the place where men who have lost hope go after they have jettisoned their dreams." But you find this same sense of futility on Sunset too: dirty bodies curled in doorways, a man asleep on a bench, his feet turtled and grey.
The climate here makes it somewhat easier to survive on the streets. It was part of the appeal for Debbie, now 58, who came here a year and a half ago from Michigan. Debbie's story is not unusual: when the bank foreclosed on her house she decided to head west to California, "because I thought it was nice and warm." She had fond memories, too, of a trip she made here when she was a 17-year-old hippie. She stayed in a hotel at first, but nine months ago, when the money ran out, she began sleeping on the street. For a while she moved about from day to day, but now a leg injury means that she can mostly be found tucked under a blanket outside Starbucks. "I watch people go by, I watch the traffic, I think," she says. "Sometimes I get bored, so I take a nap."
Some of the homeless came here with dreams of more than warm weather. A man sits smoking in a bus shelter. He is wearing blue surgical scrubs and listening to "The Essential Michael Jackson". Calvin says he moved to LA from Houston, leaving behind a well-paid job as a surgical technician for a dream of becoming a stand-up comedian. He has a new job lined up, at a surgery centre in Newport Beach, but until then he is surviving from day to day. "I've been on this bench three months," he says, jovially, "and I've got another month till I start work."
The experience has been "pretty interesting," he says. "Some motherfucker stole my food yesterday. And some homeless guys stole my money and my clothes. So this is my life." He gestures towards his rucksack. "Two scrubs, two pairs of underwear. But the police don't mess with me too much."
He put off coming here for years, he says. "It's hard to leave a good job, good money…but my heart kept calling me to LA." Now 40, he has wanted to be a stand-up since he was 15 and watching "Showtime at the Apollo" on TV. This year, he even performed at the Oscars after-party at the Comedy Store. "You hold on to your dreams," he says, and it is only later that I begin to wonder if any of it was true.
But still they come. On our walk we meet aspiring directors, actors, cinematography students, trainee music producers who dream of writing soundtracks, wide-eyed young men from Sacramento queuing for brunch outside the Griddle. We meet Matt and Bill, smoking cigarettes outside the Guitar Center. They live in the Valley but came here for the weekend to record with their "sorta nu-metal, thrash-metal" band. "Friday was a good night," says Bill. "We got wasted. We had the cops called on us 12 times. And we had to shower our guitarist because he threw up in his hair."
In the summer of 1950, Paramount Pictures released "Sunset Boulevard", the story of an aspiring screenwriter who heads to Los Angeles from Ohio and ends up dead in a swimming pool. It is a cautionary tale, one that encompasses a pet chimpanzee, a faded movie star, and the dangers of both delusion and aspiration. It culminates, famously, with the washed-up actress addressing a great director: "Alright, Mr DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up."
When we mention that we are walking the length of Sunset, people look at us in disbelief, assuring us that it was not only dangerous but most definitely weird. At street level, though, you see more: an IBM laptop in a discarded takeaway box holding seven prawns; two men dancing in the back room of a salsa club; the words "Love Is What You Make It" scrawled across a wall. You catch the faded incense as you walk past the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, see Jayne Mansfield's pink suitcase displayed in the window of the Dearly Departed Tours Office and Curiosity Shop, with a sign beside it instructing you to "note the damage".
You meet people like José, a former labour-union worker who, six months ago, opened a taco van here on Sunset. "I'm 52 years old," he smiles, "but this is not a midlife crisis. I am halfway through my life and it is a checkpoint: where are you in life? Where you want to be? I consider this a journey. There's a very bright light at the end of the tunnel. I can see it."
Or Paul, 58, who for the last three months has stood silently outside Orchard Supply Hardware with a sign notifying passers-by of its relocation sale. Normally he works as a kerb painter. Paul grew up in Los Angeles. He remembers Sunset in the Sixties, "when it used to be a lot cleaner. A. Lot. Cleaner." He gets a little bored, he admits, standing here with little to do except watch the traffic and think. Recently he saw a homeless guy pushing a woman into the road. "About a month and a half ago. Right there. He just pushed her. I've been thinking a lot about that guy."
You notice the procession of names: Sunset Gower Studios, Sunset Bronson Studios, Home Depot, Food4Less, Kaiser Permanente, The Hollywood Dialysis Center. You notice the drive-thrus and the billboards, their adverts for "Mad Men" and Adult Con and the Phil Spector biopic, all facing out towards the road rather than to the pedestrians. And in this strange no-man's-land you notice the hulking solidity of the buildings, the cars that sail by so impermeably, the curious absence of life. So that when we chance upon a group of skateboarders outside the Metro station at Vermont and Sunset, we watch them, mesmerised, as they go rolling along the grey marble benches, bodies flung backwards into mid-air, T-shirts flaring. Again, and again, and again. They seem so vibrant.
The mood shifts as we enter Echo Park and Silver Lake. The sidewalks are busier here, full of hipsters walking dogs and eating gelato, standing on ladders and painting murals, physically engaged in the process of gentrification. There are microbreweries and vintage stores, cheese shops and vegan restaurants. People ride bicycles. People even walk.
Gentrification brings odd juxtapositions—designer handbags beside nail salons, tired-looking launderettes pressed up against ashtanga-yoga centres, car-repair shops, liquor stores, pawn shops; a giant American Apparel billboard overlooking a bridge, and, under it, a homeless man on a dilapidated sofa.
The sun is low as we pass the Comfort Inn. A woman stands against the wall of the parking lot, wearing a tracksuit and smoking a cigarette, her face tilted upwards, soaking up the late warmth of the day.
She looks down over the wall to talk to us. Her name is Alicia and she is here from Phoenix, Arizona, for her daughter’s "X Factor" audition tomorrow. Her daughter, Savannah, is 16. "She’s real good," she assures us. "Some people say that because it's their child. Well that's not the case. All of her teachers, everybody, they say how good she is."
She calls Savannah to come down and join us. While we wait, Alicia tells us her thoughts on Los Angeles: "Everybody's lost their mind," she says, her breath clouded with cigarette smoke. "I've had relatives out here, they've come here for their dream and they've been used, ended up on drugs and homeless."
Savannah appears by the wall. She is a sweet, sensible-looking girl with soft eyes and a pretty oval face. Tomorrow at her audition, she will sing an Etta James song, "All I Could Do Was Cry".
"I like the words," she says, "the concept of it, how she sings, how she builds it up."
There outside the Comfort Inn, Savannah begins to sing. She closes her eyes and lifts her voice over the roar of the traffic on Sunset. "Ohhh, I heard church bells ringing," she sings, her voice rich and dusky and warm. "I heard a choir singing/I saw my love walk down the aisle/On her finger he placed a ring…"
And as we stand quite still on the sidewalk here, the scene once more draws into focus. A scruffy stretch of road. The silence that follows song. The bright, enchanting promise of this city.
Editado há quase 20 anos, em 1994, o livro Lisboa Vista do Céu é agora republicado pela Argumentum Edições. «Esta nova edição será enriquecida com dezenas de imagens antigas (desde 1917 até aos anos 70), com imagens atuais (de outubro deste ano) e tornar-se-á um ex-libris da cidade», pode ler-se em comunicado da editora.
No mesmo comunicado, a Argumentum explica que «o livro tem um custo de produção de 25 000€ e conta apenas com o apoio da Câmara Municipal de Lisboa, que fica aquém de 20% desse valor». Como tal, a editora está a recorrer a uma campanha de venda antecipada da obra. Desta forma, atingindo as 400 vendas, a edição do livro será possível. A venda antecipada do livro garante um desconto especial de 30 por cento.
«Lisboa Vista do Céu é o livro onde se ilustra toda a cidade de Lisboa e o Rio Tejo, através de uma narrativa visual, constituída por cerca de 200 imagens, comentadas pela historiadora Maria Calado».
Visto no Blogtailors
A página da Argumentum pouco ou nada explica :(
01 Novembro 2013
31 Outubro 2013
23 Outubro 2013
I guess I have always beendeeply terrified
since I know from life
one cannot love another,
Only parts of us will evertouch
one’s own truth is just that really — one’s own truth.
We can only share the part that is
the other — therefore
is for most part alone.
As it is meant to be in
evidently in nature — at best
our understanding seek
another’s loneliness out.
Life –I am of both of your directions
Somehow remaining hanging downward
but strong as a cobweb in the
wind — I exist more with the cold glistening frost.
But my beaded rays have the colors I’ve
seen in a painting
have cheated you
Oh damn I wish that I weredead — absolutely nonexistent –
gone away from here — from
everywhere but how would I
There is always bridges — the Brooklyn
cars going crazy underneath. So
it would have to be some other bridge
an ugly one and with no view — except
thing about them and besides
never seen an ugly bridge
Stones on the walkevery color there is
I stare down at you
the space / the air is between us beckoning
and I am many stories
*feel what I feelwithin myself — that is trying to
become aware of it
also what I feel in others
not being ashamed of my feeling, thoughts — or ideas
realize the thing that
they are –
I’m finding that sincerityand
is often taken for sheer stupidity
but since it is not a sincere world –
it’s very probable that being sincere is stupid.
One probably is stupid to
be sincere since it’s in this world
and no other world that we know
for sure we exist — meaning that –
(since reality exists it
since there is reality to deal with
To have your heart isthe only completely happy proud
to me) I’ve ever possessed so
Found at Brain Pickings
22 Outubro 2013
18 Outubro 2013
About halfway through A Clash of Kings, the second installment of George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, a refugee princess—she is fourteen years old but already a widow, has silver hair and purple eyes, and happens to be part dragon—stands exhausted before the walls of a fabulous, vaguely Babylonian citadel called Qarth. The last surviving scion of the deposed ruling family of a faraway land called Westeros, she has led a ragtag band of followers through the desert in the hopes of finding shelter here—and, ultimately, of obtaining military and financial support for her plan to recapture the Westerosi throne. Her first glimpse of Qarth leaves her bemused:
Three thick walls encircled Qarth, elaborately carved. The outer was red sandstone, thirty feet high and decorated with animals: snakes slithering, kites flying, fish swimming, intermingled with wolves of the red waste and striped zorses and monstrous elephants. The middle wall, forty feet high, was grey granite alive with scenes of war: the clash of sword and shield and spear, arrows in flight, heroes at battle and babes being butchered, pyres of the dead. The innermost wall was fifty feet of black marble, with carvings that made Dany blush until she told herself that she was being a fool. She was no maid; if she could look on the grey wall’s scenes of slaughter, why should she avert her eyes from the sight of men and women giving pleasure to one another?
However difficult it may be for Daenerys (“Dany”) Targaryen to make sense of the exotic city and its people, anyone familiar with Martin’s slowly metastasizing epic—it began as a trilogy in 1996 and now runs to five volumes of a projected seven, each around a thousand pages long—will find it hard not to see in the Qartheen decor a sly reference to the series itself. What drives A Song of Ice and Fire is a war story: clearly inspired by the Wars of the Roses, the series traces the internecine power struggles among a group of aristocratic clans, each with its castle, lord, “sigil” or heraldic arms, and lineages, following the not entirely accidental death, in the first novel, of King Robert I of the Seven Kingdoms. Robert had seized the throne from Daenerys’s father at the end of a previous civil war, thereby ending the Targaryens’ three-century-long rule. The civil wars that follow Robert’s death will stretch from Westeros—whose culturally diverse regions, evoked by Martin in ingenious detail, form the Seven Kingdoms—across the Narrow Sea to the exotic East, where Dany Targaryen, as we know, plans to make her own power play.
These bloody struggles take place in a world whose culture is, on the whole, familiar-looking—Martin gives the civilization of the Seven Kingdoms a strong medieval flavor—but whose flora and fauna remind you why the novels are classified as “fantasy.” Westeros may have castles and drawbridges, knights, squires, and jousts, “sers” and ladies, and a capital city, King’s Landing, that looks and smells a lot like late-medieval London, but it also has giants, shape-shifters called “wargs,” blue-eyed walking dead known as “wights,” seasons that last for decades, red-faced “weirwood” trees that grow in sacred groves called “godswoods”—and, of course, dragons. At the end of the first novel, Daenerys emerges from a fire holding three newly hatched specimens that, you suspect, will greatly improve her chances of gaining the throne.
Against this wildly inventive natural (often supernatural) backdrop, the books’ characters engage in a good deal of unsentimental fornication that is not without a certain imaginative élan of its own. “In a cushioned alcove,” one not atypical scene begins, a drunken man “with a purple beard dandled a buxom young wench on his knee. He’d unlaced her bodice and was tilting his cup to pour a thin trickle of wine over her breasts so he might lap it off.” The pubescent Dany, as she herself acknowledges, is no innocent: deprived of the attentions of her dead husband, she now and then accepts the ministrations of a teenaged handmaiden. Why avert her eyes, indeed?
War, fantasy, sex: averting one’s eyes from at least two of these became a hot issue when Game of Thrones, the hit HBO television adaptation of Martin’s books, began airing in April 2011. From the start, the show’s graphic representations of violence (you lose count pretty early on of the times blood pumps out of gaping throat wounds) and of sexuality—of female nudity in particular—have led many critics and viewers to dismiss the series as “boy fiction.” (Thus the New York Times critic; the climactic section of a shrewder, more appreciative review by the New Yorker critic began, “Then, of course, there are the whores.”)1
And yet the show has been a tremendous hit. This is, in part, a testament to the way in which fantasy entertainment—fiction, television, movies, games—has moved ever closer to the center of mass culture over the past couple of decades, as witness the immense success of the Lord of the Rings adaptations, the Harry Potter phenomenon, and the Hunger Games books and movies. What’s interesting is that the HBO Game of Thrones has attracted so many viewers who wouldn’t ordinarily think of themselves as people who enjoy the fantasy genre. This has a great deal to do with the complex satisfactions of Martin’s novels, whose plots, characterization, and overall tone the series reproduces with remarkable fidelity—and whose mission is, if anything, to question and reformulate certain clichés of the fantasy/adventure genre about gender and power.
At first glance, A Song of Ice and Fire can look like a testosterone-fueled swashbuckler. The first novel (and the first season of the TV show; until recently, the show was tracking Martin’s books at a pace of roughly one book per season) introduces the ambitious patriarchs who were on the winning side of “the War of the Usurper”—the rebellion that had rent Westeros asunder and ended with the murder of the mad, bad King Aerys Targaryen, young Dany’s father—and who, along with their clans and feudal allies, will struggle for power once again.
The present king, Robert of House Baratheon, is Henry VIII–esque in temperament—he is always roaring at terrified squires and bedding buxom wenches—but Henry VII–like in his historical role. It was he who led the rebel forces against Mad King Aerys, whose other children and grandchildren Robert’s men brutally slaughtered after seizing the throne. Robert’s wife, Queen Cersei (pronounced “Circe,” like the sultry witch in theOdyssey) belongs to House Lannister, a wealthy, golden-haired, black-souled clan who are the Boleyns to Robert’s Henry VIII: the patriarch, the coldblooded Tywin Lannister, endlessly schemes on behalf of his unruly children, nephews, and siblings by whatever means may be called for.
The royal marriage was, indeed, one of political convenience: the Lannisters supported Robert’s rebellion with money and arms, and Tywin aims to see his descendants on the throne. As the first novel unfolds we understand that the marriage has failed—not least because Cersei prefers her twin brother, the handsome knight Jaime, who is in fact the father of her three children. The most interesting member of the Lannister family—and by far the most interesting male character in the series—is the other brother, Tyrion, a hard-drinking, wisecracking dwarf whose outsider status gives him a soulfulness his relations lack. (The role is played with great verve by Peter Dinklage, one of many strong actors on the show.)
Staunchly loyal to Robert and just as staunchly wary of the evil Lannisters is Eddard “Ned” Stark of Winterfell, the king’s “Hand” or chief minister, a gruffly ethical northern lord who, along with his family—his wife Catelyn, their five children, and a bastard whom he has lovingly raised as his own—provides the violent goings-on with a strong emotional focus. After Robert dies during a hunting accident engineered by his wife’s relatives, Ned finds himself locked in a struggle for the regency with the Lannisters, who have placed Cersei’s eldest son, Joffrey, a Caligula-like teenaged sadist, on the throne. But because the high-minded Ned is insufficiently ruthless, his plan backfires, with fatal results for himself and the Stark family. One of the pleasures of Martin’s series is the grimly unsentimental, rather Tacitean view it takes of the nature and uses of power at court. Often, the good guys here do not win.
Indeed, the shocking climax of the first book—Joffrey’s surprise execution of Ned, who up to this point you’d figured was the protagonist—is a strong sign that Martin’s narrative arc is going to be far more surprising than you could have guessed. “When my characters are in danger,” the author said in an interview, “I want you to be afraid to turn the page…you need to show right from the beginning that you’re playing for keeps.” A sense that brutal, irreversible real-life consequences will follow from the characters’ actions—rare in serial novels and almost unheard of in television series, which of course often depend on the ongoing presence of popular characters (and actors) for their continued appeal—is part of the distinctive tone of Martin’s epic. I suspect that one reason Game of Thrones has seduced so many of my writer friends, people who have either no taste for fantasy or no interest in television, is precisely that its willingness to mete out harsh consequences, rather than dreaming up ways to keep its main characters alive for another season, feels more authentic, more “literary” than anything even the best series in this new golden age of television can provide.
After Ned’s death, the multiplying plotlines adhere, for the most part, to the various Starks. The widow Catelyn (splendidly played by Michelle Fairley), a complex character who oscillates between admirable strength and dangerous weakness, and her eldest son, Robb, lead a new civil war against the triumphant Lannisters. Her son Bran, crippled after being unceremoniously defenestrated by the corrupt Jaime Lannister, finds that he is gifted with second sight and has the ability to inhabit the body of a giant wolf; the beautiful young Sansa, once betrothed to Cersei’s son Joffrey, now finds herself a terrified political hostage in King’s Landing; and the plain but spirited Arya, a girl of nine when the story begins, is separated from the rest and starts on an unusual spiritual and emotional journey of her own.
And then there is Jon Snow, ostensibly Ned Stark’s bastard. (“Ostensibly,” because there are proliferating hints that he is the love child of two other significant characters, long dead.) The most sympathetic of the younger generation of male Starks, Jon is a spirited but troubled youth who, in the first novel, goes off to join something called the Night’s Watch. Informally known as “Crows,” this black-clad cohort, part monk and part warrior, vowed to celibacy and trained to arms, culled from the realm’s rich stores of bastards, criminals, and political exiles, man “the Wall,” a fabulous seven-hundred-foot-high edifice that runs across the entire northern border of Westeros. Clearly modeled on Hadrian’s Wall (much of Westeros’s topography reminds you of Great Britain’s), the Wall, one of Martin’s most striking creations, is meant to protect the realm against the giants, monsters, undead, and the unruly clan of “Wildlings” who inhabit the frozen region to the north—and who, when the action of A Song of Ice and Fire begins, have begun, terrifyingly, to move southward for the first time in thousands of years. The novels are strewn with ominous portents—not least, a red comet that illuminates the sky for much of the second novel—of an imminent, cataclysmic confrontation between the supernatural and natural worlds.
Martin renders the Eastern cultures in particular with Herodotean gusto: the nomadic, Scythian-like, horse-worshiping Dothraki, to one of whose great warlords Daenerys is bartered when the saga begins (their unborn child is referred to as “the Stallion Who Mounts the World”); the quasi-Assyrian city-states of Qarth, Astapur, and Meereen, with their chattering merchants and unctuous slavers (and warlocks); the decadent port of Braavos, a cross between Switzerland and Venice, whose moneylenders finance the Westerosi wars, and where young Arya finds herself, at the end of Book 5, an acolyte in a temple of death.
But what keeps you riveted, in the end, are the characters and their all-too-familiar human dilemmas. Jon Snow on the frozen Wall, torn between family loyalty and duty to his vows; Dany, both his counterpart and his opposite, far away in the burning Eastern deserts, learning the art of statecraft even as she dreams of love; the vindictive Lannisters and fugitive Starks, conniving and being betrayed by their various “bannermen”: these people and many more suggest why Martin likes to paraphrase William Faulkner’s remark, in his Nobel speech, that the only great subject is “the human heart in conflict with itself.” (A question worth raising about Martin’s novels is how different they’d feel if you subtracted the dragons and witches and undead; my feeling is, not much.)
One of the few serious missteps that Martin has made in his grand project was, indeed, to abandon most of these characters and locales in the fourth novel, A Feast for Crows, introducing instead a group of new characters, cultures, and dynastic schemers. I read each of the first three novels in a few days, happily addicted; it took me a month to get through the fourth, because I simply didn’t care about these strangers. It will be interesting to see how the writers of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which cannot afford to try the patience of its audience, handle this lapse.
It’s a point worth wondering about precisely because the TV series has followed the outlines of Martin’s action, and his various tangled subplots, with such fidelity. The very few deviations I noticed have no significant repercussions. Sometimes, the writers on the show have invented material that brings home Martin’s important themes in a pungently dramatic way. There’s an amusing scene in Season 2 when, in response to an unctuous minister’s smirking suggestion that “knowledge is power,” Cersei, now riding high as queen regent, suddenly orders her bodyguards to seize the courtier and cut his throat—and then, at the last moment, to release him unharmed. As the terrified man sags with relief, the queen looks at him and says, “Power is power.” (The one-note, smirky performance of Lena Headey in this crucial role is a major weakness of the TV show; far worse is the tinny portrayal of Daenerys by Emilia Clarke, an untalented lightweight who accidentally succeeds in conveying the early Dany—the cowering virgin—but can’t come close to bringing across the character’s touching complexity, the girlishness and the ferocity combined.)
Inevitably, the TV series can’t reproduce, or must violently compress, much of the novels’ most entertaining material—the elaborate back-stories that give helpful context to certain plotlines, the biographies of complicated and interesting secondary characters who, in the screen adaptation, are reduced to little more than walk-ons. (The most regrettable instance of this is the treatment of the admirable “Onion Knight,” Davos Seaworth, the loyal Hand to one of the pretenders to the throne—a man whose rise to power came at the cost of four fingers, the bones of which he good-naturedly wears around his neck as a reminder of how dangerous it is to deal with the great and powerful.) Nor is there really a way to render, in a dramatization, Martin’s imaginative linguistic evocations of his invented cultures: the compound coinages that replace standard English (“sellsword” for “mercenary,” “holdfast” for “fort”), the ingeniously quasi-medieval diction and spellings of names, the perfumed language—the horses called destriers and palfreys, the gowns of vair and samite—that give you a strong sense of the concrete reality of this imagined world.
An omission on the part of the Game of Thrones writers that is less venial is the elision of a major theme: religion. From his earliest published work, Martin has shown an unusually strong interest in serious religious questions. His first Hugo Award–winning science fiction story, “A Song for Lya” (1974), is about two telepaths sent to a planet whose ostensibly primitive inhabitants have achieved a kind of religious transcendence unavailable to humans; in what may be his most famous single short story, the creepy “Sandkings” (1980, also a Hugo winner), a man plays god to a colony of insectoid worshipers who are more sapient than he credits, with gruesome results. (Both stories have now been collected in the two-volume set Dreamsongs.)
No wonder, then, that the action of A Song of Ice and Fire seems to be leading not only to a resolution of the dynastic question, but to a grand showdown among three major religions whose histories, theologies, and ritual practices Martin evokes in impressive detail. There is the easygoing polytheist pantheon of “the Seven,” the religion of the indolent South (complete with priests and priestesses called septons and septas, who worship at temples called septs); the Druidic, tree-based animistic worship of the Northern clans, which we learn was the older religion superseded by the “southron” gods (“The trees will teach you. The trees remember.”); and the unforgiving, vaguely Semitic Eastern cult, now infiltrating Westeros, of “the one true god”—a fiery “lord of light” with the nicely Semitic name “R’hllor,” who insists on a furious moral absolutism, and who enjoys the occasional auto-da-fé. “If half of an onion is black with rot,” R’hllor’s terrifying priestess, Melisandre, tells Davos Seaworth, who has good-naturedly observed that most men are a mixture of good and evil, “it is a rotten onion. A man is good, or he is evil.”
These religious motifs are more than window dressing: there is a strong suggestion that the “fire” of Martin’s title for the entire series refers not only to Dany, with her fire-breathing pets, but to the fire-god R’hllor, and that the “ice” refers not only to Jon Snow but to the old northern gods who animate dead men; and hence that the climax to which the entire epic is moving is not only political but metaphysical.
It’s too bad then that, of all this, the writers on the series have focused only on Melisandre and her fiery deity—likely because she triggers so many plot points. I don’t think that the theological preoccupations of Martin’s novels—grittily realistic, for all the fantasy—raise them, in the end, to the level of, say, Lord of the Rings, whose grandly schematic clash of good and evil, nature and culture, homely tradition and industrialized progress gives it the high Aeschylean sheen of political parable, the enduring literary resonance of cultural myth. But the not inconsiderable appeal of A Song of Ice and Fire lies as much in its thematic ambitions as in its richly satisfying details, and the former ought to be a salient feature of any serious adaptation.
Martin’s medieval narrative, the distinctly Anglo-Saxon milieus alternating with exotic “oriental” locales, everywhere bears traces of the author’s deep affection for the rather old-fashioned boys’ adventure stories that, he has said, formed him as a writer—not least Walter Scott’s crusader romance Ivanhoe, but also Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company and Thomas B. Costain’s The Black Rose, stories in which European men have grand adventures when they wander into exotic, often Eastern cultures and climates. On his blog, Martin recommends these texts, along with a number of classic sci-fi and fantasy titles, to readers who ask what they should be reading while waiting for the next George R.R. Martin book.
Given those literary antecedents, it’s striking that a strong leitmotif of the series is pointed criticism by various characters of “chivalry,” of romantic stories about knights and fair maidens—of, you might say, “fantasy” itself. In the third and, perhaps, most violent novel, A Storm of Swords, Dany, whose ongoing political education leaves her with fewer and fewer illusions, ruefully acknowledges a childish yearning for stories “too simple and fanciful to be true history,” in which “all the heroes were tall and handsome, and you could tell the traitors by their shifty eyes.” It’s as if Martin is drawing a line between his work and an earlier, more naive phase of fantasy literature.
The purest expression of this disdain for naive “romance” is put in the mouth of the dwarf, Tyrion, who understands better than any other male character what it means to be on the outside—on the other side of the myth. After a battle, he declares that he is
done with fields of battle, thank you…. All that about the thunder of the drums, sunlight flashing on armor, magnificent destriers snorting and prancing? Well, the drums gave me headaches, the sunlight flashing on my armor cooked me up like a harvest day goose, and those magnificent destriers shit everywhere.
The juxtaposition of “magnificent” and “shit” is pointed: this is a mock-medieval epic that constantly asks us not to be fooled by romance, to see beyond the glitter to the gore, to the harsh reality that power leaves in its wake, whatever the bards may sing. There’s a marvelous moment in the second novel when a knight notices the sigil, or arms, of some legendary warriors above the door of a tavern. “They were the glory of their House,” the knight mournfully observes. “And now they are a sign above an inn.” Martin’s willingness to question the traditional allure of his own genre gives his epic an unusually complex and satisfying texture.
As it happens, the knight at the inn is a woman—a most unusual character. In fact, nowhere is the unexpected subversive energy of A Song of Ice and Fire more in evidence than in its treatment of its female characters—the element that has provoked the strongest controversy in discussions of the HBO adaptation.2
Almost from the start, Martin weaves a bright feminist thread into his grand tapestry. It begins early on in the first book, when he introduces the two Stark daughters. The eldest, Sansa, is an auburn-haired beauty who loves reading courtly romances, does perfect needlework, and always dresses beautifully; in striking contrast to this conventional young woman is the “horsefaced” younger daughter, Arya, who hates petit point and would rather learn how to wield a sword. (Later on, she gets a sword that she sardonically names “Needle”: she too, as we will see, plays for keeps.) At one point early in the first novel Arya asks her father whether she can grow up to “be a king’s councilor and build castles”; he replies that she will “marry a king and rule his castle.” The canny girl viciously retorts, “No, that’s Sansa.”
The two girls represent two paths—one traditional, one revolutionary—that are available to Martin’s female characters, all of whom, at one point or another, are starkly confronted by proof of their inferior status in this culture. (In a moment from the second novel that the HBO adaptation is careful to replicate, Ned Stark’s widow Catelyn realizes that Robb doesn’t think his hostage sisters are worth negotiating for, although his murdered father would have been: they’re simply not worth what a man is.) Those who complained about the TV series’ graphic and “exploitive” use of women’s bodies are missing the godswood for the weirwood trees: whatever the prurient thrills they provide the audience, these demeaning scenes, like their counterparts in the novels, also function as a constant reminder of what the main female characters are escaping from. “I don’t want to have a dozen sons,” one assertive young princess tells a suitor, “I want to have adventures.”
All the female figures in Martin’s world can be plotted at various points on the spectrum between Sansa and Arya Stark. It’s significant that the older generation tend to be less successful (and more destructive) in their attempts at self-realization, while the younger women, like Arya and Daenerys, are able to embrace more fully the independence and power they grasp at. Cersei Lannister is a figure whose propensity to evil, we are meant to understand, results from her perpetually thwarted desire for independence, as is made clear in a remarkable speech she is given at the end of A Clash of Kings (reproduced faithfully in the TV series):
When we were little, Jaime and I were so much alike that even our lord father could not tell us apart. Sometimes as a lark we would dress in each other’s clothes and spend a whole day each as the other. Yet even so, when Jaime was given his first sword, there was none for me. “What do I get?” I remember asking. We were so much alike, I could never understand why they treated us so differently. Jaime learned to fight with sword and lance and mace, while I was taught to smile and sing and please. He was heir to Casterly Rock, while I was to be sold to some stranger like a horse, to be ridden whenever my new owner liked, beaten whenever he liked, and cast aside in time for a younger filly. Jaime’s lot was to be glory and power, while mine was birth and moonblood.
This is an arresting echo of the Greek notion that childbirth is for women what warfare is for men.
Cersei is a portrait of a tragic pre-feminist queen—someone out of Greek drama, a Clytemnestra-like figure who perpetrates evil because her idea of empowerment rises no higher than mimicking the worst in the men around her. (She ruefully remarks at one point that she “lacked the cock.”) By contrast, Dany Targaryen can be seen as a model of a new feminist heroine. Apart from the Starks, it is she who commands our attention from book to book, learning, growing, evolving into a real leader. We first see her as a timid bride, sold by her whiny brother Viserys, the Targaryen pretender, to a savage nomadic warlord whose men and horses the brother wants to secure for his own claim. But eventually Dany edges her brother aside, wins the respect of both the warlord and his macho captains, and grows into an impressive political canniness herself.
This evolution is pointed: whereas Viserys feels entitled to the throne, what wins Dany her power is her empathy, her fellow feeling for the oppressed: she, too, has been a refugee, an exile. As she makes her way across the Eastern lands at the head of an increasingly powerful army, she goes out of her way to free slaves and succor the sick, who acclaim her as their “mother.” She doesn’t seize power, she earns it. What’s interesting is that we’re told she can’t bear children: like Elizabeth I, she has substituted political for biological motherhood. Unlike the frustrated Cersei, Daenerys sees her femininity as a means, rather than an impediment, to power.
And so Martin’s saga goes to considerable lengths to create alternatives to the narratives of male growth, the boys’ Bildungsromane, that have, until relatively recently, been the mainstay of so many myths and so much fantasy literature. “Boy’s fiction”? If anything, it’s possible to see in characters like the feisty Arya an antecedent of the protagonists of such popular contemporary Young Adult series as The Hunger Games, in which the “heroes” are girls. Whatever climax it may be leading to, however successfully it realizes its literary ambitions, George R.R. Martin’s magnum opus is a remarkable feminist epic.
15 Outubro 2013
I take it to the sofa and tear away the paper. It's a copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese. "Oh," I say, hoping I don't sound as disappointed as I feel. "A book."
"It was your mother's. They were her favorites. She used to read them to me in the evenings." He breaks off, unable to continue.
“Father?" He pulls me to him, holding me close.
"I'm glad you're home, Gemma."
I take it to the sofa and tear away the paper. It's a copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese. "Oh," I say, hoping I don't sound as disappointed as I feel. "A book."
"It was your mother's. They were her favorites. She used to read them to me in the evenings." He breaks off, unable to continue.
“Father?" He pulls me to him, holding me close.
"I'm glad you're home, Gemma."
My friends keep moving to Oakland. Gone from San Francisco for greener pastures and cheaper rents, because it’s just gotten too hard, by which I really mean too expensive. Their move signals that something has gone terribly wrong in this most progressive of American cities.
In some ways, we came by the problem innocently. San Francisco had the good fortune to be one of the very few 19th century industrial cities to successfully make the transition to a new, post-industrial economic base. It wasn’t just bohemians who set up shop here—all kinds of entrepreneurs and creative business people decided to call San Francisco home. As wave after wave of older industrial jobs moved out of town, new types of work were created to replace them.
At the same time, San Francisco was a great place to live. Partly from historical inheritance and partly from the work of activists who chose to make the city the focus of their activism, the city remained a walkable, urban paradise compared to most of America.
A great quality of life and a lot of high-paying professional jobs meant that a lot of people wanted to live here. And they still do.
But the city did not allow its housing supply to keep up with demand. San Francisco was down-zoned (that is, the density of housing or permitted expansion of construction was reduced) to protect the "character" that people loved. It created the most byzantine planning process of any major city in the country. Many outspoken citizens did—and continue to do—everything possible to fight new high-density development or, as they saw it, protecting the city from undesirable change.
More from The Atlantic, Cities
08 Outubro 2013
07 Outubro 2013
Santa uva que estais
no Paraíso, purificada
Sejais vós sem enxofre,
Venha a nós o vosso Líquido,
para ser bebido
À nossa vontade
Tanto em casa como na
Por cada hora nos dai
As vezes em que bebemos menos,
Assim como o mal que
Nos fazeis, não nos
Deixeis cair atordoados e
Livrai-nos Da Polícia e da GNR
a horas mortas…
Why is writing about sex so difficult?
GEOFF DYER: Sex scenes are difficult to write partly because the choice of verbs and nouns is so limited. You can mint new verbs — one of Martin Amis’s characters speaks of having “Mailered” a woman — but this tends to take us into the realm of comedy, and sex, if it’s going well, is not comic. Even when it’s going badly, i.e., not going at all, it tends to be embarrassing rather than funny. Because having sex with someone for the first time is a leap into another reality — one moment you’re having drinks, the next you’re doing stuff you have dreamed of since you were 13 — it seems to demand a shift into a new register. Except, it seems, if you’re writing about gay male sex. In Alan Hollinghurst’s novels you get these day-to-day scenes, described in meticulous, almost classical prose, and then, without any change of gear, we are in a demotic tangle of body parts.
Writing my first novel in the 1980s, at the height of the feminist terror, when men were obliged to accept that dungarees were a form of lingerie, anything approaching a heterosexual equivalent was unthinkable. There’s a kiss in that book of mine and then, in the style of old movies, we dissolve to black. This was handy but out of keeping with everything else in the book, which was quite explicit: if a character picked up a cup, you could see the coffee in it. So in subsequent novels I decided that if people went into the bedroom, I had to follow and dutifully record whatever went on there. The result? Well, the virtue of pornography is that it makes films like “The Double Life of Véronique” seem vulgarly dishonest by comparison. By these lights the best writing about sex often seems pornographic rather than artful.
Dyer’s most recent novel is “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi.”
RACHEL KUSHNER: I don’t think of sex as any more difficult to write about than any other human behavior. Writers fail or soar at anything. Everyone thinks about sex, engages in it. It’s the secret we all share. Just acknowledging its constant presence in people’s thoughts is a good direction for a novelist. Of the books I like, it could be argued that sex is infused into every cadence, even if never explicitly. And “not explicit” doesn’t mean that the prudish kiss leads to the prissy dissolve, but that characters are motored by desire. The authors I admire most seem to render an erotic force field on every page. DeLillo melds nuclear war and Texas college football in “End Zone,” and it’s hot. Rage, too, is about sex (consider Euripides’ Medea). So is despair (“Miss Lonelyhearts”). Then there is plain old unvarnished lust, front and center in many of my favorite works: the poetry of the French troubadours and of Baudelaire, the novels of Genet, the weird louche America of William Gaddis’s “Recognitions.” It’s a nice image that the patchwork quilt at the Spouter Inn matches Queequeg’s patchwork-tattooed arms, but what distinguishes flesh from quilt is touch: a warm weight thrown over Ishmael. Some writer recently claimed somewhere that “Moby-Dick” has no sex in it. I find that idea strange. See what you want, Melville fan who is blind to buddy love. “Buddy” relates to “bunkie,” which means “bedmate,” and that is what Ishmael is to Queequeg, in their very first encounter.
Kushner’s is the author of the novels “The Flamethrowers” and “Telex From Cuba.”
TONI BENTLEY: It is not difficult to write about sex. It is impossible. Like its sister intimacies prayer and dance, sex is a live, three-dimensional (well, O.K., four- or five- if your cylinders are firing) happening, and black squiggles on a flat, dry page are, at best, a nostalgic distortion of a done deal — and usually skip the lube. Ouch! As I said, impossible. But being perverted, I mean perverse, I have always thought it would be a good idea to try. Besides, guaranteed failure has a thrilling upside: freedom.
Sex is hard in words. Stories seduce a different part of the brain — the one that, er, thinks — while the erotic brain slithers insidiously toward vile visuals, debauched behaviors, absurd positions and stadium settings, while the merest mention of monogamy or fidelity will render Casanova’s cane limp and Cleopatra’s Nile dry. The real triggers of lust are rarely the food of great literature, an experience of word-to-mind: sex is body-to-mind.
While the Marquis de Sade, Henry Miller, Pauline Réage (Anne Desclos), Pierre Louÿs, Jean de Berg (Catherine Robbe-Grillet), John Wilmot, Pietro Aretino, Erica Jong, Georges Bataille and ever reliable Anonymous remain the usual worthy salacious suspects, my gold star goes elsewhere, to those who really do it best: horny women. Think of those whose filthy, uncensored fantasies froth forth in Nancy Friday’s collections, like Vesuvius upended, silencing the sentimental soft-core of Anaïs Nin and E. L. James in a single eruption. Here, unconsidered desire slices swiftly to the core of lust, and with their — our — trailer-trash orgies of incest, bestiality, rape, pedophilia, domination and submission, whoredom and heterosexual lesbianism we eat our cake before baking it. And leave men reeling in trailer blowback.
Wrong is hot, and great writing, by definition, can just never be quite wrong enough.
Bentley’s erotic memoir, “The Surrender,” has been adapted for the stage and will have its American premiere in New York in January.
◆ ◆ ◆
So, what makes a good sex scene?
SHEILA HETI: I am trying to think of writers who do sex or sexuality in an interesting way: Henry Miller, Pauline Réage, the Marquis de Sade, Jane Bowles, Vladimir Nabokov, Tamara Faith Berger, Edmund White. They’re all so different. I think a good sex scene can be written only by someone who has an interesting attitude toward sex — but not only toward sex, toward everything. An interesting sex scene is about the character in that situation, so it’s impossible to think of a compelling sex scene appearing in a book in which sex or sexuality doesn’t somehow operate throughout. You can’t write sex well if you don’t think sex is a significant part of life. Likewise, you couldn’t write breakfast well if you didn’t think breakfast was a significant part of life. I remember talking to the writer Henry Giardina (who identifies as transgender), who said of Henry Miller: “He writes about sex as if he was a lesbian. He’s a total lesbian. Because he makes it so much about her. He’s looking at a woman with the appreciation that a woman would have for another woman.” I liked that. I’d never thought about it that way before.
Heti is the author of five books, most recently the novel “How Should a Person Be?”
EDMUND WHITE: Most middlebrow or highbrow writers avoid sex scenes as somehow tacky or distracting or beyond their powers. I myself like to write them, whether heterosexual or male homosexual, because they strike me as among life’s peak experiences, along with dying and death, one’s first “Ring” cycle and a first gondola ride through Venice. It’s a shocking lacuna to skip them, and the results can be highly entertaining if the writer follows a few simple rules.
Don’t try to make sex scenes pornographic, since that will make them formulaic in actions and language, and unbelievable. Include all the incongruent, inconsequent thoughts and amateurish moves. Most sex is funny, if we accept Henri Bergson’s definition of humor: the failure of the body to perform up to the spirit’s standards, or the resistance of the material world to the will’s impulses.
Remember that sex is our most intense form of communication in a language no one can decipher or interpret. What does it all mean? Did a bit of rough lovemaking intend to convey hostility, or passion? Is the tenderness rehearsed, or sincere?
Don’t confine the sexiness to sex scenes. Tolstoy’s Anna has her wide hips and gliding step; Vronsky has his thick neck. We can never forget their bodies, nor what an exciting couple they must make. Colette is the great poet of the body and the erotic gesture, and she never screens out all the mixed signals lovers send each other. Sex is the brightest thread in the thick, strangely cut fabric of our lives; we can never know what it means, but we’re always sure we’re certain.
White is the author of some 25 books. His newest, due out in February, is “Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris.”
CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: Because most cultures link sexuality — especially women’s sexuality — with shame, I am drawn to sex scenes that are frank and demonstrate a willingness to be foolish, a lack of too much irony, a sense of humor, which may not be overt on the page but comes across in the telling. Whether a reader mocks the scene or is moved by it can often be less about the scene and more about the reader, and so it doesn’t help to try to pre-empt readers’ reactions. What works, I think, is to approach the scene with the awareness of sex as beautifully human, and with a lack of interest in airbrushing this beauty. Clumsiness and fluids interest me. Vague waves of passion do not. And plain language never fails. I am wary of excessive or obscuring metaphor, partly because it suggests a kind of shame, and partly because I am unable to enter the world of the scene imaginatively. I much prefer breasts to heaving mounds. Most of all, a good sex scene should allow some sentiment and let in a bit of magic. There’s much in the world today that is irony-drenched and cynical; I like sex scenes that choose instead to be honest and open.
Adichie’s most recent novel is “Americanah.”
NICHOLSON BAKER: When I was in fourth grade, somebody brought a porno paperback to class and I read a few pages. A woman squatted, as I remember — why, I don’t know. But my heart started thumping. I thought that “squat” was just about the most exciting notion I’d ever encountered.
A good sex scene needs thwartedness, surprise, innocence and hair.
Baker’s latest novel, “Traveling Sprinkler,” is reviewed this week.
JACKIE COLLINS: I like to think I write erotic sex as opposed to rude sex. Some writers spell out every detail as if they sideline as a gynecologist. That’s not for me. I want to turn my readers on — not off. I try to take them so far, then allow their own sexual fantasies to take over. Believe me, it works.
So many people tell me that they started reading my books (filched from their moms) under the covers with a flashlight, and that I taught them everything they know about sex. I tell them, “I hope your boyfriend/girlfriend isn’t disappointed.” And I always receive a resounding “No way!”
Collins is the author of 30 books. Her next novel, “Confessions of a Wild Child,” will be published in February.
BRENDA SHAUGHNESSY: When it comes to who does it best, Marguerite Duras’s “Lover” and Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” come immediately to mind, two books I devoured in college, hoping to learn about sex, sexual identity and writing. In the breathtaking passages tracing Clarissa Dalloway’s love for Sally Seton, Woolf describes the pain of the closet, the danger of exposure, the lure of the unattainable and the loveliest metaphor for orgasm I’ve yet read. Nevertheless, this fantastical exposé is typically Woolfian: high-strung, buttoned-up, class-proper. Where Duras (even in translation) feels languid and wanton, hot and bothered, Woolf seems so Victorian, fanning herself and huffing, “Oh my, oh my!” These examples seem just another virgin/whore arrangement, an imperative that women write about sex as if we are all either libertines or prudes, either spread out all over the bed (page) like Duras, or scolding ourselves like Woolf (“Oh I mustn’t!”) while swooning, scribbling, “She was wearing pink gauze — was that possible?”
The best sex writing must use more of us than that. Like magic, I happened upon a new poem by Natalie Diaz. It’s called “These Hands, if Not Gods,” and it’s a game changer. When I read it I felt liberated, empowered: those feminist adjectives that don’t quite scan onto “The Lover” or “Mrs. Dalloway.” I felt a longing to be inside my own body reaching out to my beloved, a longing to make my words speak the truth of that. I’ve outgrown Duras and Woolf, in terms of literary eros. Now when I read sex, I want not just what I used to want. Give me connection, truth-telling and what is. I want glory and attendant articulation of it. I want something new to discover in these old urges. Natalie Diaz gives it all. She’s writing sex right.
Shaughnessy is the author of three books of poetry, most recently, “Our Andromeda.” She teaches at Rutgers-Newark.
◆ ◆ ◆
What was your first illicit reading experience?
JACQUELINE WOODSON: When James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” found me, I was a 12-year-old Brooklyn girl caught between the oncoming world of teenage desire and a religious family promising a fiery end to . . . well, to everything. The closest I’d come to anything even remotely sexual in literature was Judy Blume’s Margaret talking about her nonexistent breasts and kissing a boy named Philip Leroy. I imagined Philip Leroy black, which made it a bit more illicit, but mostly I had to settle for the fact that words like “period” were mentioned often throughout the novel. My world of books was as vanilla as the people in them.
From the opening pages of Baldwin’s novel, when a teenage Tish reveals to her imprisoned boyfriend, Fonny, that she’s pregnant, the book opened a world at once foreign and familiar. I was encountering everything I had been warned against: premarital sex, pregnancy, incarceration. Everything about “Beale Street” was forbidden — from the language used to describe body parts to the brutal Sunday sex of Fonny’s parents. I read it secretly — mainly because my sixth-grade teacher said it was for adults and wouldn’t allow it in the classroom. But mostly it was a novel with people who looked like me, spoke in a dialect I understood and struggled against the same everyday acts of injustice my own community struggled against. Baldwin taught me so much about how to grow up in a beautiful, sometimes dangerous, always complicated world — and how to live to tell the story.
Woodson is the American fiction nominee for the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award. Her most recent book is “This Is the Rope: A Story From the Great Migration.”
D. A. POWELL: Knowledge of the forbidden came to me not in a flash but piecemeal from various sources, largely because — like so many kids — I wasn’t sure how sex was different from, say, urination or bowel movements, since it all was happening in the same general area of the body, the area that, if left uncovered, made us officially “naked.” I learned little bits of sexual behavior through short scenes in popular novels. And even then, I wasn’t always sure what was going on. Why, in Peter Benchley’s novel “Jaws,” was Ellen Brody talking with Hooper about removing her panties before leaving the restaurant? And why, in E. L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” was Mother’s Younger Brother hiding in the closet and stroking his penis while Emma Goldman undressed Evelyn Nesbit? What was “jism”? It took me a while to figure all this stuff out. It wasn’t until I picked up my mother’s copy of “Fear of Flying,” by Erica Jong, that these separate parts came together, giving me as clear an image of sex as a hormonal little middle schooler could handle. It was . . . edifying. I don’t know if I was aroused so much as I was illuminated. Enlightened. And, in a way, relieved by the frankness of it. By the time I got to Colleen McCullough’s “Thorn Birds,” which I read in one long languorous summer afternoon, I was able to fully enjoy the heroine Meggie Cleary’s obsession with Father Ralph. Mother’s Younger Brother had nothing on me.
Powell received the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry for his most recent collection, “Useless Landscape: Or, A Guide for Boys.” He currently teaches at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
SAM LIPSYTE: There’s a story I like to tell, about when my father took me to a used-book store near our home in New Jersey. I must have been 12 or 13.
“Go pick out a book,” my father said. “Anything you want.”
I scurried off to make my selection. God knows what I was reading then, it was all a jumble. I was drawn to books by big literary names as long as they had somewhat lurid covers. But that day I struck gold: the novelization of the movie “Caligula,” by William Howard, based on Gore Vidal’s screenplay. Seemed pretty literary to me, and when I opened it up I immediately hit upon a string of quite accessible and extremely lascivious sentences. A few pages on and it was orgy time. I flipped back and forth through the book, togas falling everywhere. And if it wasn’t wild Roman sex, it was insane Roman violence. Chocolate in my peanut butter, from my adolescent vantage. I ran up to the register. The clerk saw the book.
“Sir,” she said. “I don’t think you want your son to have that book.”
“Why not?” my father said.
“Well. . . . " she said, and tried to explain.
“The hell with that,” my father said. “That’s censorship. You can’t go around telling me what my son can and can’t read.”
It was at that moment that I understood what a strange and wonderful father I had. Later, of course, when he realized what had occurred along with the triumph of free speech, he demanded the smutty book back, but I convinced him I’d lost the thing. It stayed under my bed for a long time, like a secret friend who never fails to shock and dazzle, until he does.
Lipsyte’s most recent book is the story collection “The Fun Parts.”
ALISSA NUTTING: One of my baby sitters was a no-nonsense woman who wore steel-toe boots with shorts and kept an unloaded handgun under her pillow in case her ex made an impromptu midnight visit. In her night-stand drawer was a romance novel and a case of bullets — how’s that for fantasy versus reality?
Sometimes I’d sneak in to peek at the gun, which I felt an almost maternal draw toward; hidden beneath a pillow, it seemed like a very vulnerable, gestating thing.
The dog-eared paperback was even more interesting. Its cover featured a man and a woman in old-fashioned clothing and embracing at sunset. The man was looking at the woman with a confident smile; the woman was looking at the man with what seemed to be shock and terrified acceptance. It was as though he had just informed her that she’d been poisoned and had only seconds to live, but it was all for the best.
The story was equally confusing. The man kept putting his hands between the woman’s legs and saying things like, “So this is what starlight feels like!” And she was just embarrassed that she was so sweaty all over from ironing. Adults seemed to be an entirely different culture, and I kept consulting the book to better understand their strange customs.
Nutting is the author of the novel “Tampa.”
YIYUN LI: In the spring of 1992, in an army camp in China where the freshmen of my university were serving a one-year training, a fellow trainee got hold of a pirated copy of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” This girl, whom I’ll call N, had lost her virginity during the winter break. N was the kind of girl who would share the news, even though it was still a puritan time, when most girls our age hadn’t touched a boy’s hand.
N approached me with Lawrence’s masterpiece — banned, she informed me — and asked me to read it and mark the sex scenes.
If you were a 19-year-old, Lawrence should have been the last person you turned to for sex education. If you bracketed every sexual encounter in the book, as I duly did, you’d think sex was the most ludicrous, grotesque and pointless activity.
“Why do you want to read these scenes?” I asked. “They make me laugh.”
Ever so wistfully, N said that the first and only night she spent with her boyfriend had been so memorable that it had become impossible to remember. “The more you try to recall every single detail, the less you can,” she said.
Years later, I read Chekhov’s story “The Kiss,” in which a soldier, kissed passionately by a young woman who has mistaken him for her lover, related the encounter to his colleagues: “In the course of that moment he had told everything, and it surprised him dreadfully to find how short a time it took him to tell it. He had imagined that he could have been telling the story of the kiss till next morning.”
Only Lawrence could’ve done that, I thought, feeling sad for the soldier, and for the girl who had once searched for her lost memories in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”
Li’s new novel, “Kinder Than Solitude,” will be published next year.
Text by NYT Book Review