Best Five: On Desire – WSJ
By Scott Spencer (1979)
1. Before Scott Spencer’s novel was turned into not one but two cheesy films, it began life as a remarkable, sexually explicit novel about lust for youth. David Axelrod, the book’s narrator, tells the story of his wild but doomed passion for 16-year-old Jade Butterfield and his love for her unconventional family. Disaster comes when Jade’s father tells the young couple to take a 30-day vacation after the affair – an order David responds to by setting the Butterfields house on fire, motivated by the belief that by putting out the fire and making saving the Butterfields, he will be considered a hero. On the contrary, he was confined in a psychiatric establishment. Years later he will have a vision – a scene set in an empty theater in the middle of the night: “And now for this last time, Jade, I don’t mind, or even ask if it’s madness.” : face, I see you, you; I see you in every seat.
By Marguerite Duras (1984)
2. An autobiographical tale that begins in 1929, “The Lover” tells the story of a brief affair between an impoverished 15-year-old French girl living in the colonial colony of Saigon and a much older Sino-Vietnamese financier. The young girl is bewitched by her lover’s car and by the elegance of her clothes as well as her “English cigarettes”. Although she looks barely older than a child with her slim and undersized body, the man is clearly in love with her. She quickly recognizes his power: “From the first moment, she knows more or less, knows that he is at her mercy. She also knows the intense pleasure she derives from this sexual union. It is a matter of social pressure – there are issues of race and class to consider. All of this is reflected in sober and eloquent prose, as Marguerite Duras remembers herself younger and a whole different world.
By Jenny Diski (1986)
3. Set in London in the early 1980s, “Nothing Natural” is about a divorced mother in her thirties caught in a sustained erotic entanglement with a man who subjects her to sadistic sexual treatment. Although she is turned on by the relationship, she is also confused by the unexpectedness of her taste for degradation and pain. After decades of the feminist movement, she thinks, “a woman in her thirties. . . wasn’t supposed to admit her rape fantasies and submit to the power play of perverted male sexuality, let alone love her. To read “Nothing Natural”, an early and largely forgotten Jenny Diski novel, is to face the inevitable feeling that this is an autobiography – a fact, surprisingly, that makes the book all the more compelling.
By Jill Robinson (1974)
4. Here is a disarming memoir in its hope that love can endure in the face of impossible obstacles. Its author, the daughter of filmmaker Dore Schary, grew up in Los Angeles, which may have fueled the sophisticated, and slightly weary, worldly outlook on romance evident here. Jill, a twice divorced mother of two young children, is a freelance magazine editor and hosts a radio telephone show; she is also addicted to speed. Lawrence is a brilliant mathematician and a three-time-married alcoholic. The couple’s sex life is tender and attentive: “He touched me everywhere at first as if he was making a preliminary sketch to be completed later with more daring lines. Their decision to marry despite their shared cynicism of the institution produces chaos: Jill’s fierce insecurity makes him imagine he covets other women. Lawrence also developed the habit of writing bad checks. She tries to escape to the east coast but he follows her. Their lives seem doomed to behave hostile to any hope of a life together, until a moment of gratitude arrives: that their desire to hold on to each other replaces all their doubts and psychodramas. destructive. A complex love story and, even for the jaded, touching in its hope.
By Edith Templeton (1966)
5. Desire comes in all flavors; some variations are, as WH Auden says, “twisted like corkscrews”. Edith Templeton’s novel was deemed transgressive enough to be banned when it was first published under a pseudonym in 1966. In 2003, it was reissued under the author’s real name. The novel is set in 1946, in a post-war London filled with newly independent women who have jobs and whose lives are no longer limited to staying at home and changing diapers. Louisa, 28, separated from her husband, meets Gordon, a psychiatrist, a man who attracts her strangely thanks to his icy air. She soon finds herself submitting to her violent sexuality, with a sensual pleasure that she has never experienced before. She has also never known the psychological stress to which she is forced to submit. Templeton writes with great intelligence – his dialogue sparkles – on lingering questions, one of which this novel poses, namely, what explains the willingness of women to bend to a man’s will?
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