The Matter of the Heart by Nicholas Royle - review by Auberon Waugh

Auberon Waugh

A Sad Plop

Bad Sex Winner 1997

The Matter of the Heart



When I first announced what was then called the Literary Review Grand Booby Prize for Bad Sex in Fiction all those years ago, I wrote as someone who had been reviewing a novela week for many years, and complained bitterly that many of them were ruined by bad sex scenes – perfunctorily introduced and charmlessly described. It was as if every novelist felt obliged to include a sex scene, possibly under pressure from the publisher – under the illusion that some sex at least was necessary to sell anything. The purpose was not to reward tasteless or unskilled writing, but to discourage it. The prize of £250 (from Rowbotham Films) goes to the reader or reviewer who sends in the extract which is chosen. Fun is had by all who attend the lavish prize-giving party sponsored by Hamlet, makers of the delicious and invigorating cigars. Although all the authors mentioned below will be invited to the party, and very welcome at it – most have turned up to hear their passages read out in the past – all the winning novelist actually receives is a piece of modern sculpture devised by Professor R M Posner and said to represent sexual intercourse in the 1950s.

Now at least three novelists – Jonathan Coe, James Blinn and Cristina Odone – have announced they will never write another sexual passage, for fear of the Bad Sex Prize. Many more have simply dropped sex scenes from their novels without saying anything about it, as Martin Amis appears to have done in his latest novelette. It would be a terrible thing if we had succeeded in scarring everyone off sex. But Edwina Currie bats on. She is wonderful.

Bad sex writers generally divide into the would-be realistic and the would-be poetic. Currie (She’s Leaving Home, Little, Brown) is definitely aiming at realism, but it is the wonderful English dialogue which makes her entry stand out. Is this how Young Conservatives seduce each other? We can almost imagine young William Hague in one part, who knows in the other?

‘Don’t be shy. You are so beautiful. And remember, whatever we do, it’s not dirty. When two people care about each other, there is no shame, only love …. My, my. You catch on fast, don’t you? Hang on.’ And he unzipped his jeans and dropped them to the floor…

‘Don’t be frightened,’ he whispered. ‘Come on, lie down.’ She obeyed and he slipped off her panties … Then he broke off, reached into the drawer of the bedside table, found the tiny silver packet and as she watched, rolled its contents on. Again she held him and both smiled…

‘Oh Michael, I am on fire for you!…’

‘Hush, we don’t want anyone coming to investigate.’

‘I’m OK, honestly. Don’t stop.’ Hoarsely.

‘I wasn’t intending to. Hold on tight. Here we go—’

And so they go. Arundhati Roy, in her Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things (Flamingo), is definitely trying for the poetic approach, but strange elements of realism (or possibly embarrassed humour) keep breaking in, disguised as toothbrushes:

She unbuttoned her shirt. They stood there. Skin to skin. Her brownness against his blackness. Her softness against his hardness. Her nut-brown breasts (that wouldn’t support a toothbrush) against his smooth ebony chest … She could feel herself through him. Her skin. The way her body existed only where he touched her. The rest of her was smoke. She felt him shudder against her. His hands were on her haunches (that could support a whole array of toothbrushes), pulling her hips against his, to let her know how much he wanted her. …

Behind them, the river pulsed through the darkness, shimmering like wild silk. Yellow bamboo wept.

Against this, we have the simple realism of Nicholas Royle, from The Matter of the Heart (Abacus):

Ambrose banished the thought and reached for a condom. Yasrnin grinned and writhed on the bed, arching her back, making a noise somewhere between a beached seal and a police siren. And then he was there. Slowly at first, dead slow – she liked that, he knew. Then speeding upgradually to gain a rhythm until he was punching smoothly in and out of her like a sewing machine. Her noises increased in volume until she was producing a throaty ululation. He sensed that unmistakeable stirring common to all men, that loosening, as he liked to think of it, of the bow ropes on the big white submarine.

Erica Jong seems to have been similarly inspired in Of Blessed Memory (Bloomsbury), a passage sent in by Rhoda Koenig:

He looks long and lovingly at my wet vagina, saying ‘a flower, a jungle flower,’ as he caresses one lip and then the other, tweaks my clitoris with his tongue, and lifts his head to declaim rapturously: ‘Someday I will paint this jungle flower, this Venus mantrap, but first I will subdue it.’ And he plunges into me with his iron stalk, touching my womb again and again until I weep tears of joy. He cannot stop until he has made me come three times and I am quivering from my thighs to my toes and I plead for a rest, a breather, saying, ‘Come, come, my love.’ At last he ejaculates, shuddering and growling, making the noises of a seal baying at the Arctic moon.

‘My slippery seal,’ I say, ‘my salty sweetheart, my kingdom of the three slipperies.’

Seals seem to intrude themselves rather into these desperate attempts to please.

Neither realistic nor poetic, the following extract from Michele Roberts’s Impossible Saints (Little, Brown) seemed to qualify by virtue of the bizarre incident described. Once again, I observe a note of desperation, but at least no condoms are involved:

Uncumber twisted herself round in the darkness like the roots of a lemon tree. She turned herself rapidly like a fish slipping through the currents between grasping fingers of weed.

The king’s sad and greedy hands found the dark curly nest of pubic hair, the soft lips just underneath. He shoved his penis in.

But Uncumber had covered her face with her hair. She had turned herself upside down and had presented the King of Sicily with her beautiful mouth. Surrounded by her beautiful curly mane. Not her cunt at all. Her cunt had no teeth.

Her father’s penis was in her mouth. She bit it off and spat it out. Then she leapt off the bed and ran to the door and unlocked it, raced into the gardens of the palace, and disappeared.

There are many more entries still under consideration. The final winner will be announced at Hamlet’s carousal on 28 November, where the prize will be presented by Stephen Fry. On a final note, I would like to recommend a passage from Love and Longing in Bombay (Faber & Faber) by Vikram Chandra, sent in by Francis King. It seems to combine the poetic and realistic errors to deadly effect. The last passage, I should explain, comes after two pages of sexual activity leading up to the climax:

The stretch of the flesh and beautiful and grotesque. His gasps in his mouth. A burning warmth against the side of his chest through the thin silky cloth on her hips …. When she looked up her face was blurred, her eyes hazy from wine. ‘Condom?’ she said. ‘Condom?’ …

‘In the bedroom,’ he said finally. He followed her, followed that movement of her haunches, that slight jiggle which still and now made his heart surge intender ferocity. He found the unopened condom packet easily, in the table next to the bed. She layback on the bed, twirled off her panties in a single arcing moment that bent her like a bow and back. Orange light spilled through the curtain on the west-facing window, across her belly and into the shadow below. His fingers fumbled at the plastic.

‘Give’, she said. She took it from him as he tumbled onto the bed. She kissed his tip with a swirl of tongue, then rolled the rubber down. Then she was over him squatting …. and at the closest point of their meeting he felt the spill, ecstatic and alive, and in a last moment of thought he asked, is this me? Is this you?’

The condom made a sad plop on the floor next to the bed.

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