The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell - review by Tom Fleming

Tom Fleming

Bad Sex Report 2009

Bad Sex Winner 2009

The Kindly Ones



These awards were inaugurated in 1993. Their purpose is to highlight and gently discourage redundant, poorly written or unnecessarily pornographic descriptions of sex in fiction. It is irrelevant if the sex described is bad, unsuccessful or embarrassing for the characters involved; in fact the best, most mind-blowing sex often produces the worst writing, typically a relentless gush that lasts for pages. Paulo Coelho, a regular nominee, is the master of this kind of writing. But other, supposedly more literary authors can also be guilty of it. This year’s shortlist includes Amos Oz, a name perennially whispered in relation to the Nobel Prize. A key scene in his latest novel, Rhyming Life and Death, involves the narrator (‘the Author’) fantasising about sleeping with an actress who has just read his work aloud to an audience:

Attentive to the very faintest of signals, like some piece of sonar equipment that can detect sounds in the deep imperceptible to the human ear, he registers the flow of tiny moans that rise from inside her as he continues to excite her, receiving and unconsciously classifying the fine nuances that differentiate one moan from another, in his skin rather than in his ears he feels the minute variations in her breathing, he feels the ripples in her skin, as though he has been transformed into a delicate seismograph that intercepts and instantly deciphers her body’s reactions, translating what he has discovered into skilful, precise navigation, anticipating and cautiously avoiding every sandbank, steering clear of each underwater reef, smoothing any roughness except that slow roughness that comes and goes and comes and turns and goes and comes and strokes and goes and makes her whole body quiver. Meanwhile her moaning has turned into little sobs and sighs and cries of surprise, and suddenly his lips tell him that her cheeks are covered in tears. Every sound, every breath or shudder, every wave passing over her skin, helps his fingers on their artful way to steer her home.

The whole thing lasts fourteen pages or so, and the marine metaphors do not let up. The fact that this is self-confessedly one of the Author’s ‘shabby fantasies’ mitigates the writing only a fraction. There is nothing mitigating about the shabby fantasy in Philip Roth’s The Humbling, however. There is a masturbatory element to the whole book. The following shortlisted passage involves the narrator taking part in a threesome with his new girlfriend Pegeen, hitherto a lesbian, and a woman they have picked up named Tracy:

First Pegeen stepped into the contraption, adjusted and secured the leather straps, and affixed the dildo so that it jutted straight out. Then she crouched above Tracy, brushing Tracy’s lips and nipples with her mouth and fondling her breasts, and then she slid down a ways and gently penetrated Tracy with the dildo. […] There was something primitive about it now, this woman-on-woman violence, as though, in the room filled with shadows, Pegeen were a magical composite of shaman, acrobat, and animal. It was as if she were wearing a mask on her genitals, a weird totem mask, that made her into what she was not and was not supposed to be. She could as well have been a crow or a coyote, while simultaneously Pegeen Mike. There was something dangerous about it. His heart thumped with excitement – the god Pan looking on from a distance with his spying, lascivious gaze.

No one but the most perverse fantasist could accuse Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, another shortlisted book, of being masturbatory. Littell’s gargantuan novel won the Prix Goncourt in 2006; the English translation was published this year. Like much of the whole, the following passage is pretentious and highly graphic:

Her vulva was opposite my face. The small lips protruded slightly from the pale, domed flesh. This sex was watching at me, spying on me, like a Gorgon’s head, like a motionless Cyclops whose single eye never blinks. Little by little this silent gaze penetrated me to the marrow. My breath sped up and I stretched out my hand to hide it: I no longer saw it, but it still saw me and stripped me bare (whereas I was already naked). If only I could still get hard, I thought, I could use my prick like a stake hardened in the fire, and blind this Polyphemus who made me Nobody. […] I came in an immense splash of white light, as she cried out: ‘What are you doing, what are you doing?’ and I laughed out loud, sperm still gushing in huge spurts from my penis, jubilant, I bit deep into her vulva to swallow it whole, and my eyes finally opened, cleared, and saw everything. 

Another feted author to be on this year’s shortlist is John Banville. Rightly celebrated for the lushness of his prose, the former Booker Prize winner goes too far in this scene from his latest novel, The Infinities:

They conduct there, on that white bed, under the rubied iron cross, a fair imitation of a passionate dalliance, a repeated toing and froing on the edge of a precipice beyond which can be glimpsed a dark-green distance in a reeking mist and something shining out at them, a pulsing point of light, peremptory and intense. His heart rattles in its cage, a vein beats at his temple like a slow tom-tom. When they are spent at last, and that beacon in the jungle has been turned low again, they lie together contentedly in a tangle of arms and legs and talk of this and that, in their own languages, each understanding hardly a word of what the other says. 

Ill-conceived references to the natural world crop up again and again in Bad Sex nominations. A case in point is the following passage from Simon Van Booy’s Love Begins in Winter. Van Booy’s second collection of short stories won the prestigious Frank O’Connor Short Story Award in 2009; however, he might find himself winning another prize this year:

My mouth lingered on hers; I tasted her. I felt for her tongue with mine. I felt the blood surging through my body. We pressed against one another.
Impossibly close.
She gripped my arms. Her nails tore into me. Soon we both were burning. Sweat pooled in the ridge of my back as I moved like a tide determined to crash against those ancient rocks.
Then – a moment before – inside, I kept very still. Our bodies moved of their own accord. Hannah’s body was swallowing, digesting all that was mine to give. For those final moments, we existed seamlessly – all memory negated by a desire that both belonged to us and controlled us.
After, we kept very still, like the only two roots of the forest.

Other shortlisted authors include Paul Theroux, for a Tantric scene in A Dead Hand (‘Her hands were all over me, four hands it seemed, or more than four, and as she touched she made me weightless, lifting me off the table in a prolonged ritual of levitation’); Sanjida O’Connell, for a cheesy passage in The Naked Name of Love (if titles alone could win this award, O’Connell would have it in the bag); Anthony Quinn, for a clichéd scene in his otherwise promising debut The Rescue Man; and Richard Milward, who was nominated two years ago for his superb first novel Apples and is nominated again this year for Ten Storey Love Song. Last but not least is Nick Cave, for The Death of Bunny Monroe, from which this passage is taken: 

Bunny lies on his back on the sofa. He is naked and his clothes sit in sad, little heaps on the living room floor. River, also naked, straddles him and with enormous verve moves piston-like over his unresponsive body. Bunny’s considerable member retains a certain curiosity – it must be said – but the rest of him feels wholly disembodied, as if it attaches no intrinsic value to the matter at hand. He feels like the flenched blubber a butcher may trim from a choice fillet of prime English beef and, as the song says, he has never felt this way before. This is completely new territory for him. He can see that the hard globes of River’s breasts are perfect and better than the real thing and he attempts to lift his arm in order to pinch her nipples, which are the size and texture of liquorice Jelly Spogs, or stick his finger in her arsehole or something, but realises with a certain amount of satisfaction that he can’t be fucked and he lets his arm drop to the side.                                           

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend