Catherine Millet is the girl who can’t say ‘non’. Editor of the highly-regarded Art Press, she has made it her life’s work to sleep with as many men as possible (she has always, she says, had a thing about numbers). Millet’s previous book was a scholarly study of contemporary art. This one is an equally rigorous account of how, and to some extent why, she has fucked just about every man she has ever met. The book has been a huge success in France, where the revelation that one of the country’s pet intellectuals likes to drive around the Bois de Boulogne looking for sex has caused a huge frisson of delighted disgust, not to mention increased sales. It would be rather like Lisa Jardine revealing in immaculate prose that her favourite evening activity was cruising Tilbury docks eyeing up the talent.
The way Millet describes her life – a pretty standard routine of fearsome hard work, smartish parties and the occasional weekend in the country makes you wonder what you have been missing out on in your own. Millet has only, for instance, to go down into a Metro station for an employee to shove her into a cupboard full of mops and buckets and start buggering her (luckily this is one of her favourite way of having sex). When she goes to a dinner party it inevitably ends with everyone hunkering down together and nuking a beast with at least six backs. Long days at the office are punctuated by quickies involving a couple of obliging associates who are happy to synchronise their efforts to give Mme Millet the maximum amount of pleasure in the minimum amount of time (the woman has a magazine to get out, after all).
All this might be a tad boastful, were it not for the fact that Millet makes it absolutely clear that there is nothing about her, save for her leaping desire, that attracts this kind of attention. She is, by her own account, a shortish, average-looking middle-aged woman with small breasts, a large nose and a bottom that she is rather pleased with. Nor does her personality exactly sparkle. Indeed, she is so gauche that she finds the small talk that usually precedes a sexual encounter absolutely impossible. Instead she pushes her bottom in someone’s face and hopes they get the message. In fact they always do, which says a lot for her communication skills, albeit of a strictly non-verbal kind. Never, it seems, does Millet misjudge the situation and go home on the bus feeling like a complete prat.
All this is delivered in a prose that is spare and precise to the point of clinical. You will find no mushy Anais Nin-style circumlocutions here. Mme Millet does not have a ‘jewel box’, but a ‘cunt’. Her partners have ‘cocks’, of a bewildering assortment of shapes and style. (You have to pay attention, otherwise you will forget who is big, who curves to the left and who is circumcised, and it does sort of matter to the plot.) Millet is also helpful on details in case you should feel like copying her technique. Thus she explains that municipal vans are hard and poky for having sex, while the cabins of articulated lorries are big and comfy. Car bonnets are slippery, even if you put a coat down first. When wearing clumpy trainers in the country you need to take off your knickers carefully if you’re not going to get them covered in mud. This last point is touchingly bourgeois, because as a rule Mme Millet prefers sex to be grubby
There is nothing remotely erotic about The Sexual Life of Catherine M, and that, really, is the point of the book. There is no Ann Summers underwear, no slow, teasing strips – when Millet wants sex she just hoiks her skirt up and waves her bottom in the air – and no false consciousness about happy-ever-after or even happy-morning- after. With one or two exceptions (Millet is now married to the enigmatic Jacques, who likes nothing more than making Readers’ Wives-style videos of his wife in action), the men and women with whom she couples, triples and quadruples disappear back into the anonymous busy-ness of everyday life. Millet’s implicit mission is to write about her own desire with absolute candour and a fierce refusal to consider her audience’s needs or sensibilities. This, she seems to be saying, is what female sexuality is really like: selfish, casual and ready to go again after a quick rest.