American Student in Cunning Stunt

Deep joy to read that the younger generation is still capable of big dreams. I refer of course to the American student who attempted full-body penetration of a giant vagina in the German university town of Tubingen. Possibly he’s a Star Trek fan with the motto, To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before, engraved on his heart. Jim Kirk would certainly be proud.

The Guardian has a full account here. Unfortunately, the lad became trapped, and had to be rescued by 22 firefighters “by hand and without the application of tools”. Quite right too. Anything else would be unsuitable for a family blog.


The vagina in question: Chacán-Pi (Making Love), by Peruvian artist Fernando de la Jara

While you have to applaud our hero for his ambitions, clearly he didn’t know what he was getting into.

Lest you should think this post is merely an opportunity for gratuitous smut and innuendo, I was struck by a comment made by Tubingen’s Green mayor, Boris Palmer:

He told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that he struggled to imagine how the accident could have happened, “even when considering the most extreme adolescent fantasies. To reward such a masterly achievement with the use of 22 firefighters almost pains my soul.”

It demonstrates a command of wit and irony to which most politicians in this right, tight little island cannot even aspire. It seems you get a better class of mayor in Germany. This excellent English-language interview with Palmer is well worth a listen.

And let’s spare a thought for the student, who probably wishes the internet had never been invented. There, but for the grace of the gods…

Smut: Two Unseemly Stories

Smut - Two Unseemly StoriesMrs Donaldson is a youngish 55, not unhappily widowed after an underwhelming marriage, though burdened by a strict daughter who idolized her father. When Mrs Donaldson’s pension proves inadequate, she’s forced to get a part-time job and take in lodgers. The job is acting out symptoms for medical students as part of their training in diagnostic and patient-care skills. (Who knew such a profession existed? Reading fiction is truly an education in itself.) Mrs Donaldson is a star in this particular firmament, and she’s lusted after from afar by the doctor in charge of the training. Her lodgers are drawn from that same pool of students. Despite vague yearnings for a more fulfilling widowhood, all is quite seemly until Andy and Laura find themselves unable to pay the rent. Their suggestion of a creative way to pay it off in lieu is the seed for The Greening of Mrs Donaldson.

In the second story, The Shielding of Mrs Forbes, her in-the-closet son, Graham, breaks his mother’s heart by leaving home and marrying a woman he’s much too good for. But plain Betty does have a lot of money. And a lot of sense, which she’s far too clever to make known to her husband. It’s about secrets, lies, blackmail, and how an apparently dysfunctional family is perfectly sustainable when everyone else has their own secrets, and aren’t particularly bothered by Graham’s.

Alan BennettAlan Bennett’s voice is unique. He has captured a blend of English, middle class respectability that is completely aware of the throbbing veins of desire lurking beneath the skin. And perfectly capable of accommodating those desires in a way that doesn’t disturb the status quo. His sex scenes are exemplary – discreetly explicit, without descending to the vulgarity of a naming of parts, and yet you know exactly what’s going on. And often very funny. We’ve all heard of the Bad Sex Award, where writers of literary fiction are raked over the coals for their purple passages. Alan Bennett would win hands down if there was a Good Sex Award.

I also like his humanity. While some of his characters are veritable monsters, he doesn’t lose sight of the fact that they’re human monsters. Speaking of the dreadful Mrs Forbes, for example:

Monstrous as she was, a tyrant and a snob, Graham’s mother was an ogre of such long-standing that her feelings (though they could often only be guessed at) nevertheless merited respect. Not yet an ancient monument she was a survival and on that score alone her outlook and her armour-plated ignorance merited preservation.

As you can see from this passage, Bennett is tough-minded as he is humane.

These thoroughly smutty tales are a delight. I highly recommend Smut: Two Unseemly Stories.

Late Bloomer

I’m back. It’s been a horrible month, featuring lots of long walkies with the black dog. One good thing has come out of it – whereas before I’d lost the ability to sit down and read a book, now I’ve started reading obsessively. It feels like I’ve found an old friend. Unfortunately, I can’t use the books I read in February as review-fodder, except the last one, because all the telling details are now overwritten.

Weirdly, or perhaps not, it all seemed to start with a 3-piece sofa and chair set I bought at the beginning of the month. Before that it was quite difficult to sit down in any sort of physical comfort, so no wonder my mind couldn’t find a place to rest and marinate.

I will be backfilling the blog – that way I can at least technically claim to have made a post a day. Please bear with me as I catch up on comments and your lovely blogs.

Here’s a short Lovecraftian film about the eldritch rites of adolescence.

The Banquet of Cleopatra (1653)

The Banquet of Cleopatra - Jacob Jordaens

A satire by Flemish painter, Jacob Jordaens. The dog in front is clearly begging for scraps. But so are the humans pressed round Cleopatra – they want sexual, political, professional, and business favours rather than food, and their need is just as great. Jordaens implies no distinction between their cravings.

The unlikely top dog among these competing supplicants is asleep on Cleo’s lap.

Goblin Market: The Fruit Bites Back

Goblin Market, by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), is a masterpiece of repressed eroticism.  It involves two sisters and the Goblin Men, purveyors of sweet but deadly fruit.

The Victorians expressed their uncomfortable awareness of the duality of mind in the metaphor of fairies and the little people.  They can be seen as good, helpful influences in morality tales, but dig deeper and the raw energies of the unconscious surge out to unseat the forces of reason.  See Richard Dadd’s painting, The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke, for the latter.  Arthur Machen (1863-1947), a superb writer of supernatural and horror fiction, portrayed them as evil little bastards.

The poem is too long to reproduce in this post, apart from the first stanza, but you can find it here, in the Poetry pages or in this video. You’ll never look at the bowl of fruit on the table in quite the same way again.

The Goblin Market
MORNING and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpeck’d cherries,
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheek’d peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries; –
All ripe together
In summer weather, –
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy:
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye;
Come buy, come buy.”

Response to The Bright Old Oak

The Bright Old Oak wrote on July 18 about Good classics gone bad: the erotic twist one can live without. The title gives the author’s stance in a nutshell. I wanted to give a more considered response than is possible in a comments box.

I have no doubt the Total E-Bound Publishing version of Pride and Prejudice, co-authored by Amy Armstrong, will be every bit as dire in its way as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, with horrific input from Seth Grahame-Smith. I had the displeasure of reading it once. I don’t object to mash-ups on principle, but it’s a pitiful embarrassment for the co-authors. In this case, Jane Austen is a brilliant, witty, allusive writer and the co-authors are not.

The Bright Old Oak poses the question of whether it’s right to sex up literary classics.  There are certainly literary classics from the Georgian period which take great delight in a bit of rumpy-pumpy. Tom JonesFanny Hill, and Roderick Random spring fully erect to mind – picaresque novels that embody the spirit of a rumbustious age. The fires were still burning high in the Regency, contained in rather more elegant fireplaces. Henry Fielding, John Cleland, and Tobias Smollett would have marvelled at the restraint. Had they known of the long night of Victorian prudery, they would have been in despair.

Jane Austen is every bit as satirical as the Georgian writers. Any one doubting this should read her juvenilia, particularly Love and Freindship (sic), in which she gleefully parodies the conventions of the romantic novel. Austen wields a wicked pen, perfectly expressed in the opening line of Pride and Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Beneath the wit lies a sober recognition of the economic consequences of spinsterhood. Mrs Bennet may be portrayed as a comic monster, but most mothers in her position would want their daughters to get married as richly and quickly as possible.

So beneath the elegant restraint of Austen’s writing lies the same bubbling cauldron of sexual desire and economic reality. Are we to believe that Darcy and Elizabeth will live as brother and sister, or that the primary purpose of marriage is not to produce heirs who will inherit the family estate?

My answer to Bright Old Oak’s question is yes, I think it’s fine to sex up literary classics because they deal with life in all its messy complications. The caveat is, can it be done well? Not very often, unfortunately. Also unfortunate is the corollary – classic literature is often neutered to remove sexual content – a process made infamous by Thomas Bowdler. More honest to ban books. If we shouldn’t mess with classic literature, then that includes censorship as much as adding new material or writing alternative versions of the text.

All or nothing. Either keep literary classics  pristine or let them get down and dirty in popular culture. If those in power can censor literature, then the likes of Amy Armstrong, Seth Grahame-Smith should be able to add sex and zombies to Pride and Prejudice. I’m on the side of an evolving literature, even when it takes readers into realms the authors never considered. The best defence against crap is ridicule, but genuinely innovative re-interpretations are the life-blood of an evolving imagination.

My thanks to The Bright Old Oak for provoking this divagation. Please visit the blog.