27 November 2011

"Jealousy" by Catherine Millet

Jealousy: The Other Life of Catherine M.
Catherine Millet
Translated by Helen Stevenson
Originally published in French in 2008 as Jour de Souffrance
Date of Publication: 2 February 2010
Cover Price: $23.00
185 Pages

I read The Sexual Life of Catherine M. in 2009, in which Millet candidly recounts her libertine lifestyle. The titillating subject material was only part of the appeal; her unapologetic candor was what really struck me. Shortly after finishing that memoir, I learned that Millet was set to release a companion volume, Jealousy. I became instantly intrigued. This was, after all, a woman who wrote in explicit detail of her years in the swinger lifestyle, in which sexual partners are ephemeral. What would be the object of her jealousy? How would such a woman even feel or process jealousy?

As it turns out, Millet grew into her jealousy with Jacques Henric--her husband. Catherine continued her sexual adventures with the full knowledge of her husband, but was stunned to discover that he had in turn been involved with various women as well. No expectation had ever been placed on his monogamy, nor had he made any commitment to that effect. Yet despite the hypocrisy in her outrage, there is an understandable and accessible sense of betrayal--at least, insofar as she articulates her side of things in Jealousy.

Monogamists will likely thrill to this with a sanctimonious self-righteousness of vindication that even the author of "the most explicit book about sex ever written by a woman" (Edmund White, speaking of The Sexual Life of Catherine M.) eventually discovered the power of a meaningful, monogamist relationship could unnerve her. That may well be, but it is not itself evidence that Millet was wrong to enjoy the sexual life she has had--nor anyone else, for that matter. Rather, I see it merely as an epiphany of a woman who has discovered a dynamic to her relationship with one man that was not really present in any of her other relationships.

Sexuality is a poorly understood subject in our society, despite our inheritance of centuries of reflection on the matter. I won't now go into the "Westerners are prudes" speech we've all heard ad nauseam, but I will point out that in this specific incidence, I think it fair to draw an analogy to non-sexual experiences we have all had. Think of all the teachers you had throughout the years, each trying to guide you through a given subject. Remember how you struggled with something for years (in my case, I always had problems with literary analysis) and then, all of a sudden, along came that one teacher who put it to you in a manner that made it accessible and understandable?

We have been instructed by various teachers over the years, so why would this one manage to get through to us when others could not? Was that teacher unique? Had we been incapable of "getting it" until then? Does the credit lie with our previous teachers, whose efforts chipped away at us over the years and our enlightenment was the result of their collective work rather than the uniqueness of this one teacher? Who's to say? Very likely, all of these and other elements were in play. It does not mean, however, that we were wrong to have not understood the material with previous teachers. It merely means that the dynamics were different.

In point of fact, Millet characterizes her philosophy on the relationship between sexuality and love:
I am aware that my conception of books is similar to my conception of love! Although I am a libertine, I have definitely never been flighty. I consider people who have one love affair after the other as though they were members of an alien race, whose language and customs are mysteries to me. I am hopelessly, discouragingly sceptical [sic] about those romantic souls who succumb to love at first sight. My own experience is so different! It took many years, thousands of conversations, a few shared tribulations, until, without of course having thought it through, I identified the feeling I had for Jacques as a feeling of love. (176-177)
I found Jealousy much more affecting than The Sexual Life of Catherine M. and it is a shame that it is the earlier volume that eclipses its counterpart. Jealousy reveals an emotional vulnerability the likes of which I have rarely encountered. My heart broke for her as she became anxious even passing near the steps that led to Jacques's study. I cringed at her obsessive fantasies of him with other women. There were times I wanted to hug Millet, and times when I wanted to share with her my own experiences. Of course, I could do none of this; she was not actually here with me.

As much as I recommend Jealousy, I think it necessary that you first read The Sexual Life of Catherine M. The earlier work establishes the context in which to fully appreciate Jealousy, and I think that readers of Sexual Life will find Jealousy a fascinating confession the likes of which were not readily apparent in that first volume.

There are two formatting problems I have with Jealousy as a book. Firstly, the entire memoir is full of run-on sentences broken up by several commas. I suspect this is a direct consequence of having been translated from French. I would have favored breaking these passages into smaller sentences, even if that defied the original structure of Millet's manuscript...but of course, no one asked me. Secondly, the paragraphs ought to have been broken more frequently than they were; several paragraphs consume whole pages. Again, this is likely because it is a translation and I suspect Millet's original French manuscript looks a little different. I don't recall these issues with The Sexual Life of Catherine M., which was translated by Adriana Hunter, so it may well be that my issue is with Helen Stevenson.

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