Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Photograph: Adriana Zehbrauskas/Polaris/Eyevine
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Reviewed: Belle et bête by Marcela Iacub

Loving Strauss-Kahn.

Belle et bête
Marcela Iacub
Stock, 128pp, €13.50

There are moments when I feel that as long as I live and as hard as I try, France will remain forever a mystery to me. Reading Marcela Iacub’s book Belle et bête, a fictionalised account of her six-month-long love affair with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was one such moment. Hailed as it was by Le Nouvel Observateur for its “literary power of stupefying proportions” and described by Libération as a piece of “experimental literature as violent as that which she experiences, inspired by a spirit of risk”, I was prepared for something remarkable. This is how the book opens:

You were old, you were fat, you were short and you were ugly. You were macho, you were vulgar, you were insensitive and you were mean-spirited. You were egotistical, you were brutish and you had no culture. And I was mad about you.

That, more or less, is how it goes on, for 120 pages or so. It’s an unrepentantly verbose and embittered apostrophe to a man already disgraced, which leaves you feeling a mixture of distaste, exasperation and boredom – the kind of boredom, as I realised when I’d got about halfway through, that you might feel listening to a particularly long closing speech by an overweening barrister.

Iacub was indeed a barrister, back in her native Argentina, before she moved to France in her early twenties and became a brilliant jurist specialising in bioethics. More recently, she has made a name for herself as a clever, provocative columnist for Libération, where she writes mostly about sexual politics, often lamenting what she sees as the widespread erotic impoverishment of contemporary society.

When DSK was arrested in New York, she leapt to his defence, publishing a book entitled Une société des violeurs? (“A Society of Rapists?”), in which she offers a fierce criticism of the feminist witch-hunt that followed. He now rues the day that she ever became his champion.

As you can probably guess, Belle et Bête is not an apology for Strauss-Kahn – any doubts about this are swept away by the presence of an insert at the front of the book attesting to his libel suit against the author – nor is it, despite Iacub’s frequent assertions to the contrary, a love story. I, at least, could not detect any love in it. Perhaps that is because her approach is scientific and theoretical. “I wanted to create a theory of love from my situation,” she writes. “[A] nun who falls in love with a pig. A nun who turns away from the grandeur of divine love to wallow in filth.”

At this point, I should explain that there are two metaphors running through Iacub’s book – one of her lover as a pig and the other of herself as a saint or nun. And that they recur on every page. The other motif – that of Iacub’s saintliness – is built around the following assertion: “I was in love with the most despised being on the planet.”

From this point, we realise that, apart from his piggishness, we are not going to learn much about Strauss-Kahn. The book, rather, is about Iacub; her decision to defend an underdog and then submit to his (inevitable) advances. Above all, it is an ode to her writing life, which she likens to a form of auto-eroticism: “My writing. That operation, which consists in the transformation of my self into the object of my own passion.”

Although the text is littered with the most potent abstract nouns – truth, desire, happiness, love – the effect was to leave me cold. I could not believe – as I waded through all that unbridled narcissism (Iacub likens herself to Voltaire and Victor Hugo) – in her so-called passion. The account felt throughout not like a novel but like a very dry, very calculating exercise: “The only thing left to me in order to forget the pig and to have no further dealings with you was not to kill you but to write a book.”

In the penultimate chapter, the author describes a scene in which her lover tears off her left ear and eats it, then faints, in a spasm of ecstasy, into a pool of his own semen:

Thinking about it, I realised that my love  for the pig had died at the very moment he had mutilated me. As if my left ear had been the repository of my feelings and that without it I could no longer feel anything for him.

This scene, like all the erotica in the book, is, of course, purely symbolic. The problem is that the material never rises above this emblematic register, nor does it stoop to anything resembling experience. By the time I had dragged myself through the final chapter, I was, just as Le Nouvel Observateur had predicted, utterly stupefied, both by the book and by the praise it had received.

Lucy Wadham is the author of “Heads and Straights: the Circle Line” (Particular Books, £4.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.