Into the circles of hell

Commentary - Gerry Feehily on the academic Catherine Millet's surprise bestseller, a book that has s

In the Ireland of my teenage years, the parish priest came to class once a week to talk over issues theological and moral. Given their topicality, questions of abortion and divorce invariably cropped up, and such debates as took place were lively and bitterly fought, because at the root of the issue, which consumes the Irish mind, was the nature and purpose of sex.

Reading Catherine Millet's La vie sexuelle de Catherine M, which is a surprise bestseller in France, and is much reviled, I thought often of my old school, not only because of the book's core religious motif, but because of the way it ultimately sustains an argument against a conception of sex as necessarily meaningful. This argument, one imagines, would have met with cheerful approval in France, but, on the contrary, it has produced something tantamount to apoplexy among critics and other writers. It is often the case, however, that critical hostility is inversely proportionate to a book's merits, in which respect The Sex Life of Catherine M starts well, with a childhood memory, narrated in a French of Proustian cadences.

A youthful Catherine, awake at night, overhears her mother and grandmother in the kitchen nearby wondering how many lovers a woman ought to have. Catherine is led to ask whether a woman can take "several husbands all at once, or only one after the other". The question is temporarily resolved when, on reading Hemingway's Fiesta, she realises that Lady Brett enjoys both, after which she piously closes the book, never to open it again.

Since the revolution, however, religion has had shallow roots. Following her first sexual experience, which coincides with a first escape from the drab suburbs, Catherine's faith in God dissolves. Paris and its pleasures beckon, and as this is the late 1960s, she is well placed to benefit from them, given that a new revolution has promised to dissociate sex from sentiment. This is something that she has already gleaned from her mother, who sleeps in her daughter's bed and exchanges furtive kisses with strangers.

More precisely, Catherine M encounters men whose pleasure is "to make love in groups, and who like to watch their partners make love with other men". At the evenings they organise, "with their insect-like determination", she is socially awkward. Then she realises that "my true clothing was my nudity, which protected me". From which moment she has sex with 49 men she can name, and with hundreds, perhaps thousands of others, without identities, "whose person I could not recognise, but whose bodies only, or attributes, rather, I could".

As far as chronology goes, this is about the sum of it. If The Sex Life of Catherine M is an autobiography, it is as much that of a body as it is that of a person, a story that moves restlessly from one encounter to the next, be it at the homes of the rich with their guards, or at sex clubs, cafes and in car parks. Subsequent chapters - entitled Space, Enclosed Space and Details - are meticulous accounts of this body's relationship to the indoors and outdoors, to hygiene, to dirt, to illness, creating a shadow world of faceless, nameless wraiths who, regardless of class, race or gender, come to exchange pleasure. Without pathos, and without love, such a pursuit might, to many readers, seem like a circle of hell. As repetitive as it is disorientating, La vie sexuelle is sustained by the twists and turns of Millet's mandarin French, which even her detractors have not overlooked.

Before the publication of La vie sexuelle, Millet, who is 53, had already earned a formidable reputation in the art world as a co-founder of Art Press magazine, as a curator of international exhibitions and as the author of rigorously researched monographs. With a background in structuralism and psychoanalysis, resolutely on the side of the avant-garde, she believes the purpose of art is to unsettle, if not to disgust. It might well account for the frustration of one critic, writing in Le Monde, who, having praised the prose, lamented the woman who, he concluded, "performs a blow job on the reader". This attack no doubt steadied the nerves of the 150,000 readers who bought the book.

But resentment does not explain why, in a country where sexual memoir is commonplace, La vie sexuelle should have been singled out for such disapprobation. What makes Millet's work most distinctive, if not attractive, is its utter absence of anguish or remorse. We are, after all, in a period where the consensus about the sexual revolution, most vociferously denounced by the novelist Michel Houellebecq, is increasingly negative. This is far from being a merely French phenomenon. Former champions of permissiveness who work in the English-speaking world, such as Germaine Greer, have argued that women should exercise restraint in their sexual choices. Even Norman Mailer has held that, in the absence of taboo, libertinism has no point.

This, one feels, is not a world away from the beliefs of the Catholic priest of my adolescence. Were he alive today, he would perhaps contend the form of Greer and Mailer's complaints, but he would no doubt concur that sex must have a moral content and meaning. It is Millet's subversive achievement to suggest something else, to describe pleasure for its own sake.

Gerry Feehily is a critic living in Paris. The Sex Life of Catherine M will be published by Serpent's Tail in Britain next spring