French lessons

The Politics of Love

Alina Reyes; translation by Claus von Bohlen <em>Marion Boyars, 104pp, £8.95<

On the Parisian literary scene, the Latin lover has changed sex. La vie sexuelle de Catherine M (2001), a diary of active, lifelong phallophilia by Catherine Millet, director of Art Press, sold 400,000 copies, was translated into more than 30 languages, and is now available on CD. Baise-moi (1997), by Virginie Despentes, topped the bestseller charts and has been made into a cult film.

More than 80 per cent of modern erotic fiction (which differs from pornogra- phy, according to one French publisher, in that it can be read with both hands) is written by women. Casanova, the Marquis de Sade and Georges Bataille have been replaced by Regine Deforges, Francoise Simpere and Ovidie (a 24-year-old philosopher/porn star).

The body has played a central role in French literature since Michel de Montaigne. However, it was not until the publication of Pauline Reage's Histoire d'O in 1954 that women began to colonise erotic literature. Feminism taught men to damn and dam the extremes of their sexual impulses, while opening the way for women. Writers such as Christine Angot, Camille Laurens and Sophie Cadalen, escaping the heavy intellectualism of French literature, have tried to make sexuality their literary language, gesturing to the metaphysical through the body.

Alina Reyes is part of this movement. Her first novel, Le Boucher (1988), was raw and well written, and was one of the first of this genre. But in The Politics of Love , Reyes has opted for a tone closer to a guru's than an observer's, and the result is an obstacle course of platitudes.

Love, Reyes declaims, is "like dawn between parentheses, the tips of the par-entheses extended upwards until they meet, tracing the shape of the viewer's blind eye". A lack of imagination and puritanism are the "sad manifestations of our modernity". The author's "politics" of love - half-digested Sade - read like a parody: "The orgasm is revolt - total, intimate, solitary . . . Whoever is having an orgasm becomes king of the world."

It can't just be the translation that makes all this sound so pretentious. Equally jarring is Reyes's New Age convention. At times she reads like the Jose Bove of the gender world. She writes of "this moment in time,when the image of the real world has become confused and blurred by the media", and tells us that "the denial of femininity as of virility also appears to be a consequence of the deconstruction of human identity".

Once a promising writer, Reyes has become a sex prophet. And sex is precisely not what the best books of this kind are about. It is a pity that The Politics of Love has been translated, when there are so many better books of the same genre that are yet to appear outside France.

What Millet, Cadalen and even Catherine Breillat (the director of such films as Romance and Anatomy of Hell) have helped to develop is a new language, defined not by its fellatio-to-word-count ratio, but by its insistence that sex can be used as a total metaphor, because sex, like words, gestures to what it is impossible to describe. Reyes, it seems, has forgotten the point she helped make: that Frenchwomen still have a lot to teach us Anglo-Saxons.

Turi Munthe, a Middle East analyst, has lectured on erotica at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2005 issue of the New Statesman, To save Africa we must listen to it