The Way We Love Now: Who Wrote the Book of Sex?
WAYNE KOESTENBAUM: This panel’s title pays oblique homage to the late Susan Sontag, whose 1986 short story “The Way We Live Now” itself honored Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel, The Way We Live Now. “Now” is always a seductive concept, and it is always shifting. Love, too, is what semioticians might call “a shifter,” a pivot term—empty, unstable, and meaningless, subject to contextual tides of history, temperament, and locale. Sontag’s story showed how AIDS tore holes in our speech, introduced circumlocutions. To be polite, to be linguistically mild mannered, she suggested, was to substitute the placebo of bad faith for the brutal elixir of truth telling. This is the love panel. This is the sex panel. And this, perforce, is the perversity panel. Doesn’t the word “love” always bring wrongness, errancy, and deviation into play?
To salute perversity I’ll read two brief poems by Sontag’s contemporaries Adrienne Rich and Frank O’Hara, North Americans who wrote straightforwardly, which, in their cases, means queerly, about ardor’s incommunicability and whose candor about erotic disobedience preceded this country’s reactionary turn away from free speech and free love. Here is “Poem XIX” from Adrienne Rich’s Twenty-One Love Poems of 1976:
Can it be growing colder when I begin
to touch myself again, adhesions pull away?
When slowly the naked face turns from staring backward
and looks into the present,
the eye of winter, city, anger, poverty, and death
and the lips part and say: I mean to go on living?
Am I speaking coldly when I tell you in a dream
or in this poem, There are no miracles?
(I told you from the first I wanted daily life,
this island of Manhattan was island enough for me.)
If I could let you know—
two women together is a work
nothing in civilization has made simple,
two people together is a work
heroic in its ordinariness,
the slow-picked, halting traverse of a pitch
where the fiercest attention becomes routine
—look at the faces of those who have chosen it.
And here is Frank O’Hara’s poem “You Are Gorgeous and I’m Coming,” an acrostic for his lover Vincent Warren, written August 11, 1959:
Vaguely I hear the purple roar of the torn-down Third Avenue El
it sways slightly but firmly like a hand or a golden-downed thigh
normally I don’t think of sounds as colored unless I’m feeling corrupt
concrete Rimbaud obscurity of emotion which is simple and very definite
even lasting, yes it may be that dark and purifying wave, the death of boredom
nearing the heights themselves may destroy you in the pure air
to be further complicated, confused, empty but refilling, exposed to light
With the past falling away as an acceleration of nerves thundering and shaking
aims its aggregating force like the Métro towards a realm of encircling travel
rending the sound of adventure and becoming ultimately local and intimate
repeating the phrases of an old romance which is constantly renewed by the
endless originality of human loss the air the stumbling quiet of breathing
newly the heavens’ stars all out we are all for the captured time of our being
ELIF SHAFAK: I will talk about how I interpret the relationship between sexuality and fiction writing and the relationship between sexuality and the fiction writer. Most of my remarks will be inspired by my experience as a woman novelist in Turkey. Geographical location is important. In Turkey, we do not like to see ourselves as a Middle Eastern nation. We prefer to call ourselves a European nation. However, as those of you who come to Istanbul know, at the one end of the Bosporus Bridge is written “Welcome to the Asian Continent,” and at the other end of the bridge is written “Welcome to the European Continent.”
The Turkish nation is a threshold society. Although the Turks would like to see themselves as a European nation, we do share many things with the Middle Eastern cultures. When we talk about Middle Eastern cultures and sexuality, especially in the West, almost immediately two things happen: First, it is always women we start talking about. Women become the object of our attention, the object to scrutinize as if there were no other actors or forms of sexuality to talk about. Second, sexuality becomes problematized, if not traumatized. We start talking about honor killings, virginity tests, homophobia, and the colossal issue of the veil. I’m not saying that these things should not be talked about; they should certainly be critically evaluated. However, we oftentimes fail to recognize that this is not what sexuality is all about in the Middle East.
In the Middle East, sexuality is also about delight, pleasure, and yes, sexual perversion and the delight you derive from that. It’s also about not knowing your limits. There’s a long tradition behind that. There’s a long tradition of eroticism, erotic literature, and especially homoeroticism. The interesting thing that happened in Turkey is that in the name of modernizing, secularizing, and Westernizing ourselves, we cut our ties with that erotic literature. This didn’t affect the tradition of the poem, the genre of the poem, very much, but it did influence the genre of the novel because it is a very recent genre, and when it came, it brought us the voice of Westernization. The novelist, oftentimes the cultural elite, did not have any contact whatsoever with that old tradition of eroticism and homoeroticism. For instance, when we look at the Ottoman Empire, books on sexuality—The Perfumed Garden, or not to mention The Thousand and One Nights—these were circulated widely and widely read. So we lost that connection in a way.
The second source through which sexuality could be expressed was Sufi thought, different interpretations of Islam. We tend to regard Islam as if it were just one monolithic terrain. However, there’s a big discrepancy between a more orthodox interpretation and a mystical interpretation of Islam. The latter is very much open to eroticism and the notion of desire and delight. There are many literary examples of this as well, but to tell the truth, it has a resonance with my personal life and my background.
As a child, I grew up with two different grandmothers. I lived with one of them for a short period and with the other for a longer time. At first glance, you would say there is no difference whatsoever between these two women. They come from very similar class backgrounds, they are both Turkish women, they are both Muslim women, and they both read the Koran. However, I think they read it in very different ways and with very different eyes. My grandmother in Smyrna had a god based on fear, the Muslim God. It was like a celestial gaze always watching you from above with a very paternal, patronizing gaze, seeing every sin you committed or you were even thinking about committing. I remember coming back from Smyrna pretty traumatized and not being able to go to the bathroom because if God is always watching you, you don’t want to be seen naked.
The other grandmother was a different story. Again, of the same age group, a Muslim, Turkish woman, she was a woman of folk Islam and superstitions. She would say, “Yeah, the clergy is like that. Religion is like that. But they are bricks and you are water, so they will stand in your way, and you will flow.” Her understanding of Islam was based on love, not fear, and in that understanding there was so much scope for delight and pleasure.
I think that is part of what differentiated me from many other Turkish novelists. The cultural elite in Turkey is cut off from these two traditions, both eroticism as a tradition and the Sufi tradition. My first novel, for instance, is the story of a hermaphrodite dervish with very heterodox views about Islam. He falls in love with an impossible lover—impossible in that he is in love with another man, who is Greek. It is, in a way, transgressing national and ethnic boundaries at the same time.
It was interesting to see how many veiled women brought me the book so I could sign it. Obviously they liked this book. I sometimes ask myself if I had told the same story in a different language, would they still accept that story in their houses? Because I do, as I said, use the tradition of Sufi language, an esoteric language, and the language of eroticism, which already existed in Ottoman times. By using these two traditions, I was able to enter people’s houses, maybe through the back door.
I would like to say a few words about how I interpret the relationship between sexuality and the writer herself. Especially in Turkey, gender is of course a big, big, big criteria. But so is age. We come from a culture in which youth is not a good quality and is not respected. Age is respected. It’s also a society that is very writer-oriented, rather than writing-oriented. When you write about sexuality, or anything else, they read the book but they think they are reading you. People don’t discuss the book, the novel; they discuss you. It puts the writer at the center of attention, which can be suffocating if you do want to write about sex and sexuality.
Women novelists, in Turkey in particular, but in other parts of the world as well, have found three ways to cope: First, they do not write about sexuality until they are old. They wait, they wait, they wait. Then, when they’re safe, they all of a sudden publish this book that is almost pornographic. The second strategy is that you do write about sexuality, but you desexualize yourself. You try not to look feminine, to look more masculine if possible, but to look, in any case, as desexualized as possible so you can be respected. The third strategy is to speed up the flow of time so you can age as quickly as possible. We age very quickly. We jump from the category of virgins to respected old women, and there are many women in their thirties acting as if they’re in their sixties. You derive strength and respect from aging quickly. I try not to follow these three strategies. I try to develop my fourth strategy by going back to the tradition of eroticism and the tradition of Sufi thought.
ANTOINE AUDOUARD: “The Way We Love Now.” I mean, who is “we”? Emily Dickinson: “That love is all there is, is all we know of love.” Okay? That pretty well does it. So ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much for your attention and see you next year. This is going to be about my love, my life.
For many years, I led the life of the invisible man. As a child, I was kept silent by my father’s wonderful talent for storytelling. As an adolescent, I always managed to pair myself with some other guy whom I thought brighter or funnier than me, who would run the show while I could play peeping Tom. As I grew older, I realized that in the company of real men, the self-effacing aspect of my personality was never a problem, that the world was full of people who needed to talk and be heard, and that my career, like a fly on the wall or a goldfish opening its mouth without emitting any sounds, was off to a good start.
The only ones who seemed to take notice of me were girls—nice girls, plump girls, skinny girls, dirty girls (never enough of those), romantic girls. While others were busy with the lofty task of changing the world or making serious money, I seemed to care only about two things: read every book I could put my hands on that established the tragic nature of my condition, and fall in and out of love. The in part was always the best. To be looked at with those eyes made me emerge from the mist of my invisibility and feel real—well, real enough until the real thing, which became very unreal as soon as it was over and done with.
I was a second-hand Don Juan. In my A to Z catalogue there were only 103 girls instead of the legendary mille e tre, a magic, impossible number—the human equivalent in the world of seduction of infinity in the world of mathematics. And yet, I promise you, I never played hard to get. It’s not that I wanted sex that much. I sincerely felt the pangs of something I called love, for want of another word. What would I call it now? Infatuation? Boredom? The unbearable lightness of being? Whatever my efforts or my illusions or my perversity, I was lucid enough to feel like a bit part in a B-list romantic comedy, like the one where the guy says, “Hold me tight, make me feel real, ” and then leaves without notice.
You must bear in mind that I was under the influence not of Dr. Ruth but of Franz Kafka, who let us establish the impossible nature of marriage or even of serious relationships and the irrelevance of any kind of romance. So I followed my impulse, as much as girls let me, only to write telegrams that went, “Sorry, I skipped our second night. There will be no other night. Will explain later.” As you would guess, later would never happen. It did once, twenty years later to be accurate, and I got slapped in the face as soon as I opened my mouth, but that’s another story.
Some cried and called me a jerk; some just shrugged and let go. Some insisted on saving me—wonderful women, endlessly hoping that they might save us from ourselves. One day as I was trying to break up with an astrologer, she looked at me intensely and said, “I’m sorry, you can’t leave me. I’ve been working all night on my astral software. And this is it. Your black moon is just in line with my sun. I’m the one you need.” Although I didn’t doubt for a second that she was right, I said I was sorry and I left all the same, only a wee bit faster. On my low days, I try to imagine all that would have happened between my black moon and her sun and this zodiacal bliss I nearly made.
Between the ages of twenty and twenty-four, I managed to publish three novels. War, love—I had it all figured out. I was invited to the literary program of Bernard Pivot, the creator of Apostrophes and Bouillon de Culture, but I was not formidable enough to be asked my favorite question: “If god exists, what would you like to hear him say?” The smartass answer I would have given: “Come along, angel, and meet the thousand and three virgins.” Sorry—wrong god. Having made myself noticeable for a short while, I wisely decided that I’d said it all and proceeded to erase myself from the surface of the world. Invisibility is a good life. We all know that no one really cares about us. Only when you are invisible can you address your own nothingness with the needed care. Plotinus used to say we have to work relentlessly on our inner statue—chiseling, chopping off. I did just that, reaching moments of emptiness lighter than the air, heavier than water. I was a publisher, you see, and that helps. I didn’t need to walk down the staircase of humility like Benedict (not XVI, the first). Any sales meeting would do the trick. My life was going to be spent like this: girlfriends, work, marriage, children, adultery, divorce, girlfriends, back pain, insomnia, more girlfriends.
Then, eleven years ago, something strange happened: I fell in love. I know, the big L word again. I will say with my shy, invisible man’s voice that this time, it was different. I’ve been in love with the same woman for the last ten years, and I will be for the next hundred or so that are left for us. I fall in love with her every morning and I’m surprised she even recognizes me. Every time she leaves, I’m pretty sure she has abandoned me, which would be only natural, all things considered. But there she is.
As a result, I felt my invisibility receding into my soul, feeling real, day after day, loving to touch and be touched. Feeling unhappy made me write, and feeling happy made me write again with a sort of innocent joy that I thought was reserved for others. At first I’d write at night to make sure no one would see me, then I got bold and wrote in broad daylight. I still have guilt about this, always remembering that I should have some more serious occupation.
It’s no accident that the narrator, in fact the real hero of my novel, makes himself invisible. I’m sorry I had to summon such formidable figures as the great Peter Abelard and the beautiful, unforgettable Heloise, to actually write my autobiography. The legend goes that when Abelard’s tomb was opened for Heloise to be buried with him, he opened out his arms to welcome her. If, God forbid, it was to be reopened again, I fear they would both sit up in their graves, dust and loving bones, and curse me for using their tragic fate for such selfish purposes. My poor William is a man who sees and feels and thinks but is incapable of action. What’s left for him except to become a writer? A failed life, or the feeling of a failed life is, for most of us, the best material for a good book, and for a bad one as well.
Most days I feel like those Vietnamese folklore spirits, neither truly human nor ghost but somewhere in between—wanderers traveling back and forth according to the breeze, the constellations of stars, or the crosstown traffic. Only when I open my eyes in the morning and I want to hold my wife and she wants to hold me do I feel fleetingly real and I think, as I do every day of my life, I know this is soon going to end. A hundred years from now for me, a few million years for our species, a few billion for life itself—I know nothing is going to be left of it, and nothing remembered. But God forgive me, and also Allah, Vishnu, Buddha the merciful, the compassionate pagan gods and goddesses of springs and winds, and I’m sorry if I forgot anyone, there is no offense meant. Let me tell you, it was worth it.
NATSUO KIRINO: Eroticism and its various definitions exist in paradox. It’s the nature of human beings to be held captive by eroticism. Even while longing to be set free, we still seek to be held captive. It’s a strange desire that tears the heart apart. Perhaps it points to the true state of being human. Based on this observation, I would like to discuss my work and some relevant issues within Japanese society.
In recent years, I have depicted in my novels mostly the losers in the game of eroticism. I am more interested in exploring the heartbreak and misunderstanding that sex triggers in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, as well as its aftereffects, including despair and disappointment. In my novel Grotesque, which is currently being translated into English, there are two sisters, one who is incredibly beautiful and the other who is ugly. The youngest sister, Yuriko, has an otherworldly beauty, which has triggered men to pursue her ever since she was a child, but as she enters junior high, she becomes a prostitute. Why? Yuriko harbors an emptiness in her soul. Each time she has sex with men, she realizes that she exists solely as an entity to be taken from. And what is taken from her? When she realizes that the men themselves don’t even know what exactly they are taking from her, she comes to the understanding that she can never escape from the emptiness.
There is another girl who is a friend of both sisters. She is a smart girl who is average in all other ways. The girl’s name is Kazui, and she is the main character of the story. Kazui is a hard worker who tries to get good grades in school to secure a position at a prestigious company. She works equally hard at the company but she comes to a realization soon after she turns thirty: No matter how hard she tries, men maintain a standard that judges her on physical beauty, rather than on merit. She will never be judged for the qualities that lie within.
Kazui, who had worked hard all her life, finds but one path that will set her free: She decides to become a prostitute. This side job that Kazui keeps ends up splitting her apart. Day job and night job—her identity during the day and her identity at night. As the story unfolds, Kazui becomes anorexic, eventually losing so much weight that she physically morphs into a monstrous creature and is murdered by a customer. Yuriko, who is a professional streetwalker by then, is also murdered by the same man. The murderer is not simply a criminal but a man who symbolizes exactly what Yuriko has been robbed of. The man, for his part, does not understand what he is taking from prostitutes or what exactly he detests about them.
In this way that Grotesque encompasses the topic of eroticism and women, women and work, social context, the Japanese education system, and other issues. The point I was trying to make in this work is that perhaps there are no winners in this game of eroticism. I do understand that it is not simply a matter of winning or losing. When Yuriko, who has been a streetwalker for quite some time, bumps into Kazui, they have this dialogue:
“Yuriko, you really despise men, don’t you? I always thought that you couldn’t help yourself from loving men.”
Yuriko responds to Kazui: “I dislike men, but I like sex. It’s the opposite for you, isn’t it?”
Kazui responds that she likes men, but dislikes sex. There is no way out for her.
Yuriko’s response: “If you and I together became one woman then we could probably have a good life. But a good life means close to nothing as long as we are born a woman.”
It’s precisely here where readers notice that love is nonexistent in my novel. I took careful measures to eliminate love from the very beginning. Sex and love have two separate identities in Japanese culture. The reason I write about losers in the game of eroticism could be because I was born a woman in Japan. Japan had long had a system of authorized prostitution—places called yukakui, which were licensed whorehouses. Men drank, bought women, and went home the next morning. Men who considered the yukakui their playground were often thought of as cool and clever and even lauded for their behavior.
Of course there are no longer any yukakui in post–World War II Japan, but they do remain in existence in a different form. It would not be an exaggeration to say that these yukakui are responsible for building what would be considered Japan’s culture of eroticism. In other words, the healthy love and romance that is born of modern male-female relationships is not the kind of eroticism that is desired. Instead, what is desired is a culture of eroticism that is strange in form, dependent on the woman establishing a separate identity from her everyday self. Love and sex form separate identities, and even if there is a period of happiness where they come together as one, it’s in complete isolation from everyday existence. Japan showed us this strange culture at its root, and this was why, in Grotesque, I depict women who mainly long for the reunion of sex and love in bed. In addition, I depict the men who watch the besieged women in bed unable to make a move.
I don’t think there have been any changes to better this situation. In recent years, there has been an increase in crime aimed at virgins—partly because the culture that kept love and sex as separate entities was internalized, and women started to step out into society, which caused men to develop a fear of the mature female. These men who rob women of their virginity are also losers in the game of eroticism. I intend to keep observing and gazing at these losers straight in the face.
MEIR SHALEV: When we talk about love, it’s part of an international conspiracy: Writers know something about love that readers do not. The same way rabbis and priests and imams know things about morality and faith that simple believers do not. The same way we believe that psychoanalysts know something about the human soul that we patients do not. This is not true. The only thing writers know better is how to tell a story, a love story; how to phrase it, build it, put it in a way that will make the reader think differently about love. But we do not know about love more than you do. Right now, I can see at least twenty faces of men who have more experience and knowledge in love than I have, and at least ten women and three men with whom I have no chance. So I have to be modest in speaking about love. I write in Hebrew, which I can proudly say is one of the oldest languages still written in the same way, and is the language in which the very old love stories were written—Adam and Eve, Jacob and Rachel, David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, all stories that can be read by Hebrew readers of today in the text of three thousand years ago.
So we write love stories for three thousand years and we still have no solution. We can just describe more and more love stories. We have no ideas, no clear understanding of love, and on the other hand, all of us know exactly what love and passion and desire and longing are until we are asked to describe love in words. But we know when we are in love. We know when we do not love anymore. We know when we feel lust, or longing. It is only the writing or expressing or the verbal part of love that is difficult.
I want to tell you the story of how my parents met for the first time because this is the story that created the way I understand love: It all takes place in 1946. My father was a young teacher and poet in Jerusalem. My mother was a young country girl from a village in the north of Israel. She came to Jerusalem with a group of other young high-school graduates to complete some courses at the university. She was eighteen, and there was a young man in this group who was after her, and they were walking together in the center of Jerusalem in Jaffa Street, one winter afternoon. Suddenly, a terrible, heavy, very strong, rare kind of rain poured down from heaven. They got soaked to their skins and this young man said, “My cousin lives very close by. Let’s run away and find a shelter in his room.”
They ran to the room, two hundred meters away. The young man was my father. For years he believed that this rain came down just for him. He even wrote a poem called “What Would Have Happened If This Cloud Did Not Come Over Jerusalem?” When I was about seven or eight and my sister was four, he used to sit with us at the table and we’d say, “Tell us the story,” and he’d say, “Now, children, what would have happened if this rain had not come down on Jerusalem? I wouldn’t have met your mother, and you wouldn’t have been born.” This is a sort of cruel story to tell children. I felt a little dizzy. And then he said, “Or, you would have been born to other people and then you would not have been yourselves.” This is the conception of love I grew up on: something completely random. Most of us meet our future partners from a limited sample of the population. Statistically speaking, the best way to find your ideal match is to stay home and never leave, because the one who is looking for you knows where you are.
I want to read a short piece from my book The Loves of Judith, a story about a woman who comes to work in a village in the valley of Jezreel, where three men fall in love with her. Ten years later, she gives birth to a child who resembles all three men. Nobody knows who the father is. All three men claim the mother’s love and the fatherhood of the child. One of them is Jacob Sheinfeld, a chicken grower. His hobby is canary birds. He talks to the little boy, who may be his son, and who narrates the novel:
“You don’t need big things to be friends. And to hate, too, very little reason is enough, and even to love.”
Jacob’s voice cracked a moment. “You don’t need big reasons to love a woman. And the size of the love has nothing to do with the size of the reason. Sometimes one word she says is enough. Sometimes only the line of the hip, like a poppy stem. And sometimes it’s how her lips look when she says ‘seven’ or ‘thirteen.’ Look and see, with ‘seven’ the lips are starting out like with a kiss. Then you see the teeth are touching the lips a moment to make the ‘v.’ And then the mouth is opening a little . . . like this . . . se-ven. See? And with ‘thirteen,’ the tip of the tongue is peeping out for the ‘th.’ Then the mouth is opening and the tongue is touching the top of the mouth at the end.”
He stared at me as if he wanted to see if I caught the meaning of his words.
“To understand that thing, hours I stood looking at the mirror. I stood there and I said all those numbers real slow, and I watched real careful how every number looks on the mouth. And once I even said to her, Tell me, Judith, how much is three and four? just to see the seven on her mouth. But she probably thought I’m nuts. And sometimes, listen, Zayde, just the eyebrows, just the eyebrows of a woman can grab a man for a whole life. . . . You can love a whole woman for a whole life just because of one terrific little thing she’s got. Just remember that women don’t know that, and you shouldn’t tell them.”
HANIF KUREISHI: I’m absolutely delighted to be invited to speak about sexuality, eroticism, and love. As my wife was saying to me the other day, “These are things you know a great deal about. You are clearly a world expert on this subject, and you’ve been invited to New York to lecture to the American people about sex, eroticism, and love.” My wife is very sarcastic. As I lay on the sofa in my writing position, considering what she was saying, I went into a terrible panic. I know nothing about this. Not only do I know nothing about this but I’ve also managed to make other people whom I’ve been in love with in the past feel worse than they would have felt if they’d never come into contact with me.
As I was thinking about this, I began, as one obviously would, to think about the Pope. I have the TV on in my writing room and there was the Pope, looking very good, very cute in his Nazi uniform. It suited him as a young man. I began to think, Well, who would be an expert on sexuality? I began to think about the Pope and the effect of religion on the sexual lives of young people around the world. I began to think that some of us in the West are able, in literature, in the cinema, in our meetings with one another, to have a space in which we can think and talk and explore our sexuality. When we think and talk and explore sexuality, what is it we’re really talking about? We’re talking about telling the truth, about lying, about fidelity, about infidelity, about homosexuality. Everything is connected to this primal act.
I began to think that our religions, not only Islam but also, obviously, Christianity, think and talk about sexuality all the time. Watching this chap Ratzinger and one of his cardinals on the TV, I heard an incredible word I’d never heard before, which really shocked me, in fact made my blood go cold: the “re-evangelicization of Europe.” I began to think of Catholicism as a huge corporation that was intending to re-brand itself in the West, and that there would be masses of propaganda. I began to be very, very afraid. I began to think of the writers of the last century who had run into enormous trouble with the religious authorities: Joyce, of course, Lawrence, Nabokov, Henry Miller, and our host, Salman Rushdie.
It often seems to me that a writer’s job is to be irresponsible—we are not politicians; we don’t stand for anything but our own imaginations. But keeping the spirit of sexual inquiry alive is very, very important. There is great danger with the rise—let’s say the re-rise—of the new Middle Ages that we seem to be reversing into very rapidly at the moment. It seems ironic that we in the West are exporting democracy daily but we are also importing more and more religion, and that this act of social intercourse around the world is causing a new age of darkness. We, not only as artists but also as citizens of the world, need to think and talk with each other very carefully about the terror of religion, which is more or less entirely fixated on sexuality. These guys never do it, but they know all about it, and they’re ready to tell you about it. Can you imagine? Would you ask someone to come and fix your car who had never seen a car before, had never looked inside, had no idea how it worked, but somehow had become an authority on cars?
It’s a new era of darkness and I think that religions with their massive authority and their authoritarianism are very dangerous. In order to think about our sexuality, to think about our families, to think about how we want to live, the kind of relationships we want to have, and the kind of people we want to be, we at least need a space that’s free of religious morality. If, at this conference, we have the opportunity to think of the relationship between the freedom to be a sexual being and literature and authoritarianism, we will at least be heading in the right direction.
PETER STAMM: I wanted to talk about love in Switzerland, but the country is so small, there’s really not much to say. Only one detail: In Swiss-German “love” is not a verb; it’s only a noun, whatever that means. When I thought about love, I thought about love stories. I thought about TV. Most of the love stories we see are on TV. Like murders, we see thousands of them on TV, but we don’t usually see one in real life. This somehow takes the complexity out of love. The media teach us how to show our feelings. That’s my fear: to end up feeling like people feel on TV.
There was a TV quiz on in Switzerland about twenty years ago, and when someone won a big prize he would just say, “Oh, thank you,” and today he jumps up and down and screams. We have learned from American shows that this is the way you show joy. In my novels, I try to give back the complexity of love and to show love not only as a positive feeling but also as something quite complex. I’m going to read you a short passage from Unformed Landscape: A woman is traveling after a man. They finally meet and are staying in the same hotel room, but nothing has happened yet. They have a beautiful dinner in a Paris restaurant and now are back in the room.
It was her turn to go to the bathroom. She got undressed, and looked at herself in the mirror, which was still steamed around the edges. Considering my age, she thought, and then, bah, who cares, whatever will be will be. She ran her hands over her hips, as if to sculpt fresh curves. This is me, she thought, this is my body. That’s all there is.
Kathrine washed with a cloth, she didn’t feel like having a shower anymore. It was cold in the bathroom, but an English nobleman showered even when it was cold. He ignores the cold, she thought. He doesn’t allow it. She combed her hair, tied it up, and then shook it out again. She plucked a few eyebrows, sniffed her armpits, and washed her feet in the bidet. She squirted a bit of her new perfume on her throat. It smelled of a different country, of night and of love. Why not, she thought, he didn’t insist on having a second bed, after all. An English nobleman, she had once read, used the sugar tongs, even if he is all alone. She had never seen sugar tongs. She pulled on her panties. Then she took them off again, and stepped into the room quite naked.
Christian was lying in bed. The television was on. An old film starring Catherine Deneuve. Kathrine slipped in beside him under the blankets, and pulled them up to her throat. Christian didn’t look at her, only moved a little to the side to make room for her, and turned the volume down. She felt his nearness, and the warmth of his body. He asked if she wanted him to turn off the television. She said it didn’t bother her.
“Isn’t she beautiful?” he asked.
“What film is it?”
“Belle de Jour. Catherine Deneuve.”
“If I was French, my name would be Catherine too. What does the title mean?”
“Beauty of the day,” said Christian. “It’s the story of a bored woman.”
He looked at Kathrine. She smiled. She had never been bored, even though her life was monotonous, even though nothing happened in the village. Her favorite days had been the ones where everything was exactly as always. Only Sundays had sometimes bothered her.
Shots rang out on the television, and Christian turned to see what was happening. She turned away and shut her eyes.
They finally make love five pages later, but it is on a night train, and night trains have no TVs.