Betsy Prioleau is here to tell us, at interminable length, that everything we thought we knew about the erotic appeal of the great male lovers is wrong, wrong, wrong. The popular image of great lovers, from Casanova to Warren Beatty, is that they’re stud muffins pure and simple, but Prioleau is having none of that. What makes a man catnip to the ladies, she argues, is not his rippling muscles or his trophy case full of championship medals but his sensitivity, his vulnerability, his — well, if you want to put it that way — femininity.
This would seem to be the stuff of a few paragraphs in Cosmo or Elle, but Prioleau has managed to inflate it into a book of more than 300 pages, crammed with quotes from pop psychologists and footnotes bristling with faux scholarship. Not merely that, but her publisher, a good one that really ought to know better, characterizes “Swoon” on advance readers’ copies not as beauty parlor reading but as, no kidding, “Cultural Studies,” thus festooning it with a veneer of academic legitimacy that it plainly does not deserve.
On the other hand, too much of what passes for scholarship in academia these days is little more than pandering to one special interest group or another, so perhaps a breezy, once-over-lightly book about sex written in gushy prose has as much claim to being called “Cultural Studies” as did, in years gone by, the unreadable oeuvres of Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing and Havelock Ellis. In any case I fetched “Swoon” from a remarkably unappetizing stack of advance proofs of books to be published in February 2013 in the hope that it might prove both enlightening and amusing. Sad to say, it is neither.
Prioleau, according to her relentlessly self-promotional Web site (www.betsyprioleau.com), comes from “a southern belle culture,” as she is a native of Richmond, but that hasn’t stopped her from plunging into the steamy world of — after you cut away the quotes from pop psychologists and the footnotes — bodice-rippers. This is confirmed by the illustration on the dust jacket of “Swoon,” a syrupy painting that shows an elegant 18th-century swain offering a rose to his inamorata with his left hand while resting his right hand dangerously close to her ample bosom. This illustration is in keeping with that on the cover of her previous book, “Seductress,” which comes with a subtitle that positively reeks of the Harlequin books factory: “Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love.”
Like the manufacturers of Harlequin tales, Prioleau believes that the good old days really were better, at least when it comes to love and sex. Our modern world, as she sees it, is too distracted by technology, and too many women are absorbed by work and careerism, for matters of the boudoir to flourish as they did in the time of Casanova and Lord Byron. Indeed, right off the bat Prioleau leaves no doubt that Casanova is the true hero of her tale. He may have gone down in history as one of those despicable “heartless philanderers and cold-plotting rogues,” but:
“An authentic woman-charmer doesn’t despise his conquests or seek their destruction. ‘The professional seducer is an abominable man,’ Giacomo Casanova insisted, ‘a true criminal who if he has the qualities required to seduce, renders himself unworthy of them by abusing them to make a woman wretched’. . . . An eighteenth-century Venetian adventurer and man of accomplishments — author, entrepreneur, violinist, scholar, diplomat, and bon vivant — Casanova was one of the world’s greatest lovers. He admired and respected women and made their happiness his life’s work. . . . Casanova had his vices — gambling, petty cons, and vanity — but on balance he was a man of character and sensibility who was centuries ahead of his time. His mistake was being ‘born for the [opposite] sex,’ being too good at it, and incurring envy at every turn.”
Precisely how he was “centuries ahead of his time” isn’t clear, since in the closing chapter of “Swoon” we are made to believe that in this benighted time the art of seduction is in decline, but never mind. Casanova was such a ladies’ man because, well, he was as much lady as man: “Casanova was never a man’s man, although he excelled in daredevil masculine pursuits, like spying and dueling. Coddled by his grandmother and other ministering angels as a boy, he was ‘madly in love with the eternal feminine,’ and preferred the society of women.”
Indeed, as Prioleau ticks off the things she believes essential to successful seduction, the list becomes a roll call of characteristics commonly assumed to be “feminine.” Among these are vulnerability (“a hairline crack in a man’s aplomb, a hint of vulnerability — either physical or psychological — can turn a woman inside out”), passion (“as a rule, women like their lovers, real and imaginary, charged up”) and sensitivity (“a radar for other people’s feelings”). These of course are the same characteristics commonly found in the heroic males of paperback-romance novels, presumably because the authors of these novels understand that their readers want to see themselves — or, probably more accurately, their fantasies about themselves — reflected in what they read.
Other characteristics that Prioleau claims to detect in the successful man about bedrooms include intensity, bravery, brains and skill at conversation — a skill much enhanced if the gentleman in question also possesses a bedroom voice. Again, our hero: “Along with his way with words, Casanova had another conversational gift that made him irresistible to women: his sonorous voice with its seductive inflections.” If that voice was also adept at the art of song, a la Frank Sinatra, all the better: “Although a difficult man by any gauge — subject to temper tantrums, mood swings and capricious no-shows — he was a love pasha. To seduce a woman, he would lean back in a chair, hot-eye her and sing, ‘I’ve Got a Crush on You.’ ”
The trouble with hauling Sinatra into the case is that he completely disproves it. Beautiful though his voice most certainly was, he was a thug from top to toe. He didn’t respect women and probably didn’t even like them: They were objects, pure and simple. He may have been a great seducer, but the only vulnerability he showed was in his voice. He seduced women with that and his fame, not with any of those “feminine” characteristics Prioleau is so eager to fix upon her heroes.
Littered though it is with footnotes citing everything from Ovid to Gail Sheehy, “Swoon” is largely a product of the author’s rather fevered imagination. No doubt there are many women who have succumbed to men who fit her highly romanticized portrait, but plenty of women have also fallen for, or been taken advantage of by, men who fit “the overt stereotypes — the satanic seducer, Darwinian stud, player, and couples’ therapy heartthrob” she is at such pains to disallow. Though she goes to great lengths to depict her Casanovas as men who not only like and respect women, indeed are themselves richly imbued with “feminine” traits, what it comes down to is that they use women for their own pleasure even as, at least in some cases, they give those women pleasure along the way.
Serial seducers — for when you get right down to it, that’s what these guys are — are not half so admirable as Prioleau fancies them to be, though doubtless many other men find them entirely enviable. That, however, is another subject, perhaps for another book, one hopes a better one than “Swoon.”
Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them
By Betsy Prioleau
Norton. 339 pp. $26.95