Book review: 'Jealousy' by Catherine Millet
By Catherine Millet
Translated from the French by Helen Stevenson
Grove. 185 pp. $23
We fetishize the French. We hail them as fashionable sexual sophisticates, more evolved than us emotionally clumsy American rubes with our career-ending sex scandals and silly jealous fits. The French, we believe, are above such things as public moral opprobrium or berserk lovers' rages. The Gallic wont is to simply chuckle at the erotic misdeeds of others and retreat to the boudoir for the afternoon jump-off before racing home to the family for dinner. It's all so tidy and grown-up. Emotional volatility, particularly jalousie, is beneath them.
I suspect there is more than a soupçon of l'exaggeration to this footloose French attitude.
For vindication of my doubts about the alleged French imperviousness to the green-eyed monster, I need look no further than "Jealousy," the second memoir by Catherine "Madame Sex" Millet, intellectual, self-professed libertine and author of the 2001 blockbuster "The Sexual Life of Catherine M." "Jealousy" is a prequel of sorts, one that lays out the protracted agony from which "The Sexual Life" was born. Turns out her salacious -- if curiously detached -- first memoir was a therapeutic act, one meant to heal the heartache of a broken woman.
One ordinary day, Millet's longtime love, fellow intellectual and writer Jacques Henric, sends her into his office to fetch something. By chance -- or not -- Millet finds on his desk photographs of a young, pregnant woman, posing nude, legs apart, before a mirror. Then, in a notebook, Millet uncovers Henric's rhapsody about this fecund beauty: "She's so beautiful!" These discoveries lead to his admission of having half-a-dozen or so lovers. Small potatoes compared to the countless consorts of "Mme. Sex," but still enough to plunge her into three years -- yes, three years -- of jealous crisis.
Perhaps it's oddly reassuring that even the most dedicated libertine can be tied to the bumper of love and dragged 12 miles facedown in the dirt. Perhaps not. Jealousy, the most prosaic of primal emotions, doesn't seem fresh or original under Millet's lens, but she deserves points for sheer gusto. Most of us have to drive on in the face of betrayal. She makes an extended holiday of it, writhing against the truth amid various stunning Gallic backdrops.
As one aches through the pages of this book, there's a nagging wish to feel superior, to rise above Millet's hysterical din. But if you've ever had your heart hammered by betrayal, you know that supercilious detachment is impossible. Every teardrop, rant, tantrum, obsessive thought and dig-through-the-computer fact-finding mission resonates. So, too, do the personal tragedies Millet has faced: the suicide of her mother, the deaths of her father and brother, all in rapid succession. In light of such loss, the sometimes-numb abandon of her "Sexual Life" intrigues makes sense -- they were as much escape as exploration.
In one of the most baldly revealing exchanges, Millet clings to Henric and says, "My mother's death has broken me." His response? "What kind of cliché is that?" Zut alors! Between her passive aggression and his attempts to intellectualize her out of her emotions, they both seem rather awful. If this is the life of the so-called higher mind, you can keep it.
While competently -- if elliptically -- written and beautifully translated by Helen Stevenson, this is by no means a pleasant book to read. Those with a low threshold for feeling the emotional agony of others will pick it up, read two pages, wince, put the book down, then either repeat or abort mission. The sheer magnitude of pain and self-negation becomes overwhelming. Contrary to the persona presented in her first book, Millet seems less a worldly Frenchwoman than a scorned Everywoman. Stripped of intellect, pretense and posture, she is a scarred and dissociated wreck who, at the conclusion of three years of analysis, resolved to write her way out of the ditch. The result was a book that became an international sensation, hailed as an erotic tour de force. With this book as its prequel, we see the wounds behind the worldly pleasure. One can only hope that after examining and writing about her considerable sexual and emotional experience, Millet can say that it was, at least, good for her.
Lily Burana is the author of three books, most recently "I Love a Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles."