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Catherine Millet's best-selling The Sexual Life of Catherine M. was a landmark book — a portrait of a sexual life lived without boundaries and without a safety net. Described as "eloquent, graphic — and sometimes even poignant" by Newsweek, and as "[perhaps] one of the most erotic books ever written" by Playboy, it drew international attention for its audacity, and the apparently superhuman sangfroid required of Millet and her partner, Jacques Henric, with whom she had an extremely public and active open ...
Catherine Millet's best-selling The Sexual Life of Catherine M. was a landmark book — a portrait of a sexual life lived without boundaries and without a safety net. Described as "eloquent, graphic — and sometimes even poignant" by Newsweek, and as "[perhaps] one of the most erotic books ever written" by Playboy, it drew international attention for its audacity, and the apparently superhuman sangfroid required of Millet and her partner, Jacques Henric, with whom she had an extremely public and active open relationship. Now, Millet's follow-up answers the first book's implicit question: How did you avoid jealousy? "I had love at home," Millet explains, "I sought only pleasure in the world outside." But one day she discovered a letter in their apartment that made it clear that Jacques was seriously involved with someone else. Jealousy details the crisis provoked by this discovery, and Millet's attempts to reconcile her need for freedom and sexual liberation with the very real heartache that Jacques's infidelity caused. If The Sexual Life of Catherine M. seemed to disregard emotion, Jealousy is its radical complement: the paradoxical confession of a libertine who discovers that love, in any of its forms, can have a dark side.
Unless one believes in predestination, it is clear that the circumstances of any encounter with another person, which, for the sake of ease, we attribute to chance, are in fact the result of an incalculable series of decisions taken at each crossroad in life, which secretly steer us towards them. Even the most important of these encounters may not have been consciously sought, or even desired. Rather, each of us proceeds like an artist or writer, who constructs a piece of work through a succession of choices; a gesture or word does not inevitably determine the gesture or word which follows, but instead confronts the author with a new choice. A painter who has used a touch of red may choose to mute it by juxtaposing a touch of violet; he may choose to make it sing with a touch of green. In the long run, whatever mental image of the painting he may have started out with, the sum of all the decisions he takes, some of them unforeseen, will give a different result. Thus we lead our lives by a series of acts which are in fact far more considered than we care to admit - since to take full and clear responsibility for them would be a great burden - but which nevertheless set us on the path of people we have unknowingly been gravitating towards for some time.
How did Jacques'face first register on my field of vision? I could not say. Elsewhere I have written that I was struck by his voice, as heard twice removed by a tape machine (it was a recording) and the telephone (down which someone played the recording to me). On the other hand, there is no visual image lodged in my memory signaling his epiphany in my life. A curious fact, since I am blessed with an excellent visual memory but have no ear at all. Perhaps it is precisely because my ear is relatively little used that I have managed to isolate one of the rare occasions on which it was sensitive, whereas my eye is so much in use and so ready to observe details, at times, it seems, indiscriminately, that I sometimes feel like one of those mad people who are unable to sift and order the visual signals which reach them from the outside world. Thus my first image relating to Jacques is a Gestalt, his presence as a dark, dense mass, inseparable from the surrounding space, which was lighter, white or rather cream coloured, its depth - I remember this quite clearly - delineated by a board fixed to the wall, serving as a work surface, and the door which led to the toilet.
I should say that we were having to concentrate on a page in a catalogue where there was a piece of text he'd written, which we had to correct by hand. We had been working for several hours, sitting side by side in the narrow office. I can still see the page, the text printed in characters imitating those of a typewriter. I can also see the house of the friend where he took me to dinner once the tedious job was done, and the bed, doubling as a sofa, on which we sat chatting after the meal; I can even still make out the faces of one or two of the other guests. But what marks out Jacques at that moment is still not his image, but a very discreet gesture, in which he just brushed my wrist with the back of his index finger. The circumstances of this memory enable me to identify a phenomenon I have observed at the moment when sensual pleasure first starts to stir; my visual attention seems to focus less on the actual object of my desire than on what surrounds it. In fact it is a reflex we all have in public, to put people off the scent. It affords the twofold pleasure of contact and dissimulation: we gaze intently into the eyes of the person on our right, to distract attention from the person on our left, who is stroking our knee under the table. But could it not be, also, that we respond generously to the blossoming of one of our senses, so that, in this instance, even as my skin was enjoying the touch of a man's hand, softer than any I had ever known, or ever would know, my eyes could focus all their curiosity on his friends?
The image appears slowly in the developing tray of memories. I can recall, without hesitation, the position of our bodies in his bed the following morning, while, as often happens at such times, a voluble exposition of our selves as social beings succeeded the hasty exposition of our physical selves, and although I can still judge the exact level of daylight in the room during this exchange, it is only in memories from a later date that I begin to see the outline of his face and fill in the details of his features.
Significantly, in these memories, which belong to a period when our relationship was already established and steady, the image is not a close-up, which might have shown his face, with the expression in his eyes or mouth, but, at first, an establishing shot: for example, I see him parking his motorbike on the pavement opposite, and track him as he crosses the street, detaches his body from the rolling stream of other passers-by and comes towards the terrace of the café where a group - myself among them - is waiting for him. It seems to me that it is now that I notice the slightly elongated rectangle, the regularity of his head, accentuated by his short-cropped hair, which is already beginning to thin at the crown. This geometry is echoed in the square-set torso - the shoulders, waist and sides seem all to be of equal measure - accentuated by the loose- fitting shirt. In other words, I could only register his features by taking time and - literally - a step backwards, in imitation of certain painters who work in the old-fashioned manner, taking several steps backwards to get a better sense of their subject, the relation, proportionally, to the setting, and the effect of contrast with it.
I did not have a laser, instead of eyes, with which to pierce the world's haze and immediately cut out the face of Jacques Henric. Although I had retained the childhood habit of drifting off into daydreams, my imagination respected its boundaries and I never imported into my life the ideal image of a man, formed in my imagination and projected onto the features of every man I met. I was twenty-four; I had been born in the Paris suburbs, in an unpromising environment, which I left aged eighteen, my only baggage the books I'd read. I needed, therefore, to widen my experience of the real world, and I yearned to discover new worlds, just as others at that time were taking to the open road, their rucksacks on their backs. The backpackers did not settle somewhere straight away. Similarly, it was not until my eye had 'photographed' a wide variety of groups that I felt the desire to draw a ring around one face in particular. Romantic clichés were not my thing then; they still aren't today and I could never say that I recognized Jacques as one in a thousand; no, it was rather that until I'd met a thousand others I could not know that at the root of my relationship with him was a feeling whose nature and durability distinguished it from all others. Just as when faced with an intriguing, but apparently banal painting, which conceals an anamorphosis, you try to discover the precise angle from which, out of disparate elements, the laws of optics will enable you to perceive an astonishing coherent object, so at first I had to find my bearings in life, and then, having gleaned various different impressions of a man, in circumstances which did not particularly distinguish him from the others, put them all together to find standing before me the one who would move me more than any other.
From Jacques, the understated gesture of a caress with the back of his finger. From my side I recall no one particular decisive move. After the dinner I went back home with him. Did he need to be any more explicit for me to feel I was invited? I'm not sure he did. That was how I lived at that time. I remember nothing of the journey from the friend's house where we had had dinner to the studio where he lived. Are travellers always interested in the middle of their journey? As I attempt, in these opening pages, to recall the circumstances of my meeting with the man whose life I share, it is the starting point, all those years ago, which comes back to me. The explosive fuse from which my going home with Jacques that night was the distant echo: a race across a garden. The circumstances were these.
I was an adolescent. As I have said, I loved reading, but I was very bad at maths and I was made to take private lessons at the house of another girl, a friend who had similar difficulties. It so happened that the young man who taught us wrote poetry, and had even founded a little journal with a group of friends. The day of the last lesson came and we said goodbye at the door of the house where my friend's family lived. I suspect my memory has exaggerated the amount of time it took him to walk down the garden path to the gate, because I still have the sense to this day that at that moment I entered upon the first big dilemma of my life. A dilemma dilates time. It is a torture which slowly, painfully, extracts contradictory arguments from the mind and examines them, returning now to this one, now to the other, in order to reinforce them. For the first time I was about to be able to tell someone who would understand the vital significance of the statement, that I was also a writer; the force of the words rose up within me, I had to release them, the reflex as imperious as if, having held my breath for too long, I had had to start breathing again. I was gullible, convinced that one's future could be determined, as I had read and had perhaps been taught, by a chance but decisive meeting with an older person, by some prophetic utterance they might make; I had in mind the kind of mythical tale whose rhetorical devices and perennial role in literature would be brought to my attention much later by that learned and delightful work The Image of the Artist, by Ernst Kris and Otto Kurz ... But at the same time, pubescent shame held me back. I would be making a fool of myself in front of the boy and my friend. They would both think that I had invented this ruse so as to keep in contact with him: as well as being good at maths and a poet, he was very handsome. Such was prejudice, people would assume my motivation came more from a desire to go out with him than from a love of literature. Or, worse still, they would think I was one of those love-sick schoolgirls who think it cool to Write Poetry. Of course, I knew myself that my literary tastes had existed long before I met him, and that what I wrote was in no way connected with him, but I probably already had some sort of subliminal self-knowledge (acquired at a very young age by one who aspires to write - and perhaps even predating the aspiration - placing her from the very outset in the role of witness to the world and to herself) which told me that, even so, the suspicion was not entirely ill-founded. My determination to use books and works of art to gain access to a way of life other than the one offered by my upbringing went very deep, but I already had sufficient insight to realise that the charms of the maths tutor pandered imperceptibly to that determination. At least, that was how it seemed to me, at an age at which one prizes the purity of one's desires.
But it is also an age at which we still have a dream of the future, a dream based on the miraculous possibilities our imagination lays in store, before life teaches us that it can be steered down paths which are less idealized but more plentiful and diverse. It seemed impossible that such an extraordinary chance would come again. As he placed his hand on the handle of the iron gate I called out and went running over to him.
And so it came to pass. I asked if I could see him again, to give him some things to read. He fixed a date. His manner was attentive and unsurprised. I interpreted this as a slight weariness, as though he had known what I was going to do all along and his kindly air concealed a reproach for my having wasted his time a little by my hesitation. I went back to my friend, who did not seem surprised either, and asked no questions. Thus, in a very short space of time, after an intense inner struggle, I had apparently taken the most important decision of my life and no one batted an eyelid. Had they not noticed? Or was it because they had so often heard me trying to sound interesting, expressing unusual or absurd ideas, or because I had a habit of embellishing stories, they had already categorized me as an eccentric, a sort of half-way house between the family world and that of artists? I was intrigued by this failure to react. It fuelled my inevitable questioning of my future place in society, which I tried vaguely to envisage, along with the reaction it would provoke in other people.
Some writers, whether of fiction or non-fiction, may have been attracted to the activity by a pure love of books. I am not one of them. For me, the love of books has never been an absolute. It is mingled with the desire to live in a different world to that of my earliest youth, in which the only extension outwards was that of the dining room table, the leaf added for my first communion, and that of my brother, as well as for New Year's day get-togethers and some birthdays - with conversation appropriate to the occasion orbiting around it. I would be the last person to scoff at the cliché: literature as escapism. The rue Philippe-de-Metz in Bois-Colombes, where I was born, and where I spent my childhood and teenage years, was unusual in design, like a rectangular fortress in the middle of an estate of suburban villas. It was short and narrow, and composed of high, solid brick buildings, each of them virtually identical. Luckily, the second apartment we lived in was on the top floor - the seventh - and I would read by a window which gave onto a courtyard, but had nothing overlooking it. In order to escape to other lands, other times, the reader must be able to adopt the mobility of the heroes, and sometimes that of the authors themselves. The signals I received from the artistic and literary world, up on my seventh floor, came via Readers' Digest and Paris Match, and one of the contemporary models I had access to was Françoise Sagan, who was young and famous, like her characters, drove sports cars, and whom I had once seen in an interview on television explaining how to conceal a yawn at a smart party by taking a slug of whisky or a drag on a cigarette.
I never went out with the poet, who gave maths lessons because, it turned out, he was married and had a small daughter. But I did see him a few more times; we met in a café and, always in the same attentive, but slightly distant manner, he would comment favourably on what I had given him to read, and make small suggestions, or comments. One day, when he couldn't come, or it suited him not to be able to come, he sent a friend to make his apologies. Possibly the second important decision of my life was to accept the friend's invitation, but this time without any sense of the possible consequences which would follow. His friend wasn't good-looking, and he wasn't a poet, but he was single. Of the group of friends who ran the poetry journal he was the one least constrained by university or family ties, and he was financially independent; he was an enterprising young man, and his role in the group was to deliver copies to bookshops and collect the money from sales. When they decided to expand the activity of the journal by opening an art gallery, Claude was naturally found to be the person most available and qualified to run it. The journal failed, while the gallery thrived. It was in this gallery that I spent those hours correcting the catalogue along with Jacques. I had been living with Claude for four and a half years.
The picture album in our memory follows a system of classification in which the order, the corrections and the repetitions are often surprising, challenging the accepted version we have of our life. My memory of the outline of Claude, the first time I saw him, is considerably more precise than the one I have of Jacques. His stance is rather stiff, solemn almost, and although he has his back to the light I can see his expression as he introduces himself: 'You don't know me, I'm a friend of Patrick, he ...' He gives me an appraising look. He sees me in bright daylight, a golden light, as it is springtime, which shines through the glass pane which goes from ceiling to floor of the half-landing. Claude has a car, if he feels like it he can decide to drive all night to the sea. It was during an escapade of this sort that I lost my virginity. Throughout the early years we spent together, Claude did a lot of driving: we would go see the Venice Biennale, Documenta in Cassel, and Prospect in Dusseldorf. There were exhibitions all over Europe: in Berlin, Cologne, Rome, Turin, Naples, we would head off to shows at the Wide White Space Gallery in Antwerp, or at Konrad Fischer in Dusseldorf. In 1972, Claude opened a second gallery in Milan, where I often went with him because I was working on the magazine Flash Art, whose director was one of the friend-lovers with whom I began a long-term relationship during that period. Just as I loved living between two cities, I loved going from one man to another.
Excerpted from jealousy by catherine millet Copyright © 2008 by Flammarion. Excerpted by permission.
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