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HISTORY LAID BARE

It isn't every day that a respected art critic gets nasty and naked in a tell-all memoir. In a dramatic shift from the observer to the observed, French art critic and author Catherine Millet strips down for the world in her autobiography, The Sexual Life of Catherine M. Her book became a best seller last year in France, and was just recently released in English in the United States. Inside, she maps 30 years of sexual experimentation in four chapters.

The first is called "Numbers." Appropriately, since childhood, her preoccupation with adult romantic relationships revolved around the question of how many husbands a woman can have in one lifetime and to what effect. Her voracious sexual appetite, she reports, was most heightened by scenarios involving her own degradation with multiple, often countless, participants.

"I have often been aroused by imagining myself as a 'spunk bag' for a group of stressed executives at a meeting," Millet writes. "They would each dump their load on me secretly, hiding at the back of a hotel bar, even in a phone box, with the receiver in one hand as they carried on their statutory conversation with their wives."

A seemingly endless number of penises line the narrative like fence posts — circumcised, uncircumcised, various colors, different sizes, each possessing myriad levels of aggression and penetrating force. All of which the author remembers with strange, calm pleasure:

"Always the same configuration: hands running over my body, me grabbing at cocks, turning my head from left to right to suck, while the other cocks rammed into me, up toward my belly. Twenty could take turns in an evening."

Folded between these frenzied, mechanical sexual scenarios, however, the reader finds the unexpected: a spiritual confession, an idiosyncratic moral observation, or critical insight that breaks the otherwise nonstop action.

"I can no longer pretend that I believe in God. It's highly possible that I lost this belief when I started having sexual relationships. Finding myself vacant, then, with no other mission to fulfill, I grew into a rather passive woman, having no other goal than those that other people set up for me."

But even within these reflective moments, there is something wholly carnal, a complete surrender to the physical and psychological experience of sex.

"The more I stick my ass out toward him, the more I can fantasize that my ass has taken on the autonomy normally attributed to my head — the seat of thought which lives on independent from the rest of the body — thus, my ass is the counterpart of my head."

As smart as it is overly excited, and as brave as it is self-absorbed, Millet's catalog of obsessive erotic escapades remains a puzzle. Is it porn for the intelligentsia? A further thrust into the delights of orgiastic exhibitionism, this time with random readers? Or just another come-lately attempt to illuminate the impotence of something called the "sexual revolution"?

The voice telling the story is graphic, precise, and matter-of-fact without romanticizing, justifying, or porn-proofing the heated details. Millet sounds self-assured, as if she's seeing the world more clearly with her legs spread and heels to the sky.

Yet by weaving pornography into autobiography, she has taken huge personal and creative risks. One is that readers may not find her sexual past as fascinating as she does; another is that book reviewers and journalists will place her alongside the Marquis de Sade, or worse yet, Erica Jong. Those two comparisons have been made already.

Maybe Millet asked for it. Or maybe there's just a shortage of literature that can be compared to The Sexual Life of Catherine M., which is intelligently brimming with graphic descriptions of swanky club orgies, assembly-line penetrations, and "impromptu fucks in the countryside" while remaining lustily unconcerned about anything outside the supposedly infinite possibilities of random sex.

THE SEXUAL LIFE OF CATHERINE M.
By Catherine Millet
Translated by Adriana Hunter
Grove Press
$23.00, 224 pages
ISBN: 0802117163

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