Excerpted from the Preface
No strand of literature seems so thronged with pitfalls as that dealing with sexual intimacy. One writer's notion of an erotic frisson can easily be a thousand readers; an aphrodisiac; for every book lover who thrills at the baroque excesses of Story of O
, there are plenty who seek gentler refuges for sensual pleasure. So I was only too aware that compiling this volume would prove no easy task. The eight years I spent editing an erotic literary magazine served to tell me how few lubricious tales appeal to the great majority of readers, or stand the test of time. Disputes over taste in humour seem minor compared to quarrels about what could judiciously be called sexy, or indeed, gratuitous. It is hard not to hear the pained voice of the prosecutor in the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial enquiring whether this were the kind of book 'you would wish your wife or servants to read'.
Nevertheless, I discerned firm threads of consensus on the genre: the finest erotic stories are honest to the point of discomfort, even if that truth is emotional, rather than factual; they make you marvel at the author's simultaneous audacity and vulnerability; they are paced with such finesse that narrative peaks prove as cathartic as the culmination of a true seduction and they offer a master class in the language of desire—whether that vernacular be subtle or explicit—invoking all five senses. There must be leeway for the more unsettling reaches of sensation, yet the passions described should be disconcertingly familiar.
I have tried my hardest in this volume to track down literary works that best reflect the irrepressible drive of erotic desire in all its illogical, tender and torturous manifestations. From the pastoral playground of Daphnis and Chloe
to the adulterers' basement in Hanif Kureishi's 'Nightlight', every stage of seduction is traced—even to the point of the first flickering intimation of ennui. It is extraordinary to feel the nervous joy and innocence of first love leaping fresh as paint from Longus's prose nineteen centuries after his death. Who knew that Edith Wharton, mistress of erotic undercurrent, could be so explicit in her private writing? 'My Little Girl' was found among Wharton's unpublished papers after her death and is as highly charged as any sex scene written in our supposedly liberated age. As for amorous obsession, who can match Junichiro Tanizaki's description of the man whose most cherished fantasy is to stare uninterrupted at the pure white skin of his wife?
It's sobering to reflect that some tales in this book were not generally available until the second half of the twentieth century, due to opprobrium and censorship. Or, as Phillip Larkin noted, 'Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen sixty-three... Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And the Beatles' first LP." It is also impossible to ignore the stark contrast between E. M. Forster's constrained allegory of gay passion, 'Dr Woolacott' (written at a time when homosexual acts were illegal), and Allan Gurganus's visceral, expansive story about a married man lured into the woods by a cocksure youth. The debate will long continue as to whether cultural restrictions and the challenge of taboos have often compelled writers to greater imaginative heights; consider the fantastical seduction of the woman who takes a djinn, in the form of a snake, as a lover in Alifa Rifaat’s 'My World of the Unknown'. Whatever the truth of the matter readers of these tales can be left in little doubt creativity is born of the act of love.
Biographie de l'auteur
ROWAN PELLING is a British journalist and broadcaster who has contributed regularly to The Independent on Sunday, The Mail on Sunday
, and GQ
, and is now a columnist for The Daily Telegraph
. She is the former editor of the monthly magazine The Erotic Review
and was a judge of the Man Booker Prize in 2004.