jacques sternberg, “sexualis ’95”

Jacques Sternberg
Sexualis ’95
(trans. Blair Lowell)
(Berkeley Medallion, 1967)

This is a poorly presented book, originally published in French in 1965 with the rather different title Toi, ma nuit. Somewhere along the line it acquired the present English title and cover – the back cover copy suggests that someone skimmed the first three pages, grabbed the first three titillating passages that could be found, and called it done. (I’m inclined not to blame the translator, who also seems to have had a workman-like career later in life, publishing translations of Voltaire, Flaubert, Dumas, Rostand, and Rousseau; in the 1960s, he seems to have been translating Emanuelle and Sade for Grove Press.) It can’t really be said that this ended the career of Jacques Sternberg in the United States – Future Without Future would come out in 1974 to little effect – but this couldn’t have helped. Though the cover promises trash, the reader is more likely to end up confused. There’s a certain similarity to the two French detective novels that John Ashbery translated under the name Jonas Berry: it’s difficult to imagine, at this point in time, who the intended audience for these sorts of books would have been, but it seems almost certain that these books weren’t doing a good job pleasing that audience.

This is not to say that this is a particularly good book: I don’t know if I’m willing to make that argument, though maybe someone might. The last book of Sternberg’s I read reminded me of Houellebecq; this one seems to anticipate him almost entirely. Sexualis ’95 is essentially a one-joke book, which would probably have worked better as a long short story. Thirty years in the future, after a nuclear war in 1975, humanity’s problems have largely solved by the wholesale adoption of free love. Sternberg’s protagonist seems to have wandered in from a Camus novel – later he will explain The Myth of Sisyphus to a similarly bored interlocutor – and finds himself, of course, utterly and completely bored with the world and the easy sexuality on offer. Though the protagonist is relatively successful in advertising – the problems of advertising in such a world can be imagined – he retreats to his books and records of the past.

It’s all a question of a certain quality of anxiety. Prewar anxiety was of better quality, richer in resonances and repercussions. There was something awesome and poignant about it. Our anxiety is as great as our parents’ was, but while our constant efforts to escape from it by noise, wild exaggeration, organized insanity and unremitting pleasure may seem spectacular, they’re more irritating than moving. Especially when that artificial frenzy breaks out of the framework of advertising, leisure and work and overflows into writing, music and films, sweeping everything away in an inarticulate howl that has neither charm nor precise meaning. Our world is so afraid that it doesn’t dare to look at its fear, talk about it or dissect it. It merely stifles it under tons of shouting, hectic rhythms, garish colors and brutal images. (pp. 14–15)

Occasionally this book makes one imagine that you’re reading a Tom Wolfe or Ross Douthat description of what the depraved youth at college are up to; the argument could be made that the same conservative impulse is at work here. In the next paragraph, the protagonist mentions Lovecraft as one of the old-fashioned writers that he turns back to (with Kafka, Beckett, Faulkner, and Céline): and it might be Lovecraft’s misoneism that’s the guiding spirit here. The protagonist is bored and vaguely unhappy for the first half of the book. Not much of note happens here: mostly we’re presented with a world, seen cartoonishly from a male perspective. Women are always available for male pleasure; they are a commodity like any other under capitalism, and it’s not by accident that the protagonist is in advertising, seeking to artificially raise desire in the public. He’s more than aware of the artifice of the job; but this is an existential condition, one that can’t be escaped. His awareness of art does nothing: he can quote Mallarmé to others on a shoot, but no one understands what he’s talking about.

Things take a turn in the second half of the book when the protagonist predictably falls in love. The object of his affections in a woman without desire: the child-like Michèle doesn’t want anything, and for this reason the protagonist wants her. There’s more than a whiff of the amour fou of Breton’s Nadja here, probably on purpose. The protagonist loses Michèle, suffers, and finally finds her again. This is partially played as broad comedy: the protagonist is suffering from the otherwise unknown condition of being in love, and, being of his time, he doesn’t know what to do. Sternberg is writing recognizably in the libertine tradition: the condition of desire is that it cannot be fulfilled.

This book takes a weird turn at the last possible minute, when the reader starts wondering exactly how Sternberg is going to extricate himself from his story, which has devolved into a road movie scripted by Breton: the protagonist and his unconsummated (and unconsummatable) love are on a train headed to a southern town neither of them has been to. Michèle announces that the train is going to be derailed in two miles; then that the train is going to be derailed in one mile. The final paragraph, italicized, is in the third person of a news report; it explains that the train did, in fact, derail and that everyone aboard was killed, including one unidentifiable woman. There also a gratuitous-seeming mention of alien arrival, who have not been mentioned previously in the novel: the implication might be that Michèle is an alien because she doesn’t want anything, but this seems forced.

This is an odd book: it’s not really a good book, and it seems like it could be charged with being flat-out misogynist if there weren’t the distinct possibility that this is all an enormous joke, maybe one lost in translation. But one does wish that more of Sternberg’s work were available in English: it’s hard to think of anyone quite like him.

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  1. Pingback: jacques sternberg, “future without future” | with hidden noise

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