London Triptych, by Jonathan Kemp: a review

 

Jonathan KempJonathan Kemp explores hungers we cannot explain and paints images not only intensely erotic, but tender.  Here, in London Triptych, he shows us the unfolding of three men’s lives, each an unravelling ribbon, fluid, twisting, looking back upon itself. Their stories are confessionals, inviting us to enter the nocturnal, hidden recesses of the psyche. Meanwhile, London’s shadows and secrets echo those within our protagonists, and remind us that we readers, too, have our untold stories.

Each of the tales within the ‘triptych’ takes place, primarily, in London, though separated by five decades. We see the details of the setting change, while the themes remain eternal: our desire for what we cannot articulate; our struggle to express ourselves freely; our eagerness to navigate the ‘geography of possibilities’; our delight in love, glorious, overwhelming and unexpected; and the vulnerability of that state.

1890s rent boy Jack Rose falls into an almost unwilling passion for Oscar Wilde, leading towards a path of disappointment and betrayal.  1950s artist Colin tentatively explores his sexuality, against a backdrop of prudery and prejudice. In the 1990s, David awaits release from prison, telling of the lover who deceived him.

Jonathan Kemp

With each interchanging narrative, we learn more of each protagonist’s history and motivations, and we see the ways in which their stories resemble one other. They do not go in search of love. Rather, it surprises them, catching them off guard. They experience transcendence and then misery: a change in their worldview.

Sex is central to the story, an enduring, irresistible force, with or without love. It is the engine driving each of our narrators to discover a version of the ‘self’ yet out of reach.

Jack Rose tells us: ‘I became a whore in order, not to find myself, but to lose myself in the dense forest of that name.’

However, love is the transformative emotion. Love enervates and destroys, bringing ultimate joy and torture. We are shown its ability to shed light on our restricted, repetitive paths.

Kemp explores what it has meant to be homosexual in a world which views those desires as dangerously inverted, and shows us the tension between pleasure and danger, when there are ‘no laws but those of the body’:

‘When you can be free, free to pursue any desire, acquire any knowledge… it’s the most terrifying place to live. It’s dangerously beautiful…’

Jonathan-KempAs ever, Kemp’s storytelling goes beyond action and consequence, or the clever use of dialogue to reveal character, or the exploration of eternal themes. His talent lies in his use of language, probing words for their secrets, for their ‘blood-beat’, for their ability to reveal ‘meaning held within the contours of the skin’. He returns, again and again, to the inadequacy of language to express the erotic truths of the body, the ‘cannibal, animal hunger’ of desire.

And yet, he, as few authors can, animates the ‘universal language of lust written on the body and spoken by the eyes and fingers’.

He shows us that sex can take us to other destinations within the ‘self’, as if ‘opening doors that lead to other corridors, and other doors’: ‘I am here without knowing how. Suddenly, terrifyingly present. Here, now, lost and hot…

Meanwhile, London itself embodies the elusive, enchanting paradox of existence. It is a place of anonymity, and simultaneous intimacy; London is the unseen, legion-faced (and thus faceless) listener, inviting the narrators to share their secrets. It is a place of judgment (all three stories bring to bear the presence of the law and prospective punishment for homosexual transgression) and of liberation. It is a place of contradictions, just as we are contradictory.

 

Jonathan Kemp 26 Ghosting London TriptychJonathan Kemp teaches creative writing and comparative literature at Birkbeck College, London.

London Triptych, his first novel, won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Polari Prize and the Green Carnation Prize.

He is also the author of Ghosting (my review here) and 26, my review here.

Hear directly from Jonathan Kemp, on how the novel came to be, here, in an interview with Polari Magazine.

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Also, you may like to visit this article, featuring Jonathan Kemp: Men Writing Erotic Fiction

 

 

 

 

Damage by Josephine Hart: a review

Damage is a tale of desperate erotic obsession, and its inevitable path to destruction.

The narrative, told by the male protagonist, eminently respectable, and respected, cabinet Damage Josephine Hart a review minister Fleming, is clinical in its formality, in keeping with his social position. His life revolves around public service, and the care of his family and, at the heart of this seeming ‘order’ he is deeply unhappy.

This very formality, with its lack of true passion, has suffocated him, so that we have some understanding of his leap from empty order into consuming chaos, into the danger of an affair with his son’s fiancée, Anna.

The icy detachment of this narrative is a perfect foil to Fleming’s inner turmoil and the depth of his catastrophic infatuation. His spiralling descent is forever tempered by a façade of civility and order. Josephine Hart’s sparse, simple, even elegant language balances the fevered undercurrents of Fleming’s psychological state.

DAMAGE_610‘… my life would have been lost in contemplation of the emerging skeleton beneath my skin. It was as though a man’s bones broke through the face of the werewolf. Shining with humanity he stalked through his midnight life towards the first day.’1992 film Damage Jeremy Irons Juliette Binoche Josephine Hart a review of the book Emmanuelle de Maupassant

His affair with Anna is both an awakening and a dream-state, a loss of self to the intoxication of desire, and a finding of the self.

Fleming tells us: ‘I eased her gently to the floor. Leaving my elegant disguise on the sofa I became myself.’

We are left in no doubt that destruction is inevitable, that Fleming is at the precipice. There are no mitigating circumstances, and we know that there will be no happy ending, or forgiveness. What we see is a chillingly honest portrayal of sexual obsession, and our potential for destruction: lives damaged, or soon to be so.

Many will be familiar with the wonderful film of the same name, starring Jeremy Irons and 1992 film Damage Jeremy Irons Juliette Binoche Josephine Hart a review of the book Emmanuelle de MaupassantJuliette Binoche, directed by Louis Malle, in which we witness more of the sexual nature of the affair. In her book, Hart does not describe sex at length, and yet we are left in no doubt that the acts are intense.

Fleming tells the reader: ‘We were made for other things. For needs that had to be answered day or night – sudden longings – a strange language of the body.’

They involve a degree of mild violence and of domination (there are references to slavedom, to being tied, and blindfolded, of Anna giving herself over to his will, of being physically ‘arranged’). These scenes leave us with a sense of the brutality of Fleming’s sexual desire, and of Anna’s desire to submit to it.

… there would be time for the pain and pleasure lust lends to love. Time for body lines and Damage-film-still-007angles that provoke the astounded primitive to leap delighted from the civilised skin…There would be time for words obscene and dangerous. There would be time for flowers to put out the eyes and for silken softness to close the ears.’

This is a love story of sorts, as Fleming proclaims in the closing lines, but the journey is heartbreaking, unsettling, terrifying. It is a nightmare from which the protagonists cannot wake. We are shocked, horrified, even to the bitter close, but cannot look away.

Hart reminds us that, when tragedy strikes, as when Anna’s brother Aston kills himself ‘silence, separation and sadness… become a way of life’ trapping us ‘in the unresolved agonies of long ago’. In some part, this is offered as a reason for Anna’s detachment, but we are not invited to judge, only to witness.

We see Fleming acknowledge his folly, cruelty and deceit. He takes full responsibility, never Josephine Hart Damage review by Emmanuelle de Maupassantattempting to apologize or make excuses. He is in the grip of what he knows will destroy him, and we abhor him for it. And yet, we see that he is powerless, just as Anna is powerless.

They are presented as equally culpable and yet, equally, without blame. They are damaged and are destined to destroy not only themselves but others.

At one point, Fleming asks Anna: ‘Who are you?’ and she replies: ‘I am what you desire…’ While Fleming fantasises about the possibility of leaving his wife and living with Anna, she realises that their relationship is outside of normal bounds and social conventions. It is only there that it can exist.

1992 film Damage Jeremy Irons Juliette Binoche Josephine Hart a review of the book Emmanuelle de MaupassantJosephine Hart achieves something rare in this novella: a helplessness that speaks deeply to the reader, a knowledge that, however sane and ordered our life, we carry our own destructive flame, the potential for our own acts of ‘damage’.

Like Water For Chocolate: a review

Like Water for Chocolate Laura Esquivel review Exploring the burning pleasure and pain of physical desire is Laura Esquivel’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate’. It is an erotic tale in the purest sense, delving the agony of repressed love, and the intense delight and suffering of which we are capable. It evokes the smells and tastes of the body, as well as those of the kitchen, showing the power of the senses to overwhelm us.

Tita falls in love with Pedro. Their eyes meet, and:
‘She understood how dough feels when it is plunged into boiling oil… The heat that invaded her body was so real. She was afraid she would start to bubble… like batter.’

Even a single look can be erotic. Pedro finds Tita grinding ingredients in the kitchen and his gaze transforms her ‘from chaste to experienced’ without even Like-Water-for-Chocolate-film-images-13fcd109-647b-4368-80dd-f6556923164touching. She is ‘like water for hot chocolate’ because she is ‘on the verge of boiling over‘ with desire.

Every erotic experience is conveyed in terms of food and cooking, rising heat, flesh seared and long simmering. Chillies appear in recipes repeatedly, symbolising the fiery heat of passion. Tita’s emotional journey is told alongside and through her creation of cuisine.

Tita’s fearsome mother, Elena, insists that Tita must never marry, being destined to take care of her until the day she dies. Pedro agrees to marry older sister Rosaura instead, declaring it as a means of staying close to his beloved, but, of course, as a servant declares, ‘You can’t just exchange tacos for enchiladas!’

Like Water for Chocolate Laura Esquivel review Passion is contained and beaten into submission as surely as Tita herself whips eggs into meringue. Each dish provides a metaphor for Tita’s love life and cooking remains her only way of expressing her emotions, with magical results. Weeping as she beats the wedding cake for Pedro and Rosaura, her tears enter the mixture. As each guest takes a bite, they are overcome by an intense longing for their lost loves, by sadness at opportunities missed and sacrifices made. Their despair is such that they end by vomiting it from their bodies, like poison.

When Tita pours her sexual yearning into her Quail in Rose Petal Sauce, her blood mixing with the soft petals, she induces in her guests a sexual frenzy. The dish brings on a ‘voluptuous delight’, acting as an aphrodisiac so potent that Gertrudis, Tita’s other sister, feels ‘an intense heat pulsing through her limbs’. She rushes to an outdoor shower to cool off but her body is so like water for chocolate esquivel reviewpowerfully charged that the wooden boards catch fire.

Gertrudis’s sexual allure is carried upon the air to the nose of the captain of the rebel troops, Juan, who leaves the field of battle to whisk her off, quite naked, to become his lover. The scent of her ‘red-hot fire’ draws him and he recognises ‘the lust that leapt from her eyes, from her every pore’. He scoops her onto his horse and they make love for the first time, immediately. ‘The movement of the horse combined with the movement of their bodies.’

Gertrudis is so filled with amour that one man cannot satisfy her, and we hear that she seeks out employment at a brothel, before joining the rebel troops, Like Water for Chocolate a review Esquivel and rising to the position of general. There, she meets Juan once more, and they become married, fulfilling the destiny denied Tita and Pedro. In many ways, Gertrudis’ path throws that of Tita into sharp relief, she being confined to the kitchen and to watching over other family members, while Gertrudis, literally helps lead a revolution. She so firmly throws off all conventions, fully embracing her sexual nature, that we might argue that she, rather than Tita, would have made a more fascinating heroine.

Once Mama Elena dies, we hear that Tita and Pedro conduct a fragmented, illicit love affair, coupling discreetly, to avoid upsetting Rosaura. Theirs is a life half-lived. When, at last, Rosaura’s passing allows Tita and Pedro to enjoy one another without guilt, so joyful are they that they are, magically, consumed by flames, fulfilling the prophesy that: ‘If a strong emotion suddenly lights all the matches we carry inside ourselves, it creates a brightness that shines far beyond our normal vision and then a splendid Like Water for Chocolate a review Esquivel tunnel appears… and calls us to recover our lost divine origin.’

Laura Esquivel explores the tragic consequences of denying love: for Tita, who is forbidden from marriage by her mother; and, as we discover, for her mother, Elena, whose thwarted love resulted in an affair which brought on her husband’s death and sowed the seed for her own discontent and bullying of Tita.

‘Like Water for Chocolate’ is a tale, beautifully, enchantingly told, of our struggle against what is Laura Esquivel forbidden, of denial and of fulfillment, and of our helplessness in the face of desire.

 

I read in translation, by Carol and Thomas Christensen. The book was released in the USA in 1993, and simultaneously at cinemas (still shots featured here are from the film).

Laura Esquivel lives in Mexico.  In an interview with Salon Magazine, she notes: ‘I’m interested in that relationship between outer reality and inner desire. It’s important to pay attention to the inner voice, because it’s the only way to discover your mission in life, and the only way to develop the strength to break with whatever familial or cultural norms are preventing you from fulfilling your destiny.’

Adrea Kore: Hand of a Stranger

Within the rich, dark sea of tales, there are midnight words whispered betwen lovers. There are secrets, concealed and revealed. There are a thousand versions of yourself, and a thousand versions of desire.Adrea Kore - hand of a stranger flash fiction

In that fantasy realm, we may relinquish control, or we may enfold and possess. We may flee, while wishing to be found.

There, lush and sensual, raw and red, teasing and taunting and tantalizing, are the words of Adrea Kore.

Hand of a Stranger is a flash-fiction piece: a fantasy about desirability, explored through the themes of pursuit and capture. Its melodies are haunting, and its rhythms those of anticipation.

 

‘Let the shimmer of my stockings under streetlights be your lure. I hear and don’t hear your stealth-clad footsteps, trailing me. Block after block, past sordid bars and shut-eyed houses. I want not to know the dark lust you harbour at the glimpse of suspenders through my skirt-slit. Swishing so close to my sex, where you want your cock to be.’

 

Adrea Kore - Hand of a StrangerTo hear the full (6 minute) audio recording of this velvet fantasy, inspired by Film Noire, and to learn more about intent in erotic fiction, visit Adrea’s website.

 

 

Adrea’s poetry and short fiction appears in the following editions:

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In the words of Adrea Kore:

 

‘Erotica writes into those areas of the human sexual psyche and behaviour that some other genres gloss over or shy away from.

Erotica reveals the links between our inner psychological desires, our motivations and our sexual actions.

Erotica asks complex questions about consent, personal limits and relationships. And it doesn’t just ask these questions of the characters. It asks them of the reader, also.

This is why I am drawn to writing in the erotic genre. It’s why I feel proud of my craft. Sexuality is such a vital part of the map of the human psyche. Sexuality reveals so much of ourselves.’

 read more in Adrea’s Earthing Eros: The Makings of Erotica ii

Adrea Kore