|Photo by Francisco Javier Domínguez García|
Best literary sex scenes: writers' favourites
In the wake of the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon, we asked authors to tell us who does sex best in fiction
Friday 6 July 2012 22.55 BST
It's got to be Alan Hollinghurst, for me. I vividly remember sitting in my 10-year-old daughter's cello lesson, with a rather fierce music teacher, reading The Folding Star ... she scratched the bow, and I went a bit pink. It was not so much at the sex itself, but at the sheer incongruity of the reading matter. And at the frisson that I might get found out.
I like my erotic literature to be beautifully written as well as funny and can't do better than Chaucer. How about this from Troilus and Criseyde: "Her slender arms, her soft and supple back, / Her tapered sides – all fleshy smooth and white – / He stroked, and asked for favours at her neck, / Her snowish throat, her breasts so round and light; / Thus in this heaven he took his delight, / And smothered her with kisses upon kisses / Till gradually he came to learn where bliss is."
The most erotic book I ever read was an anonymous novel called L'Histoire d'O, which I think was by a woman called Pauline Réage. It was a sado-masochistic romp and I was given a copy in France in the 1960s when it was probably illegal in England. It surpassed Georgette Heyer, who seemed very exciting when I was at school. I was rather alarmed by how exciting it was and I remember giving my copy to an Arts Council officer somewhere in the north of England when I was on tour there; I didn't think it a good book to have around the house with small children. I also found DH Lawrence thrilling, in a healthier and more respectable kind of way. The Rainbow has some wonderfully powerful love scenes.
My favourite scene is the seduction in dialogue in The Names by Don DeLillo – but then my favourite everything is in that book. Is the scene erotic? Yes, in a meta-sort of way, but mainly it's incredibly intoxicating. It begins with the narrator, James, and some friends at a club in Athens, watching a belly dancer named Janet Ruffing. After the performance she changes into a cardigan and comes to sit with the group. James proceeds to ease his way into her consciousness so that "a curious intimacy" is formed. After some polite exchanges he asks her to "say belly. I want to watch your lips." Then it's, "Say breasts. Say tongue." The conversation spirals on for pages, Janet insisting "I don't do this" while getting drawn deeper into the giddy linguistic spiral. "Say heat," says James. "Say wet between my legs. Say legs. Seriously, I want you to. Stockings. Whisper it. The word is meant to be whispered."
Softcore porn is the literary equivalent of those feathery wimp-whips and talcum'd cufflinks you see in the windows of sex toy shops. If you're going to torture your lover, at least break the skin, I say. You would expect me, therefore, to chose the scene I find most erotic from the pages of De Sade or Bataille. But as far as writing goes, the best sex is the most implicit. So I nominate the scene in Persuasion in which Captain Wentworth wordlessly, and with none of their past grievous history resolved, assists a fatigued Anne Elliot into a carriage. There is no overt sexuality, no titillatory play with power and dependence - he helps her in and that's that. "Yes - he had done it. She was in the carriage and felt that he had placed her there, that his will and his hands had done it." Anne might tell herself that the kindness proceeds from what remains of "former sentiment", but Wentworth's hands have been on her body, and we never doubt that it's her body that receives the shock of the contact as much as her mind.
When it was published in 1968, John Updike's novel Couples was a succès de scandale because of its minutely attentive descriptions of sex. Much of this is adulterous sex, enjoyed by the pleasure-seeking 30 something couples of the New England town of Tarbox. Half a century later the descriptive precision is not shocking but absorbing. In the first of the novel's many adulterous couplings, Piet Hanema and Georgene Thorne make love on her sunporch. Updike typically gives us every beautifully rendered detail: the fall of morning light, the "musty cidery smell" of pine needles, the texture of the blanket they lie on. Updike makes you see everything his characters see. His novel is descriptively promiscuous: we move between different viewpoints, male and female, sharing their pleasures and perceptions. There is an extraordinary kind of tenderness in this physical detail that is an effect of style and patience. The tenderness heightens our appalled sense of how these people lie to each other and deceive themselves.