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Literary Seductions: Compulsive Writers and Diverted Readers

edited by Frances Wilson Faber pounds 12.99

Go to any major library, certainly the new British Library, and you can feel the frustrated libido throbbing away like some badly insulated air-conditioner in the building's entrails. My all-time favourite TV advertisement was that for some insurance firm, five years ago, featuring John Betjeman. The grand old poet was paralysed with Parkinson's and wheelchair-bound. His companion leaned over him and asked, solicitously, "Is there anything in your life, John, that you regret?" "Not enough sex," Betjers replied, with an angelic smile.

Frances Wilson has accepted the most challenging of publishers' commissions: "write a sexy book of literary criticism". She lectures in the English department at Reading University (and, yes, the back- flap author's photo confirms that she qualifies in other departments as well).

The book opens with a Roland Barthes-inspired essaylet on the "pleasures of the text". Jouissance was the term the clever French critic used, which doesn't translate. For the good reason, our European neighbours would say, that the English don't know what sexual pleasure is - any more than they know what real coffee is.

According to Barthes, as Wilson quotes him, "Reading is like those other solitary acts, praying and masturbating. Reading is both sacred and profane." Yes, yes, one eagerly responds (like Molly Bloom). Then - hold on a bit - is that really what I'm doing when I read the latest P D James? Sacred self abuse?

"We have all of us," Wilson says, "been seduced by writing." Speak for yourself, my dear. Books can absorb, interest, amuse, fascinate and engross us. Do they, by any stretch of the term, "seduce" us? Wilson likes to raise the stakes to the point where the literary act is not just erotic but subversive. She quotes approvingly Harold Brodkey: "if the reader is not at risk he is not reading." What, precisely, is the "risk" I'm taking when I read my favourite novel, which happens to be Trollope's Barchester Towers? Or you, reading this review?

I'm unseduced by Wilson's assertions. For most earthbound, but literate adults, reading is a practice. Most do it competently, some expertly and a very few raise it to the level of art or science (hard to say which). But reading, like Freud's cigar, is just reading; it's not a love affair with a sheet of paper any more than ink is ejaculate.

And yet, sceptical as one has to be, one admires the elegance of Wilson's epigrams ("Perversion, like writing, is a gender issue") and the go- for-broke verve of her thesis. She herself writes extremely well - one does not even have to add that chilling "for an academic". And she has a deadly eye for the telling quotation: Flaubert's "I write a love letter, to write, and not because I love", or Cyril Connolly's "a man who is very much married is only half a writer".

The body of the book examines a series of relationships in which the literary intertwines with the erotic. That between nymphomaniac Nin and satyromaniac Henry Miller is a wrestlers' contest of mutually devouring sexual appetites. That between Robert Graves and his "White Goddess", Laura Riding, is closer to vampirism. Natasha Mandelstam, like the outcasts in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, became the living book of her husband Osip's poetry, after Stalin consigned him to non-personhood. W B Yeats's career is seen as a long search for the climax that would be both orgasmic and literary.

Frances Wilson has not, I fear, written a sexy book of literary criticism. No one could. Literary Seductions is, none the less, "diverting" (to use another of the author's favourite terms). It's the kind of book one might read with pleasure, though without any great risk to one's underwear, on the tube or in the airport departure lounge. How many works of literary criticism can one say that about?

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