In The Sexual Life of Cathérine M., the French art critic Cathérine Millet shocked readers in 40 languages with her explicit revelations of years of sexual adventure.
In cool, clinical prose, she performed and exposed the life of the female body, passively and agreeably adaptable to countless, polymorphous encounters. Anyplace, anytime, anyone – there were no limits, short of violence, on a sex life which ranged from anonymous, night-time orgies in the Bois de Boulogne to couplings in carparks to solitary sex, replete with ever more detailed fantasies.
So it comes as something of a surprise to find that this self-styled "suffragette in the cause of libertarianism", this reveller in bodily pleasure, for three long years also suffered from extremes of jealousy. Jealousy presupposes a life of the emotions, an entanglement with that hoary terrain of love, the one absentee from her earlier memoir. Indeed, Millet who has only lived with two full-time partners, has argued it was only because she had love at home that she was freed from having to find it in her other sexual pursuits.
Soon after her mother's suicide, Cathérine comes upon a photograph of a nude woman in her husband Jacques's study, together with a line in his diary implying desire. She is catapulted into "that timeless and universal malady" of jealousy. She can't breathe, her heart and mind race, she is reduced to a pair of snooping eyes, an ignominous detective. Creeping around on all fours, reading letters and diaries, she becomes "the blind architect of my destiny... a small perverted rodent, collecting poisoned food!" Her imagination is overwhelmed with an obsessive need to know.
The pain is such that she suffers from fainting fits. She finds herself banging her head against the wall. Even those anonymised fantasies which long accompanied her solo sex life provide no relief. These have metamorphosed into ones where in abject humiliation she spies on Jacques and his lovers. The rub is that she has no right to carp about his infidelities. It was she who had initiated the libertine regime and long lived it, though her sexual exploits have diminished.
The exhilaration of Millet's perspective is that, in the midst of abasement, she still refuses any traditional conjugal morality. She describes her breakdown with forensic precision, wielding a scalpel of cold intelligence into visceral matter. Yet nowhere is there a call to fidelity from her husband, nor apportioning of blame, nor a recourse to a sense that love must only and forever have a unique object.
This book is an uncomfortable companion piece to her first, providing a psychological narrative to inform the sexual one. The cataclysm of obsessive jealousy takes her to a therapist. After three years of analysis, captured in only a few scenes, the pain lessens and she begins to write her "secret life", at the prodding of a publisher. There is an underlying suggestion, that focussing on the sexual is therapeutic: it is what, her profession life apart, she does best. The writing is reparative.
Though far less scandalous than her first memoir, Jealousy is in many ways a better book. Beautifully translated by Helen Stevenson, shadowed by Proust rather than pornography, it fleshes out an emotional life to confound the bodily one. To make the writerly circle complete, it remains only for Millet to take us into her childhood, the terrain of that mother-become-suicide, absentee father and dead brother whose presences haunt the narrative. The real secrets may be the ones kept even from oneself.
Lisa Appignanesi's 'Mad, Bad and Sad' is published in paperback by Virago