Comment: Sex - the anti-social force that challenges all the rules

Natasha Walter's Notebook
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The Independent Culture
In the current issue of The New Yorker, Frederic Raphael describes working with the late Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut, the film that will star Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise in all sorts of naked shenanigans. It is based on a novella by Arthur Schnitzler, which is set in Austria in the 1900s. When Kubrick asked Raphael to transfer the action from fin- de-siecle Vienna to present-day New York, Raphael apparently said: "Haven't many things changed since 1900, not least the relations between men and women?" To which Kubrick replied: "Think so? I don't think so." Raphael thought about it, and then replied: "Neither do I."

That bodes both well and ill for the film itself. Ill, because two elderly men fumbling with their 100-year-old text of sex and scandal and really believing that nothing has changed are likely to produce something ludicrous. David Hare also seemed to believe that everything had stayed the same when he rewrote another Schnitzler tale, Reigen (which became the French film La Ronde), to create his recent play, The Blue Room. Because he thought he could just transfer the action wholesale to the present day, he forced the women (played, again, by Nicole Kidman) into the strait-jacket of Schnitzler's milieu. Above all, they had to remain in a subordinate social role.

So while the men in The Blue Room were politicians and playwrights and cab-drivers, the women were prostitutes and models and au pair girls. That meant that the play couldn't even whisper of how power relationships might have begun to change between men and women. It had a fusty, dated air that meant it couldn't live up to the dynamism of the original. Shifting social mores mean that even the most straightforward narratives of desire work differently in every generation.

That isn't the case only where we're talking about a 100-year gap. Tom Stoppard's 1992 play, The Real Thing, has just been revived at the Donmar Warehouse in London, and has been hailed by critics as a work that could have been written yesterday. But there are already moments in it that seem to speak of a different era. "I'll do this page, then I'll rape you, then I'll do the page again," says the playwright to his new lover, a woman engaged in political activity. You can hardly imagine her not picking him up on that little joke. And then he tells her that he had sex with her last night when she was unaware of it, since she was unconscious on Mogadon. "I thought I'd try it without you talking," he says. She seems to accept that as a bit of fun, but today's audiences can't help seeing it as a clear pointer that there is an undercurrent of real violence in their relationship. Stoppard is right to leave the play as it is. But critics are wrong to think that 17 years don't make a difference.

So if Raphael's exchange with Kubrick means that his new film will really be oblivious to the way that social and sexual relations have changed between men and women, then it will be a disaster. Because the ways that men and women negotiate the mating game are constantly shifting as women struggle towards more equality, and what seems acceptable one year is put into question a decade or a century later. As David Hare and Tom Stoppard unconsciously show us, two things that are clearly in a state of flux are, first, that men now have to confront women's greater power, and second, that violence in a relationship can no longer be brushed lightly aside.

But Raphael's comment could also bode well. Because what people can mean when they say that nothing has really changed between men and women is that there is something about sex that can break free of social mores. Sex is so antisocial, so lawless a force that it can overflow whatever accepted rules of behaviour exist at any particular time between men and women, often in the best of all possible ways. One reason that many of the love stories of previous ages feel so real and fresh to us is that through the charged sexual relationship social structures are suddenly overturned. The individual man loses his strict masculine behaviour, the woman leaves behind all the constraints of femininity; both break free of barriers of class and etiquette. That is the force that makes old love stories, from Antony and Cleopatra to Jane Eyre, so weirdly forceful today, because in them the men and the women manage to jump free from their social milieu.

If she picked up a book, she would at once get engrossed in whatever text she happened to slip into with the natural movement of a water creature put back into its brook." Nabokov said that about one of his heroines, but anyone who loves novels knows exactly that feeling, that sudden plunge into another, altogether easier world. Although the better the book the easier the dive, most keen readers can read almost anything, and will slip as happily into the dank pool of a dull mystery as into the sunlit lake of a great novel. One thing you never feel, if you're one of those readers, is reluctant. You never stand shivering on the bank, dipping a toe into the water and then drawing it out. Unless, that is, you take on the task of helping to judge the Booker prize.

There's something about reading at least one novel every day for three months that sends you mad - however speedy a reader you are. The problem doesn't exist while you're reading the novel, because at that point the rest of the world is cut out. The problem comes when you try to get on with life, or when dealing with all the other narrative around you, the newspapers, the magazines, the films, the television programmes. Because you have to do all that with a crackle in your head of a novel that you've just read too fast, whether it's one that you hated from the first page but that you had to let into your head, or one that you half-liked and that is still gripping you in its cool embrace.

Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I've begun to resent fiction. I've begun to resent its gloopy emotions, its messiness, its power to disturb me. I've begun to loathe, especially, the good novels, the ones where I begin to believe that somebody is living and loving and dying in front of me. I also particularly hate the ones that make language live, the ones that do clever tricks with their style. Because those ones really won't leave you alone; they affect your dreams, they take over your conversations - until the next morning comes and you're on to the next book. I don't want to be out in these storms any more. I feel seasick.

And all of a sudden it's come home to me why such dreary novels have always won the Booker prize and all the other awards. If a great tornado of a novel had suddenly appeared, the judges, desperately ill from their over- exposure to the fictional elements, would have had to push it to one side. Instead, they've deliberately been choosing the least effective novels, in order to try to free themselves from the power of the fiction, in order to try to find some little harbour where they can get back to normal life again. And, frankly, I don't blame them any more.

I walked past the local community centre on Thursday, to see that it was oddly deserted. But that's because it had been turned into the polling station for the European elections. After seeing that fewer people were going to exercise their democratic right than were usually up there eating wholemeal sandwiches, it didn't seem surprising that the national turn- out was as low as 25 per cent. No doubt commentators will go on railing against the apathy of the people who stay at home while their European counterparts rush out to cast their votes. "Voters should make the effort to vote," said this newspaper. "Vote today!" said the Daily Mail. But we were quite right to stay at home. What needs to change is not the behaviour of the electorate, but the structure of the ineffectual institutions we are asked to vote for, and the bizarre behaviour of the political parties, which give us no compelling reason to vote for them.

Should we have voted Conservative? The only reason they came up with was that it would have been a vote for the pound. Sadly for them, the electorate may be naive but it does know that the decision to join the euro will not be made in the European Parliament, but by the national Government. Should we have voted Green? Commentators told us that that would have sent the message to the Government that they had made a mistake over GM foods. But that message is being put across more effectively by direct action than it ever will be through the ballot box.

Should we have voted Labour? They couldn't seem to find any reasons why that might be a good idea, since they filled up their leaflet with policies that had absolutely nothing to do with Europe (a pounds 430m investment in A&E departments, the minimum wage), or decisions that had been made in Europe but not by the European Parliament. Rather than engaging with political issues, they simply presented their candidates like contestants on Mastermind. Take Robert Evans, for instance, particular political views and activities unknown, who "plays cricket and hockey and enjoys visiting the cinema and theatre".

Until political parties realise that they have to find some compelling reasons why we should want to send their representatives to an institution, we are right to stay at home. But you have to wonder how low the turn- out has to fall, in European elections, in local elections and even in national elections, before they start to take notice. If only the number of representatives they could send were reduced proportionately by the percentage of the population who didn't vote. Then they might pull their heads out of the sand and begin to engage with the electorate.