Rude Britannia

Half-naked slaves hover in attendance, pearly flesh gleams on satin drapery, languorous women sprawl open-thighed on cushions, in a realm given over to its own dark sexual practices. "Harem" conjures up a lascivious fantasy, with trappings of gauzy veils, perfumes, opium pipes, and even a special exotic vocabulary: houri, odalisque, baigneuse.

There is a mythical territory called the Orient, which, as Edward Said commented, is part of Western culture, and in this world the harem has long been the focus of Western erotic reveries. The dull fact that the real harem was actually the family quarter seems never to have impinged. There are no screaming babies in this fantasy, no awkward toddlers tugging at the gorgeous trousers or playing havoc with the rose-petals.

One thing you must never do in the harem is to let the Viper drink at the Tavern f the Perfume-Makers. This and other secrets of the forbidden territory are made known in Robert Irwin's new novel, Prayer-Cushions of Flesh. Irwin's virginal hero, Prince Orkhan, escapes from The Cage, in which the sons of the sultan are imprisoned, emerges into the harem and the foolish boy wastes no time in letting the Viper loose. Elaborate erotic consequences follow, but the book, like the stories of Scheherazade, defies simple categorisation. It's a parable about the nature of desire and satisfaction, with an inner life as resistant to easy impositions of ulterior meaning as any story in The Arabian Nights. The details are based on medieval Arabic histories, rather than the result of Western fantasies imposed upon the Orient, for Irwin is a noted Arabist and the author of a lucid and perceptive book on Islamic art.

Irwin's The Arabian Nights, A Companion (1994) summarises the history of Western sexual fantasies centring on the Middle East, from the young aristocrats of the Grand Tour to Pasolini and Borges. It would seem that the more prudery Westerners experienced at home, the wilder their behaviour in the East; genius was no bar. Flaubert found a passionate release from the restraints of 19th-century France, and his Selected Letters describe Egypt as a demi-paradise of indulgence. "The wildest excesses would convey only a feeble notion ... Maxime [Du Camp] had himself wanked the other day among some deserted ruins..."

Hardly the stuff of the usual holiday postcard, but let's be honest: sex has always been a major unspoken theme of tourism, though few letters home can have been so brilliant. Here is Flaubert in the room of the dancer and musician Kuchuk: "We lay upon her bed, made of palm branches. A wick was burning in an old-fashioned lamp hanging on the wall in the next room, the guards were talking in an undertone to the servant, an Abyssinian negress with plague scars on both of her arms. Her little dog was asleep on my silk jacket. I sucked her furiously; her body was all of a sweat, she was tired from dancing, she was cold."

Art and culture are the accepted disguises of erotica. Sometimes the hopeful student looking for excitement can find lascivious literature lurking under a heavy overcoat of scholarship, as in The Libertine Reader. This mammoth tome of more than 1,300 pages is distributed by that most respectable American university giant, MIT, and presents translations of flighty 18th-century French texts with a crushing critical commentary just in case you might enjoy yourself. Be warned: the talking vaginas in Diderot's "The Indiscreet Jewels" are an "exteriorizing dynamic of conversation", and no giggling at the back of the class! But nine sexy stories including one work of genius, "Dangerous Liaisons", are good value.

Also from a deeply serious US publisher, the Johns Hopkins University Press, comes a 1960s translation of Casanova's autobiography, with a full- length Flemish nude sprawling head-to-toe across the spines of all six volumes, thus cunningly encouraging the punter to acquire the whole set. Although it's a paperback publication, this edition has cultural aspirations reminiscent of the stirring volumes considered acceptable in the libraries of those who had made the Grand Tour. The text has a curious antiquarian appearance and is adorned with black and white engravings of traditionally harmless subjects, and comes equipped with notes that "elucidate the social, biographical and geographical background". Casanova is claimed by (male) scholars to be a wonderful source of social history, but it does seem doubtful whether anyone would really find it worth while wading through 12 volumes of sexual seduction for the odd political insight or nugget about legal peculiarities.

And Casanova is a prime example of how glaring sexual patriarchy can pass unchallenged when wrapped up as social history. If any modern author were to write "the womb is an animal, so self-willed, so irrational, so untameable that a wise woman, so far from opposing its whims, should defer to them", it would probably lead to book-burning, yet many subsequent writers have acclaimed Casanova's literary qualities. V S Pritchett attempted to redeem him as "superior to all other erotic writers because of his pleasure in news, in gossip, in the whole personality of his mistresses", but the memoirs are a chronicle of conquests that would arouse outrage if they were not wearing the guise of history: Casanova had a self-confessed liking for very young girls and did not balk at a nine-year-old, nor even at his own illegitimate daughter. It is not simply a matter of the age at which female sexual activity was deemed acceptable in the 18th century: Casanova's feats of seduction were frequently characterised by exploitation of the weak and the poor, those unable to oppose him. If these records were not appearing under a learned imprint and in the guise of history, they would almost certainly cause an outcry comparable with that which greeted Lolita - a work with far greater literary stature. Isn't this the point where erotica, usually regarded as a venial indulgence to be accepted with a nod and a wink, would for some readers become offensive pornography? Or does pornography skulk only in lurid magazines in the back-rooms of seedy newsagents, never sallying forth between artistic covers under a learned imprint?

'Gustave Flaubert: Selected Letters', trans by Geoffrey Wall (Penguin Books, 1997), pounds 9.99; 'History of my Life', by Giacomo Casanova, trans by Willard R Trask, vols 1-12, bound in six parts (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), pounds 11 per vol; 'Prayer-Cushions of the Flesh', by Robert Irwin (Dedalus, 1997), pounds 6.99; 'The Libertine Reader, Eroticism and Enlightenment in Eighteenth- Century France', ed by Michel Feher (Zone Readers, 1997),pounds 49.95 cloth, pounds 24.95 paper.

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