If the written word can inflame passion, books can cause an inferno

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The Independent Online

Been a bit of a tit in print lately, I'm afraid. Not here, elsewhere. My own fault for whoring after other papers. Strictly speaking I was lured, but it comes to the same thing. I put the wants of myself and my loved ones before discretion.

Been a bit of a tit in print lately, I'm afraid. Not here, elsewhere. My own fault for whoring after other papers. Strictly speaking I was lured, but it comes to the same thing. I put the wants of myself and my loved ones before discretion.

It's not easy when you've got a cocaine habit, a drinking to excess problem, a clubbing frenzy, a love of exotic travel, a passion for smoked salmon and cream-cheese bagels, 15 children and almost as many mistresses to support. I don't need to tell my readers that you can't live like that on a weekly column, one novel that doesn't have a wizard in it every two or three years, and occasional late night television appearances after the Grand Prix.

But to get to the meat of it, no sooner did some slimeball lecturer from the University of Lincoln and Humberside find himself in the news for keeping a filthy diary detailing the sexual performances of his students (yes, it seems they have students at the University of Lincoln and Humberside) than my phone began to ring. Not because I'm known for having kept such a diary myself - I've never been disciplined enough to keep a diary - but because I once wrote a novel that opened with student-teacher sex on the floor of a polytechnic. Could it be? Was it possible...? You know the assumption. A novelist only writes about what he's done. Do they think Bret Easton Ellis gets his ideas by cutting up girls from escort agencies? Probably.

Now I happen to think that the issue of sexual relations between teachers and their students is of no interest at the level of gossip but fascinating from the point of view of psychology and metaphysics. It bears on the heat generated by the disinterested exchange of knowledge. It tells us something about the nature of desire that it can be stirred by a theorem or a syllogism. There's spiritual hope for us, in an age of Anthea Turner and Posh Spice (whoever they are), if we can still be so excited by an idea that we will couple for it.

So yes, why not, I'd address the larger question behind the Lincoln and Humberside slimeball on the understanding that I would actually be discussing poetry. I'd taught Literature at university myself and all I knew about teachers and pupils falling in love related to set texts. Your eyes met over Shakespeare. You went into a clinch over Pride and Prejudice.

To all intents and purposes you became Cleopatra and Mr Darcy. If you were really subtle you threw caution to the winds over Dante, because the Divine Comedy itself contains the classic erotic encounter over a work of literature. Paolo and Francesca. When you fell in love reading about Paolo and Francesca you were falling in love, as through a hall of mirrors, with the tragedy of falling in love while reading about falling in love over literature.

I first learnt about Paolo and Francesca in a beginner's class at Cambridge. We were doing it in Italian, haltingly. Having just come up from Manchester I knew a bit of Italian from the Mogambo coffee bar which had recently opened on a quiet street off Albert Square. Ciao, cappuccino, di mi quando tu serai, di mi quando, quando, quando - that sort of thing. Not much help. You'd be surprised how few references to cappuccino there are in Dante. But we bumbled through. And Paolo and Francesca weren't that hard, especially with an English translation on the opposite page.

They come floating towards us in Hell, forever entwined in the embrace for which they sacrificed their immortal souls, that's the first striking thing about Paolo and Francesca. A term later I was embroiled in a ferocious argument with an extravagantly beautiful Indian woman twice my height about why Paolo and Francesca were in Hell. She believed it was because Dante was a Daily Mail Christian who disapproved of carnal passion.

I said their being forever bodily entwined was the clue - what Dante meant us to understand was that the punishment for excessive physical devotion was itself, an eternity of enervating embraces. Fat lot I knew. But the beautiful Indian woman still wouldn't go to the pictures with me.

They come floating towards us in Hell, and in language still agonizingly voluptuous tell Dante the story of their love. They were reading together. The story of Sir Lancelot. Say no more. One moment they were turning the pages, the next Paolo was kissing her trembling mouth. You need the Italian - la bocca mi basciò tutto tremante. She is his brother's wife. But that cannot stop them.

Nothing can stop you when you've got a tremble up. The book was to blame, Francesca explains. The book had lit the flame. Of course it had - books do that. When I was being divorced in 1970 my then father-in-law told his daughter to destroy my books. Especially the DH Lawrence. He was on the right track. Books had made me a bad husband. Tutto tremante. Yet we let teachers and students loose on them, and wonder that they lose their heads.

That was the article I agreed to write, anyway. Notes towards a definitive history of the literary kiss. But you know what happens when you write for newspapers. A war intervenes and they lop off your subordinate clauses - the only parts of a sentence I care about - and cut out the Dante. Leaving what? Leaving you to look like the Bret Easton Ellis of the academic world? Not quite. Just a bit of a tit.

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