It occurred to me the other day that you know you’ve reached a certain age when you write a sex scene and you’re no longer worried about what your mother will think. No, now you’re worrying about what your children will think.
I’m know I’m not the only writer to find it difficult to write about sex. It’s not just the embarrassment factor – though there is that – it’s knowing how to get the tone right. Last week I watched GRACIE! on TV. I missed this the first time round. It’s the story of the singer Gracie Fields’ marriage to the Italian movie director, Monty Banks, and the dilemma she faced when he was threatened with internment in the Second World War. The extraordinary Jane Horrocks pulls off such a tour-de-force as Gracie that when I heard Gracie herself on YouTube I found her curiously unconvincing. Tom Hollander was magnificent as Monty Banks and there was real chemistry between them. When he tells her he’s in love with her and they kiss, they are at the door of his hotel room. He kisses her hand and draws her in. The door closes in the viewer’s face. In the next scene they are having breakfast in the dining room. Yes, it’s a cliché, but it works. It set me thinking about the way less sometimes really is more. In sex scenes – as in ghost stories and horror movies too – it’s usually best to leave quite a bit to the imagination. For my money one of the most erotic sentences in modern fiction comes in Penelope Fitzgerald’s wonderful novel, THE BEGINNING OF SPRING. It’s set in Russia in the 1910s. Frank has been deserted by his wife and has fallen in love with Lisa, who’s been employed to look after his children. When he declares himself they are interrupted and she slips away. Later he goes to look for her. ‘Frank went up the dark stairs to the back of the house and knocked at the door of Lisa’s room. He had not expected it to be locked, and it was not locked, but he waited until he heard her bare feet cross the wooden floor to open it.’ There’s a space and the next section begins ‘In the very early morning, they left for Shirokaya.’ That’s all, but in the context of the novel it’s electrifying.
What did Shelley write? ‘Heard melodies are sweet, those unheard are sweeter.’ I rather think he was right, and will you excuse me now while I go and look for my smelling salts . . .
On holiday recently I read Edmund de Waal’s book, THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES, the fascinating story of a collection of netsuke acquired by his family in the nineteenth century. I read it with rapt attention, in particular the account of how the collection survived the second world war. The Ephrussi family were among the wealthiest in Vienna, but virtually all their assets including their art collections were appropriated by the Nazis. The netsuke were surreptiously removed from their cabinet one by one by Anna, a family servant, who was allowed to stay on in the house, and hidden in her mattress to be returned to the family after the war. It’s an extraordinary story, well told. And yet as I read on, I got more and more irritated. There were illustrations, yes, but not a single one of the netsuke that are at the heart of the story, not even the eponymous hare with amber eyes. I see that the paperback does at least have the hare on the cover, but my hardback (a Christmas present) doesn’t. What were the publishers (Chatto & Windus) thinking of? Yes, it would have cost a few pounds more, but still . . . I see there is now a illustrated edition in hardback, so maybe I’m not the only one to be annoyed by this.