Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘ellmann’

Philippe Brenot/Laetitia Coryn–The Story of Sex

In Uncategorized on November 18, 2016 at 10:36 am

What do sexologists know about anything? Doesn’t the very word, sexologist, make your heart sink? The thing is, sex isn’t just about insertions, secretions, emissions, pregnancy, diseases, and having a bit of a giggle. Sex is about life, death, love, sorrow, exultation, memories, the news, the movies, literature, art, music, politics, cigarettes, the whole shebang. Not to mention five thousand years of female subjugation. So mind the gap when you approach passion with dispassion, even for educational purposes.

Sexologist Philippe Brenot’s curiously coy graphic novel on the history of sex from apes to robots (but not sex between apes and robots, luckily) was written with the help of the collaborator and illustrator Laetitia Coryn. Pity her. It’s no small task to draw dozens of cartoony copulations (mainly doggy-style, perhaps denoting a personal preference), mean pictures of old women, and about a million nipples.

Coryn’s funny about the typical Roman citizen’s home, overwhelmed by tintinnabuli and other protective phalluses. She can do you a quick Enlightenment orgy, a pile of Hittite penises, or a fair imitation of Courbet’s famous painting of a vulva. But aside from some sartorial playfulness the visual jokes are almost as lame as the verbal efforts. There’s not enough variety in the layout. Coryn should have gone wild. Instead, all the razzmatazz of sex is laboriously conveyed through panel after panel of drab colours. Pffft!

As for the text, one can only hope Brenot spent no more than an hour writing it. Sly prejudice seeps through his Reader’s Digest level research. Here’s a list of the most dubious assertions. Only humans are capable of love. Apes are male-dominated. Ditto humans, as proven by goings-on in Babylon, the oldest city. Lecherous men did the cave paintings. Motherhood has always ‘immobilized’ women.

There’s more. Brenot claims it was the emergence of love that led to the invention of sexual privacy. He feels the beauty cult is a great thing. Older women, according to him, do not need sex. The Renaissance was ‘a fabulous age of discovery’, all about humanism. The Marquis de Sade was merely a madman. Casanova refused to wear condoms. And how about this shocker? ‘Freud spoke little of sexuality in his works.’

And so it goes on. The G-string was the first form of clothing – how exactly did Brenot verify this? The kiss developed two hundred million years ago yet only reached Japan in the twentieth century. Arranged marriages are never satisfying. And women were liberated not by the vote or increased access to wealth and contraception, but by the bra, the bikini, and plastic surgery.

Merde, but zees is crazy!

Let’s set a few things straight. Animals love: have you ever seen an unadoring dog? And though chimps may endorse male domination, bonobos don’t. Women probably had very powerful positions in society until a mere five thousand years ago. Babylon’s not as old as Mohenjo-Daro, a highly evolved matriarchy (with excellent plumbing!). Throughout most of human history the extended family made childcare more feasible. And Stone Age artists, whether men or women, depicted the female form in a spirit of reverence, not lust.

The porn industry has demonstrated that the urge to have sex in private is highly negotiable. The pressure to be beautiful dismays and degrades women all their days. And don’t you think it’s odd a sexologist, who bravely goes where no man has gone before, has nothing worthwhile to say about the sexuality of post-menopausal women, even if they’re not his scene?

Besides making forays into humanism, the Renaissance is more notable for exporting rape and slaughter and importing the potato, the tomato, and syphilis. De Sade was a revolutionary, as any Frenchman ought to understand. And, although his ‘little fellow’ pleased him less ‘in costume’, Casanova approved of condoms, had quite a collection, and even wrote poems about them.

Freud’s extensive writing on sexuality has enlivened the work of many a psychoanalyst, artist, and stand-up comedian. Bras are actually very uncomfortable, which may be one reason feminists burned them in the ’60s. And as for plastic surgery, from boob jobs to labial trimming this painful, invasive, life-threatening, money-grubbing business is one of the screwiest things our screwy species ever got up to.

Not only factually then but philosophically flawed, Brenot’s effortful attempt at offering us entertaining sex info is also unapologetically Eurocentric and Francophilic. This narrows its scope considerably. Some of the historical figures he names might perplex readers outside France: Robert the Pious, Brantôme and the gallant women, Gabrielle d’Estrées, Agnès Sorel, Charles de Beaumont, the Incroyables and the Merveilleuses.

A few other choice bonbons for you. Until he was forty Henry IV thought his penis was a bone. Rousseau was ‘an inveterate masturbator’. Montaigne was (perhaps) the first to write openly about man love. Everybody in eighteenth-century France was sans culottes. There were no toilets at Versailles. And during Victorian times the French called jam fiture, being embarrassed by the prefix con. (No matter how squeamish the English got about piano legs, they never sank to shortening controversy to roversy!)

Amongst the many promiscuous French writers and artists mentioned, curiously there’s no sign of the most famous French f***er of them all: Georges Simenon. Instead Brenot, who previously published a whole book on masturbation, devotes an ardent chapter to the subject here. He acts like the world’s just been waiting for the all-clear to wank from sexologists. Roger and out.


A version of this review appeared in the National, Nov. 7, 2016

Free copy of Doctors & Nurses – quiz closed June 15

In Stuff We Like, The Gloves Are Off : Thoughts on Literature on June 6, 2014 at 10:44 am

In Lucy Ellmann’s rather outrageous study of medicine post-Harold Shipman, the main character was originally called “Loathe Self”. This later seemed too explicit a cross for her to bear, so she was reduced to the humbler name of “Jen”, Jen with her trademark cargo pants, ravenous appetite, and handbag fetish.

All you need to do to win your free copy of Doctors & Nurses is: guess the novel from which the following quote comes.

Three winners will be picked indiscriminately from a handbag, during a ceremony courteously witnessed by pigeons, sparrows and French marigolds (in honour of the apparent advent of summer). Winners will then be contacted and asked for an address to which to send the book.

(NB Former Atelier quiz winners may not participate, on the grounds of being too smart – apologies.)


The quote:

Drearily I wound my way downstairs: I knew what I had to do, and I did it mechanically. I sought the key of the side-door in the kitchen. I sought too, a phial of oil and a feather; I oiled the key and the lock. I got some water, I got some bread: for perhaps I should have to walk far; and my strength, sorely shaken of late, must not break down. All this I did without one sound. I opened the door, passed out, shut it softly. Dim dawn glimmered in the yard. The great gates were closed and locked; but a wicket in one of them was only latched. Through that I departed…

…  I skirted fields, and hedges, and lanes till after sunrise. I believe it was a lovely summer morning: I know my shoes, which I had put on when I left the house, were soon wet with dew. But I looked neither to rising sun, nor smiling sky, nor wakening nature. He who is taken out to pass through a fair scene to the scaffold, thinks not of the flowers that smile on his road, but of the block and the axe-edge; of the disseverment of bone and vein; of the grave gaping at the end: and I thought of drear flight and homeless wandering–and oh! with agony I thought of what I left.  …  Birds began singing in brake and copse: birds were faithful to their mates; birds were emblems of love. What was I? In the midst of my pain of heart and frantic effort of principle, I abhorred myself. I had no solace from self-approbation; none even from self-respect. … I was hateful in my own eyes.



June 15:

Many thanks to all who participated. The answer was Jane Eyre, which had a big influence on Doctors & Nurses. This scenes sees Jane at her lowest point, beautifully described. She has just lost Rochester, she thinks, for ever. The contrast between the summeriness outside and the abyss inside her head is ferocious.



Peter Burnett on MIMI

In Reviews of Our Books on October 4, 2013 at 10:04 am

The novelist, Peter Burnett, published this review of MIMI on his blog, It includes a great rant on the formula followed by most book reviews these days (in PB’s opinion):

The world is a misogynist tizzy, not because it dislikes women, but because men simply want it all their own way. Men want to make war, and they want to make money.  And when they make all that money, these men decide that the most fun thing to spend it on — is war. The agenda is completed and while mankind moves to adjourn, Lucy Ellmann appears with MIMI. Like mysterious lights out of the darkness of the unknown, Lucy Ellmann’s book will astound you from page one, and if you’re not prepared for it, you may end up wondering why there are not more novels like this. The point is perhaps made too clearly for lovers of obfuscation to see — but this is a womanifesto with a mission to change the world.

As unreal as they may appear at the time, Lucy Ellmann’s ideas nevertheless form tangible plans which must be acted upon, and that is what makes the novel MIMI different from virtually every other one out there. THAT is an achievement. Mankind is about to be woken up from a five millennial sleep — and what has disturbed their slumber is MIMI.

As a film enthusiast, I enjoy when literature hits cinema head on, as it does in MIMI. Film and books meeting like this isn’t an important collision, but these are all cultural referents, and as an armchair semiotician, I know they have something to say. The protagonist in MIMI is a plastic surgeon, and although these guys do appear in the novels of our age, their real dramatic and comedic home is in the movies — and there are plenty movie moments in MIMI.

Yes — plastic surgery has long been a staple of the horror genre — the best being Eyes Without a Face (1960) — but ‘women’s films’ such as Ash Wednesday (1973) and Once is not Enough (1975) have made virtue of it — as did Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) which had Peter Lorre playing surgeon Dr Herman Einstein — and Seconds (1966), which apparently frightened Beach Boys composer Brian Wilson so much that he didn’t return to a cinema at all, until he braved the gates in 1982 and saw E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

The value of plastic surgery as both unfortunate fact of life and metaphor will not be lost on you — and lovers of the novel form, too, will see that it’s all change in MIMI. It’s possible that some may read MIMI and think that ‘nothing is happening’ — but then they will realise WHAT A GOOD TIME THEY ARE HAVING. I had an AMAZING time reading MIMI, and little of this was predicated on the traditionals of story telling — it was based on the jokes which are OMG good and the accumulations of ideas, words and scenery which make for a constantly shifting reading experience.  The back stories are the best thing about it, and the American childhood evoked is heartbreakingly true.

Yeh — I like that — ‘a reading experience’ — because that’s what it is.  To tell of a tale, MIMI is the story of one man’s five month love sabbatical, but as a book it ends up changing the world — you’re watching a cat lick its paws for page after page, movies, amazing revelations, grotesques, guignols and the satirising of Manhattanites and their bodily obsessions — and it ends up changing the world, it really does.

As for the extras — the varied Appendix tucked away at the rear of MIMI, you don’t have to read these if you don’t want to. The extras in MIMI are in fact there to be got or not, and they provide a function that books (what we call THE BOOK) has lost — the surprise factor.  We are so used to films, which can end at any point, the audience does not know when — and this is something difficult to replicate in a book, which we have to pare down to the last page.  Oh yes readers — you strip away the story of a book like an orange, an artichoke, the last slices of cheese — and you know as well as I there has to be at least one book (THIS IS IT!) which demonstrates the fact.  MIMI is that book indeed, and it concludes 68 pages before it ends — another fine achievement.

When I’d finished MIMI, I decided to check out the reviews. You know what I mean — Telegraph, NY Times, Guardian — and I was pretty fairly surprised at the lack of passion or interest that I found. It’s true that the reviewers representing these and other institutions get through a lot of books in their literary day — but I felt cheated — for what MIMI demands is passion — change — and feeling. The reviewers liked the book, and made a few noises to that effect, but MIMI is the sort of book that should encourage you to take to the streets, shouting. It is after all, NEW.

Now you may not have noticed this and you may not care either, but when it comes to fiction, the book reviews follow the same tendency. An average 1,000 words review is always approached thus:

0-150 — The life of the author to date. Other books they have written. Observations on the oeuvre.

151-650 — Précis for Lazy Lumps. PRESENT EXAMPLE: “The narrator of Mimi is Harrison Hanafan, a New York plastic surgeon who blah blah blah blah.”

651-800 — A great book reviewer will deliver up to three examples of the author’s writing in this section.

801-900 — The equivalent of the porn “money shot”. This is where the reviewer will say what they think (Not what they FEEL!)

901-1000 — General Rant About Other Stuff on the Reviewer’s Mind

I’m screwed however — and this is the rub. I am publishing this review on a self-hosted website and not in a paper of weighty repute.  I am not an institution, but at least, the fact of my self-publishing this review allows me to tell you how MIMI made me feel — and it made me feel GREAT. Hence I have used plenty of CAPITALISATION in my review — because MIMI even made me feel warm and important — and that’s impressive, because I am a man. It may make women feel even better.

Thing is bub, is that readers prefer to FEEL rather than THINK. If you listen to what readers say this becomes apparent, but it doesn’t work for reviewers, who must present an intellectual façade. Thus a reviewer can’t be happy or frustrated with a work of fiction, but must place it in an intellectual context, offering comparison and critiques that are not normally relevant to readers (but may be FASCINATING to other reviewers).

In these newspapers, which are primarily now websites anyway, writers therefore give description, critical analysis, and an evaluation on the quality, meaning, and significance of a book.   Reviews focus on a book’s purpose, content, and authority — and if the book has no purpose, content, and authority, reviewers actually ASSIGN purpose, content, and authority.  Reviews in this form are no use in the context of MIMI.  What Lucy Ellmann’s MIMI demands is feeling, and change, and any intellectual assessment otherwise is doomed to failure.

So — if there is one thing that MIMI by Lucy Ellmann has taught us, it’s that it’s best to tell everybody how you feel. MIMI is a book which requires devotion and full immersion from the reader. MIMI demands of you no less a feat that you complete the reading of it and then immediately set out to change the world.

What has been missed — I FEEL — is how different MIMI is from everything else that’s been published in the last while-or-so — how funny it is, and how it has the potential to effect this world change that it proposes.

I can’t overlook the importance of this final factor. Changing the world is something that we aspire to when young, and in capturing this enthusiasm, and presenting it simply, MIMI has achieved something vital that is lost in the general slow, cud-like consumption of books ‘n’ films. Stamp your feet — do a Howard Beale and rant that you are ‘mad as hell’ — because a modest novel like MIMI has told you how simple it is to perfect our world.

The answer is weirdly Obama-esque, in a punning sense at least — because it’s all about CHANGE. I’ll leave you to read the book yourself and find out how easy it is going to be.

(PB, Oct. 3, 2013)