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Cougar Lit, Gender Confusion

August 20, 2010 | by

Is there a story or book that can shed light on whether a woman should sleep with men she doesn't love or know very well? Younger men, specifically? —A. Chesterfield

You're in luck! This is pretty much the animating question behind French literature of the last two hundred years, starting with Adolphe (no) and ending with The Sexual Life of Catherine M. (yes). No book puts the question more starkly than Colette's masterpiece, Cheri (yes and no: sex is tragic). Non-French novels have reached some memorable conclusions of their own. Good Morning, Midnight, for instance (sex is tragic: get me a drink), or The Piano Teacher (hell no). (But skip it and see the movie.)

Most novels, it has to be said, fall into the no column. The stories of Maupassant give one long resounding yes. You might begin with "A Country Excursion." This story shocked Tolstoy, with good reason—it is a cannon-blast against the nos. The movie version, Jean Renoir's A Day in the Country, is lighter hearted. And if light-hearted is what you want, check out the Hungarian Stephen Vizincey's 1965 novel In Praise of Older Women or Mario Vargas Llosa's linked bagatelles In Praise of the Stepmother and The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (yes, yes, yes, yes, YES).

I'm increasingly confused about gender. Thoughts? —M. V.

Don't say "their" when you mean "his or her"; read Orlando and Middlesex.

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  1. Mary E. Martin | August 20, 2010 at 3:15 pm

    For the disastrous situation where a father sleeps with a daughter entirely innocently, like Oedipus and his mother, try “The Drawing Lesson, the first in the Trilogy of Remembrance. Celia, a character in the novel, may cause you to rethink your motivations.

  2. Peter | August 21, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Mary, I think you mean Electra, not Oedipus.

  3. Paul | August 21, 2010 at 11:27 am

    Does anyone over the age of about eleven really learn anything about sex and gender from books?

  4. M.M. | August 21, 2010 at 11:46 am

    Here here Paul, what is not felt is neither learned nor remembered

  5. Lorin Stein | August 21, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    That is a pessimistic view! Paul and M.M., it sounds as if you’re both lucky enough to have figured things out at an early age. Not everybody does. I have friends who have found themselves suddenly confused about things they thought they understood–even the most basic things. Whether it’s sex, or religion, or age, or how to live. To admit that, and to read around the source of one’s confusion, strikes me as an admirable and healthy thing to do. Wouldn’t you agree?

  6. Meghan | August 21, 2010 at 1:57 pm

    I’d count it a dull life (or a tragic one) if I knew everything there was to know, and had no opportunities to learn (from books AND experience) after the age of eleven. Thank authors and libraries for books that are there for the reader, no matter what period of learning, no matter what topic of learning.

  7. M.M. | August 22, 2010 at 12:05 am

    To paraphrase the first question, “Is there a book that can tell me whether or not to sleep with someone?”

    Answer: Yes. The Bible, and the phonebook.

    In short, there is learning and there is learning. On the topic of sex, try magazines, but not necessarily the “literary” kind.

  8. Lorin Stein | August 22, 2010 at 10:13 am

    The Bible and the phonebook! M.M., you just made me laugh on a rainy Sunday. Thank you.

  9. W | August 22, 2010 at 8:32 pm

    Sex and religion and how to live—if those are the “most basic things”, I can only imagine what’s on the more complicated list! I agree that it’s good to read for clues, and I do it all the time myself, but there are limitations too. Like what Sartre said about knowing the answer you want according to whom you pose the question—the sinner to his priest vs. his most louche friend, etc. What if we’re doing that with our reading habits? And sometimes I also wonder if it’s possible to think myself out of the murk that the thinking got me into in the first place—which, in a sense, is kind of the logic that got Bush elected for a second term..

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