A poet’s misadventures in erotica.
I’ve written prose. I’ve written several novels that no one has seen. Well, one was published.
My Mother Taught Me, an erotic novel, wasn’t it?
It’s about sexuality. You have to understand, people were writing sex books but no one was writing them well. I thought pornography should be as much of a genre as cowboy stories. But pornography is boring. Childish. Unhealthy. I thought, Why not have a novel of sexuality that’s not paralyzed by the need for orgasm? So I wrote a good pornographic novel to show it could be done. An enjoyment rather than a momentary excitement. There were so many pornographic novels written; why weren’t they effective? A momentary spasm. Some people will have an orgasm if you say a dirty word or say, What he did to her body was . . . But what if you approach it as a real novel? The idea of entertainment intrigued me at the time—so I wrote one.
—The Art of Poetry No. 91, 2005
Jack Gilbert, who would’ve been ninety today, actually published two erotic novels: My Mother Taught Me and Forever Ecstasy, both coauthored with Jean Maclean and published under the opaque nom de porn Tor Kung. Olympia Press, a short-lived purveyor of smut and other wonders, foisted both titles upon the unsuspecting public, and in time they became the most requested books in the publisher’s oeuvre.
The premise of My Mother Taught Me, which appeared in 1967, is absurd, even farcical—and in its outlandishness, it seems designed to effect what Gilbert called “an enjoyment rather than a momentary excitement.” But what kind of enjoyment? Our hero is Lars, a naive Swedish schoolboy who was raised in an all-male orphanage. The place was so strict, so straitlaced, that Lars in his nonage had never so much as laid eyes on a woman—not even a photograph of a woman.
Imagine his confusion and delight, then, when his foster family turns out to be full of beautiful women who partake of the new freedoms. He gawks and swoons and is promptly inducted into a realm of incest and carnal rapture that comes to consume every member of the household, including the family dog, Gustav. Even the novel’s dedication suggests a kind of sexual engulfment: “This book is for my wife Louise, that country of flesh inhabited who provides its major inspiration.”
“The immediacy of the writing here is perhaps unparalleled in erotic fiction, with our Lars so earnestly describing every new sensation,” the jacket copy reads. But despite praise like that, and despite what Gilbert says in his Art of Poetry interview, this is not a bottom-up reinvention of smut. Even as his prose is competent and often very funny in its heavy-handedness—he doesn’t hesitate to have Lars’s parents invoke Freud to justify their unfettered lifestyle—there’s not much to separate My Mother Taught Me from other “sex books.” It’s still rife with full buttocks, heaving breasts, downy hair, dreamy ecstasy, mounting passion, et cetera. I suppose there’s no way around such tropes, though Gilbert’s batty premise helps him swerve from a few clichés. This scene toward the beginning, in which Lars’s sister Gunilla first seduces him, gives a good sample of the novel’s charm and tedium:
“Do you feel this elastic band, Lars? Reach inside it now! Come on, don’t be afraid! Reach inside, Lars. I have some wonderful gifts for you in my pants. All you have to do is have the courage to push your hand under the elastic. Daddy gives me a hundred kroner just for this. I give it to you Lars, I give everything to you. Reach under, Lars. Feel in my pants. Feel me, little brother. Feel your little sister Gunilla.”
I timidly slipped my hand inside the band, and found the skin of her belly soft but firm. With growing interest and excitement I pushed it further, down. I encountered incredibly fine hair right above where I supposed her penis was.
Not long afterward, as if to subvert erotica’s schlocky norms, Gunilla begins a vocabulary lesson. “These are my tits, darling,” she says. “The people of the world call them mammary glands or mammae. The same dreary people with their withered souls call them bosoms. The ugly people call them boobs or boobies, or knockers, or cantaloupes, or headlights, or handles, or milk factories, or breastworks, or bumpers. You can call them breasts, and it’s all right, but they are really tits or titties.”
Gilbert has a way with metaphor, too. “Gunilla was screaming with me,” he ends the scene later, “as we burst together with the din of exploding cellos.”
From there, Lars undergoes a rollicking sentimental education, fucking his sister, mother, and maid in turn, often simultaneously. The sexual tension never really lets up—there’s no sign of the “momentary spasm,” because every moment contains a lifetime of spasms, whole orchestras of exploding cellos. “The book comes from the intense fringe end of the erotic spectrum,” one reviewer wrote, as one must, when a book culminates in a Doberman’s anal penetration of the maid.
My Mother Taught Me is titillating to excess, and it revels in a kind of tongue-lolling stupidity. But it’s also a knowing satire of sexual discovery, and believe it or not, it has an ethical code. This is a novel of free love, and I think Gilbert was doing more than simply getting his rocks off here. A part of him saw how a book like this could function, in its fucked-up hyperbolic way, as a metaphor for the ideal romance. He includes a philosophical, strangely tender epilogue in which he writes,
In total love, where touch, communication, lust, and spirit-intercourse are absolute—where we become so close not even a hair can pass between us—there woman is sister, daughter, lover, mother, whore, and friend, separately at some times, and totally, simultaneously at others. Man is her counterpart in each. Relationships and people atrophy when all these elements are not present between them. They thrive, mature, and flower only when they are.
I do not think finally that anyone can achieve his birthright—can be totally alive and beautifully whole without this relationship.
That’s a daringly sensitive way to cap off a novel that contains such phrases as “my tongue dug into her hole savoring the thick juice” and such questions as “How does it feel, Son, to see that you make Mother so hot it pours out of her?” It’s endearing to see how deeply Gilbert’s heart was in the right place, and it was smart of him to put this sort of disclaimer at the end of the book, where its effect is retroactive. Suddenly, you can read between the smutty lines of My Mother Taught Me and see some of the enchanting, lovelorn pleas from his poems: “Let me fall / in love one last time, I beg them. / Teach me mortality, frighten me / into the present. Help me to find / the heft of these days.”
Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.