XY: Psst, XX. Hey.
XY: I didn’t wake you, did I? I know it’s late but I can’t sleep. I remembered I wanted to talk to you about a particularly exquisite little book, a minor masterpiece of Swedish modernist erotica called The Black Curve.
XX: Barely asleep—you know what a restless mind I have. But does it have to be now? I was having the most delightful half-drifting dream, and the remnants of it are still lingering quite pleasurably…
XY: Literature will not wait, darling. Throw on your silk kimono—the long black one with the gold flowers—and come into the library. I’ll pour us a couple of drinks.
XX: Very well, XY. Talking books with you is always a pleasure. But I think you will owe me another kind of pleasure afterwards.
XY: Agreed. Are you settled nicely? Now—the book. Rut Hillarp (1914-2003), the Swedish novelist and poet who wrote The Black Curve, which is an excerpt from the novel Blodförmörkelse (1951)—I don’t know the English translation because none of Hillarp’s work has been translated into English until now—well, darling XX, what can you tell me about her?
XX: Hillarp is an absolute hidden gem. I bought The Black Curve on a bit of a whim, so she was unknown to me as well, but I was immediately drawn by the first sentences. It set me aflame, in a sort of rage of understanding: ‘I don’t believe you waited long enough for me… I asked for you to wait as a period of gestation during which your desires would consolidate.’ The arrogance of ‘Man’, as he is known throughout the text—just as the female character is ‘Woman’—was nevertheless irresistibly arousing. It’s a thrilling contradiction, one that gives you an immediate taste of Woman’s masochistic desires—although my first impulse was to slam the book down and walk away in a huff of pride on her behalf! But part of me also understood it, because even though I haven’t been told those exact words by a man, I have written similar lines myself. The sentiment is a painful but familiar one to most women, I think, and the complexity only compounds the excitement, or vice-versa. Within masochism lies arrogance as well as desire, and a special kind of hurt that clings to the idea of lust like ivy on a wall. That she expressed it so precisely, so eloquently, was perfect.
XY: In one of our highly sexed and gossip-filled private conversations recently, XX, you mentioned that you’d chatted briefly to Saskia Vogel in London recently. I know her name from Granta, right? What else has she done? And why do you think she chose this writer and this text to translate for Readux, the Berlin-based publisher of fabulously smutty and elegant little books?
XX: Our meeting was all too brief, but certainly charming. According to an article Vogel wrote in Music & Literature, she had already translated Fantasy by Malte Persson for Readux. They were looking for something else to complete their Sex series, and Hillarp came up when she Googled ‘forgotten Swedish eroticist’—as you do! Wonderfully serendipitous, for her as well as for us, considering we first discovered Readux when we reviewed Joanna Walsh’s Grow a Pair. You know that books, sex, and philosophy are my three favourite subjects—I’d have loved to have spoken more to her about erotic literature and the philosophies behind it.
XY: One of the great themes of this book is infidelity. Man uses his other lovers as a favourite weapon in the games he plays with Woman (perhaps she does too, I can’t recall; but she is the primary masochist, so the explicit suffering is hers). Is he being simply cruel, or generously, playfully, cruel-to-be-kind cruel?
It seems to me that some women hate such games, and some love them … and then some think they hate it but find they love it, and some play at loving cruelty but hate it quietly to themselves. Can we know our own desires? Can we know for sure whether we love to be cruel, or to have a lover be cruel to us? I suppose the only way to know for sure is thorough experimentation, and then it always depends who is holding the whip.
XX: It is in most natures to shun cruelty in any form, no matter how small. And yet to experience it even minutely within the sexual context—to enjoy it, no less—must make us shiver not a little with the sheer contradiction of feeling. We are not de Sades, constantly seeking the extremities of feeling as the only worthwhile ones. I think of it as the fascination with fire. To place one’s fingers close to the flame, momentarily in it—to pull back, wondering what draws us, unable to quite explain why, other than there is a kind of beauty in pain that does so.
XY: She—Woman, I mean—speaks of her frustration at desiring men generally: ‘Barbarians. Egoists. Idiots.’ ‘One should love women’, she says. It is hard to disagree, even as a man. We’re a filthy, selfish bunch. Do you ever feel that tragedy of attraction, and the perverse relationship between repulsion and desire?
XX: Again, the idea of the fire: we say love is only ever simple or complex—as if there were no nuance. There are degrees of burns. So there are in love. If there is tragedy, it is that we often do not recognise how deeply we are being burned (or burning others) by our desires until we see its damage.
XY: I have a random question. Is it shallow to feel a conflict of interest between my head and my trousers when I read erotic lit? If I expect no titillation, nothing to make the blood surge, then I can concentrate, committing my brain to untangling modernist word games. But if I’m led to expect sex—by a naked figure on the cover, say—I must admit I read differently, skipping through the pages with voracious eyes. Some writers succeed in interweaving sex and philosophy in a way that keeps me always pleasantly on edge, and in fact that is my favourite kind of reading. But I find it rare. How is it for you, XX?
XX: ‘Conflict of interest’ doesn’t seem right. There should be harmonious conflict, perhaps. Erotic lit has something of a strange reputation—as if it only resided in the highbrow or the lowbrow. I think we know that our tastes are varied. Would the Hillarp fans touch Fifty Shades? Would a Fifty Shades fan ever have heard of Réage (Desclos)? I don’t feel that I should ever expect or not to be aroused by reading. That is the beauty, especially with erotic literature. Do not expect, just experience. That is the way one should approach sex, no? Because then your mind and body are free to interact the way they should—that is, instinctually.
The sex here is cerebral and austere —as tightly strung as the steel strings of a violin. You need to pluck at them and feel the melodious pain in their reverberations. Yes, Hillarp’s writing is different to anything I’d experienced before, but it was a revelation, in a way. And as someone who once played a string instrument, reading her prose was like remembering sore fingers, beauty that comes from pain. If you aren’t used to playing, then your fingers hurt from touching the tight metal. There are a lot of similarities that can be drawn from playing and the masochism in the story.
XY: Beautifully put, XX. But there is another thing—I fear this is becoming a confessional! When I expect sex in a book I read every word in the light of its sexual connotation. I can’t help it. When I read ‘come’ I tend to think of someone coming. Whether you or me or my Italian ex, a figure writhing in ecstasy flashes into my mind. The text seems compromised. Or is the reading experience heightened? Again, it depends …
XX: Does ‘come’ automatically mean unrestrained release to you? I’ve come many times in the most deliberately restrained manner—the violence of that pleasure sometimes rivals letting go completely. What you call compromise here is like a corset. Bind yourself in her words, XY, and see how much more heightened your (reading) pleasure can be.
XY: I will take your excellent advice, XX. Say, didn’t you love this passage—the one that gives The Black Curve its title?
‘What are you painting?
—Love. The towers and the valley of dreams. Charting curves that aren’t found in books. This one here shows what it’s like when I’ve waited a few days: it shoots straight up for ten minutes, followed by waves with increasing distance between the peaks, and peaking in different ways. Meanwhile, the red curve is climbing steadily, that’s happiness; the black is pleasure, and as you can see, it reaches its climax later, it can take a few minutes, and then it stays up.
—For how long?
—It depends on how ravenous you are and how long you’ve been at it. An hour, half a day. Or until the next time you become cruel. This one shows what it’s like if you’re not in love: there’s no red curve at all, the black one rises straight up …’
(Incidentally, this passage fulfils both my criteria outlined above. Everything is fully engaged/engorged, and the sexual connotations are presumably not at all misplaced.)
XX: Yes, it was incredibly beautiful in its—minimalism, I think. It made me think of Japanese calligraphy, which has been on my mind lately anyway—again, the theme of restraint. Each stroke of brush on paper means something, and every movement is focused on creating that meaning before you. The black curve is calligraphy in the same way that it is music notes. And perhaps in another way, the black curve is an equation. But it fills me—to put it less eloquently than you have—with a hunger to think and fuck, which brings inexpressible pleasure.
Can you have the red curve without the black, the black without the red? I think it depends on your level of discipline. How do we compartmentalise ourselves? We did speak last time of masks, didn’t we, XY? Hillarp’s curves are not so different.
XY: Absolutely, I see the connection. Now I hope this doesn’t annoy you, XX, but did the writing in this masterpiece of Swedish eroticism ever feel a bit, I don’t know, too European? Coldly detached, a touch of the absurd, full of proclamations about men and women and life? Of course it makes good cafe reading, this type of book. But did you have to read it with kid gloves on, or through the lens of a certain period?
XX: I’d like to stop your mouth right now, XY. Absurd, no, never. If she is absurd then so am I, so are many women who puzzle over their lovers in such a way—from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. There is always horror and strangeness in the indefinable when one’s mind is allowed to wander, especially when it comes to love and lust. And there is always, no matter how implausibly a sentence reads, a certain truth.
But this black curve is as sharp as it is smooth—and here is your lens, XY. Yes, you must look at it through one. How else can pleasure be so painful?
Tell me, is the masochism of Woman a fault or a pleasure? It is, I have said before, a peculiar type of hurt, the one to be had from lust. I’m not sure—could it ever be from genuine love as well, or is it just a strange spectre that haunts lust, to make her feel so? Could a love like that only be a peripheral one, and so even more distracting, elusive, and most of all, wanted? Or is it that masochists cannot ever love in the way we understand it—do they hurt themselves with love because they know something in them will forever reject it? This line: ‘I’m not jealous of what they are getting, but of what I’m not getting.’ This was an incredibly painful line to me. It brought back the memory of a love—if you can call it that, because it was so complex in its way—he wanted to love me, and I, him, but I couldn’t, because he had a whole life outside of me. What he wanted to give me was flesh, but his life would not allow it in the way I needed it. Above all, he wanted to give me love that was beyond flesh. And being so firmly tied to its pleasures, I could never grasp the concept of his love fully—so I rejected it, then came back to it, rejected it again, and became stuck in a loop of hurt and desire. ‘And I knew the loneliness had begun. Not always external, but internal.’
I think it was de Beauvoir who said ‘All oppression creates a state of war’. Masochism seems to be the oppression of pleasure to gain it, and yet it always begins with self, not another person, does it not, XY? The black curve is beautiful, but also a battle-flag raised high over the body.
XY: I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the bottom of that one, if you’ll excuse the dreadful pun. She does state clearly what she gains from the affair at one point: ‘I could let him master me because his power play wasn’t real, it was only erotic.’ Then there is brilliant distinction she makes between their form of role-play and plain, stupid misogyny:
‘When other men wanted to force me into things, I revolted against them: they were simply being careless, they weren’t even aware of the erotic potential of the situation. … I derived nothing from bending to their will.’
Despite Nabokov’s warning not to identify with characters in books, I found myself switching allegiance between Man and Woman throughout my reading of The Black Curve. At times I naturally sympathised with her, even felt her attraction to his arrogant cruelty; at other times I wanted to be cruel like him, to watch her suffer (pleasurably). In a sense this was an optimal reading experience.
XX: And I, XY. But is that not to fully immerse oneself in the sexual experience—to feel, understand the wants of both sexes?
XY: One further question, XX. More than anything I found that the book captured the passionate intensity, the absolute pain and pleasure, the complete obsession of a great affair. But it also suggests that this feeling cannot be sustained. ‘Marriage is fellowship, warmth’, one character says, for example. ‘If you want eroticism, you have to look for it outside of marriage.’ The institution of marriage aside, do you think that erotic experience must be fleeting by nature, ‘To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame’ in Pater’s words?
XX: I can only say I hope not, XY. Maybe the secret is always to tend the flames—whether in affairs or marriage—and never let it burn out of control, or go out completely. Now please, come away from the library and back to bed—there will be no flag over me, but you know how to read the colours of my curves all the same…