This section contains 2,250 words
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Critical Review by John Updike
SOURCE: "A Materialist Look at Eros," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVI, No. 33, October 1, 1990, pp. 107-10.
Below, Updike describes Vargas Llosa's erotic novel, In Praise of the Stepmother, as a work that vividly and seriously treats the subject of sex and sensuality.
Literature owes a debt to the Peruvian electorate, for recently declining to elect Mario Vargas Llosa to the thankless position of being their President. So elegant, pessimistic, and Europeanized a literary performer's candidacy for this high office, amid the perils of terrorism and the sludge of daily speechifying, seems, at our distance, even more mysterious than Norman Mailer's campaign for the New York mayoralty or Gore Vidal's gracious offer, some years ago, to serve as a senator from California. Novelists presumably understand the workings of the world, and perhaps would govern no worse than lawyers, movie stars, or retired oilmen, but why anyone with an opportunity to create imperishable texts would want to exhaust his body and fry his brain in the daily sizzle of power brokerage lies quite beyond my own imagining. At any rate, the good people of Peru, with the masses' customarily sound instinct, turned from the novelist, once the odds-on favorite, to a Japanese-Peruvian agronomical engineer, thereby releasing Vargas Llosa to the contemplative solitude and part-time irresponsibility necessary for artistic creation. He has been prolific, producing plays and criticism as well as novels. While he was hiking the mountainous campaign trail, a naughty butterfly of a book by him was flitting from couch to couch in the lamplit dens of Spanish-language readers. Now this book, billed on the jacket as "a classic of eroticism," has been published in English, as In Praise of the Stepmother. It is, in our erotically retrenched nation, a startling document: not only would an American Presidential candidate not have written it but the National Endowment for the Arts wouldn't have given it a grant.
The stepmother is named Doña Lucrecia, and she lives in Lima and has just turned forty. Four months before her birthday, she married a widower, Don Rigoberto—a step taken with some trepidation, since "her first marriage had been a disaster and the divorce a nightmarish torment at the hands of money-grubbing shysters." Don Rigoberto is the prosperous general manager of an insurance company, collects erotic art, and has one son, Alfonso, by his previous marriage. The ages of the two males are never given, but Rigoberto seems at least fifty, or a lusty fifty-five, and his son, insistently described as a "little boy," ten or so. Perhaps eleven or twelve, considering the feats he comes to perform—but there is an artistic fudging here, tiptoeing as the writer is on the edge of the repulsively perverse. A comely black maid, Justiniana, rounds out the household, and devotees of erotica will perceive that this cast of characters allows for enough combinations to be satisfactory. Vargas Llosa, whose male-dominated fiction rarely possesses the heavy aura of sensual saturation present in Gabriel García Márquez or Saul Bellow, has announced, in interviews, a liking for frank eroticism in fiction. In his superb homage to Madame Bovary and Flaubert, The Perpetual Orgy—an extended critical work that also serves Vargas Llosa as a self-description—he states, "If I am left to choose between unrealities, the one closer to the concrete has my preference over the one that is abstract: I prefer pornography, for example, to science fiction, and sentimental stories to horror tales." One of the traits he loves in Emma Bovary and in her novel is concreteness, an unashamed materialism, "something that she and I share intimately: our incurable materialism, our greater predilection for the pleasures of the body than for those of the soul, our respect for the senses and instinct, our preference for this earthly life over any other." He goes on:
The ambitions that lead Emma to sin and death are precisely those that Western religion and morality have most savagely combated throughout history. Emma wants sexual pleasure, she is not resigned to repressing this profound sensual need that Charles is unable to satisfy because he doesn't even know that it exists; she wants to surround her life with pleasing and superfluous things, elegance, refinement, to give concrete form by way of objects to that appetite for beauty that her imagination, her sensibility, and her reading have aroused in her.
One wonders whether Flaubert would have ascribed to his heroine quite such nobility of rebellion; but the passion of his acolyte rings out with clarion effect, calling us all to realism, atheism, sensuality, and consumerism. Later in The Perpetual Orgy, however, Emma's confusion of love and expenditure, which brings her down, is described in phrases that, though still enthusiastic, suggest a process gone awry:
When Emma is in love, she needs to surround herself with beautiful objects, to embellish the physical world, to create a setting for herself as lavish as her sentiments. She is a woman whose enjoyment is not complete unless it takes on material form: she projects her body's pleasure into things, and things in their turn augment and prolong her body's pleasure.
The reification of passion begins to feel like a mistake; so, too, In Praise of the Stepmother, exploring its sexual theme to rigorous, materialist extremes, brings the reader up against the possible limits of his or her own commitment to sensuality.
Don Rigoberto, in his systematic religion of bodily love, flirts with grotesquerie. He has large ears, and his weekly cycle of ritual ablutions includes, on Wednesdays, laboriously cleansing them of wax and stray hairs. Then he utilizes these perfected organs as instruments of bliss:
"Let me hear your breasts," he would murmur, and amorously plugging his wife's nipples, first one and then the other, into the hypersensitive cavern of his two ears—which they fit into as snugly as a foot into a moccasin—he would listen to them with his eyes closed, reverent and ecstatic, his mind worshipfully concentrated as at the Elevation of the Host, till he heard ascending to the earthy roughness of each button, from subterranean carnal depths, certain stifled cadences, the heavy breathing, perhaps, of her pores opening, the boiling, perhaps, of her excited blood.
Anticipating further adventures in aural sex, he imagines his ears "avidly flattened against her soft stomach" and "could already hear the lively burbling of that flatus, the joyous cracking of a fart, the gargle and yawn of her vagina, or the languid stretching of her serpentine intestine." He anticipates, even, his marble tomb being engraved with the epitaph "Here lies Don Rigoberto, who contrived to love the epigastrium of his spouse as much as her vulva or her tongue." Behind this Rabelaisian comedy of organs a serious question is raised: What is love if it stops short at the beloved's digestive tract? Don Rigoberto's methodical and fanatical achievement is "to fall in love with the whole and with each one of the parts of his wife, to love, separately and together, all the components of that cellular universe." It is an achievement at which most mortals consciously or unconsciously balk, yet one that a thoroughly giddy passion, in its fever of cherishing, seems to command. Vargas Llosa's materialism defies us to set bounds to love's rampage of possession, of sensory consumption. Ideal love is an omnivorous monster.
The chapters of narrative development in In Praise of the Stepmother alternate with chapters of pictorial meditation, each incorporating a rather dinky color reproduction of a painting. The author is fond of such layered fictions, which alternate a detached narrative voice with slices of another substance—radio soap operas (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter), the hero's consciousness (The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta), Amazonian-Indian recitations (The Storyteller). The added liveliness and the doubled perspective are obtained at the price of author-consciousness, a stilting awareness of deliberate experimentation. Here, the tale itself being fanciful and parodic, the art essays almost seamlessly blend into the gauze of quaint artifice. The chapters on paintings of nudes by Jordaens, Boucher, and Titian seem rather arch and mannered, but the one on a reddish abstraction by Fernando de Szyszlo becomes a real poem on sexual merging, and the one on a bizarre head by Francis Bacon reawakens the central theme of erotic monstrosity. Bacon's expressionistically distorted head becomes a full-bodied freak, with stumps instead of arms and legs, a slit of an ear, a hideous mouth, an eye next to his mouth. Yet his sex organ is intact, and he does not lack for lovers: "Women even come to love me, in fact, and youngsters become addicted to my ugliness. In the depths of her soul, Beauty was always fascinated by the Beast." He gives his lovers "advanced instruction in the fine art of combining desire and the horrible so as to give pleasure"; they learn "that everything is and can be erogenous and that, associated with love, the basest organic functions, including those of the lower abdomen, become spiritualized and ennobled." The category of the spirit is a surprising one, especially on the same page as the breezy sentence "It is possible that God exists, but at this point in history, with everything that has happened to us, does it matter?" It matters in that dualism continues to give sex its spice, its sense of movement from one realm to another: sex is, our lovable monster tells us, a "descent into filth," whereby we recognize ourselves.
No two erotic works are quite alike; each author comes to reveal, in the repetition that soon sets in, his or her fetishes and hot spots. Vargas Llosa, through his psychosexual anatomy of the stepmother, brings forth the idea that voyeurism is exciting not only to the seer but to the seen. Knowing that her enraptured young stepson and admirer is viewing her from the bathroom skylight, Doña Lucrecia determinedly displays herself and assumes poses of "indecent abandon," as "a subtle way of punishing the precocious libertine crouched in the darkness up above, with images of an intimacy that would shatter, once and for all, that innocence that served him as an excuse for his boldness." Afterward, in bed, she experiences "hot flashes that, from time to time, electrified her nipples," and dreams a painterly dream of Titian's Diana and her attendant, named Justiniana, making love in the forest while a little goatherd, called Foncín, watches. His silent witness is stimulating: "As I descend through the tunnel of sensation and quiver in delicious little spasms, I divine the presence of Foncín…. His innocent little body, glistening with sweat as he watches me and takes his pleasure by watching me, contributes a note of tenderness that subtly shades and sweetens mine." The notion that being watched is aphrodisiac implies that sexuality has a social dimension. Though closeted, we make love in a crowd—of predecessors, of simultaneous entanglements, of romantic images the culture has provided, of personified superegos. A lot of sex is "showing" others, and not just those who are present. Without a surrounding society to defy, adulterous passion often wilts, and a daring elopement sinks into the ranch-house funk of socially approved marriage. Sixties-style sexuality, with its hot tubs and bustling crash pads, was on to something; promiscuity, at least until it turns into a quasi-religious, obligatory form of exercise, suits our interior multiplicity. Our anfractuous psyches generate complex structures of gratification. Doña Lucrecia, having committed adultery, feels certain that the new involvement, "however obscure and complicated, however difficult to explain, enriched her marital relation, taking it by surprise and thus giving it a fresh start." She has attained, in a happy word choice, "sovereignty":
One morning, on opening her eyes, the phrase "I have won sovereignty" came to her. She felt fortunate and emancipated, but could not have said what it was that she had been freed from.
Of course, like Emma Bovary, she is punished for her overreaching, and so is her unsuspecting husband; our erotic fabulist is a realistic novelist as well, and he does not exclude, as does the true pornographer, the tragic dimension. Yet we feel that Doña Lucrecia, by succumbing to the perverse and the dangerous, is more human than her husband, with his ridiculous, fussy, bowel-loving personal "utopia" of the body. She sins her way to sovereignty; he merely topples from paradise.
In Praise of the Stepmother is, like the author's other books, somewhat nasty. And its dramatization of corrupting innocence is not quite convincing—wicked little Alfonsito doesn't have the undeniable, quirky, heartbreaking sociological reality of Lolita. Vargas Llosa's moral—emphasized by an epigraph, from César Moro's "Amour à Mort"—seems to be that innocence and beauty have something sinister about them. To become human, we must make the descent into filth, into time. God Himself, Christianity claims, descended into Mary's womb. The last painting the author weaves into his text is Fra Angelico's Annunciation; he imagines the young Mary, confronted with a shimmering youth of an angel, asking herself, "Why did he call me queen? Why did I discover a gleam of tears in his eyes when he prophesied that I would suffer?" Love is a labyrinth we must enter even knowing that it holds the Minotaur of destruction. We leave much behind: "altruistic sentiments, metaphysics and history, neutral reasoning, good intentions and charitable deeds, solidarity with the species, civic idealism, sympathy toward one's fellow." It was a rare candidate for President who could put civic idealism in its place, and could hearken so attentively, in this impish and delicate yet fiercely serious work, to the dark complexity of sex, the epigastrium of love.
This section contains 2,250 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)