A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This is the erotic tale of Melanie and the snake.
In the early 1990s, when I began to write fiction charting the confluence between realism and mysticism, I’d been reading widely for a number of years and had joined a writers’ group, but apart from occasional performances in bars and arts centres, I’d had no connection with published writers or the wider arts world.
So, as I crossed into my thirties, there I was, immersed in the neurotic tedium of life and death and scribbling only in stolen moments.
My frustration drove me to imagine myself penning a soppy women’s romance, a ‘Mills and Boon’. This was in the days when these saccharine novellas – ‘Nurse-Meets-Doctor-And-Falls-In-Love’ – did not permit even an improper kiss in print. And so, one day I emerged from the public library with a pink brace of Mills and Boonses, bookended by two very large, very dry chemistry texts – the sidelong glances from the (female) librarian with (I kid you not) half-moon spectacles were priceless! Yes, I read all twelve. Well, read one and skimmed the rest.
So, in my existential psychosis, I decided that if I couldn’t get one of these published, it would mean that I couldn’t write. I would set it in contemporary London and the protagonist would be a lower-middle class woman who, while on holiday on the Med, would fall in love with a sophisticated Portuguese gigolo.
I started the story in as anodyne a way as I could imagine: Lucy leaves the typing-pool at the weekend and discovers a letter on her doormat…
But if these novels are tedious to read, they’re utterly mind-numbing to write, though I do admire those who write them; it requires a particular kind of skill and control. The characters rebelled on page thirteen. It was nothing to do with me. They refused to adhere to Mills and Boon’s rules. What can one do? And as the book progressed, the narrative descended (or ascended, depending on your point-of-view) through the muscular glitz of Jackie Collins and on, and on, deeper and deeper, until it embraced the foetid darkness of the Marquis de Sade and the art-bizarre of George Bataille (‘The Story of the Eye’), Anaïs Nin (‘The Delta of Venus’) and the works of strange, cultish Spanish writers who, in a final act of sado-masochism, burn themselves to death in Madridan hotel rooms.
But it was also necessary that I explore the pubescent mundanity of those glossies sometimes enveloped in blue plastic that one can buy in most South Asian-run corner-shops in Britain. Dear readers, imagine, for a moment, the vignette of my embarrassment at having to walk into a store in an area where I felt I and my family would not be known and purchase six of the best of these from the jovial Punjabi shopkeeper only to discover by the time I reached the till that I was short of change and consequently having to leave the long queue of amused fellow-customers for an excruciating few seconds in order assiduously to restore exactly one-third of the magazines to their allotted and rightful positions on the top shelf. As I undertook this dyspractic ritual, one guy shouted out:
“Eh, man, don’t put that one back, it’s a really good one!”
“Uhm, actually, I’m, uh, I’m writing a novel…”
That’s when I became Melanie Desmoulins. Melanie means, ‘black’ and ‘Desmoulins’ is an allusion to Jacobin poet and friend of Danton, Camille Desmoulins, as well as to the Moulin Rouge, the Miller’s Daughter, etc. So, meet ‘Black Desmoulins’, the highwayman-author!
Naturally, I had to modulate the beginning of the book to accord with the more torrid tone of the remainder. Lucy – named after serpentine Lucifer, Angel of Light – becomes a pornographic acolyte of the Algarvian albino, Bartolomeo and finally, in a definitively pagan, shape-shifting climax, herself becomes the magus of this ex-pat English erotic cult.
The prose style hovers disconcertingly between literary eroticism and straight pornography, but is written in an empowering manner from the point-of-view of the female protagonist. As well as post-C18th texts, I drew on older classics such as Sheikh Nefzawi’s ‘Perfumed Garden’ and then reversed the perspective (so to speak). I discovered afterwards that during the 1990s, there were a number of women authors working in this parodic and often misogynistic genre who were attempting to write alternative, arguably feminist, narratives.
I penned the first draft of ‘The Snake’ – around 55,000 words – partly on my first PC and partly longhand sitting outside in the back garden of my suburban house during the uncharacteristically hot summer of 1995, in around five weeks. Then it went through nine months of multiple drafts. Then I – or rather, ‘Melanie’ – sent it off.
‘The Snake’ was ‘accepted overnight’, by which I mean literally that the editor read it one night and wrote to ‘Melanie’ the next morning. I hadn’t lied by commission; I simply had stated that ‘Melanie Desmoulins’ was a pseudonym. But I suspect that the impression gained was of some sultry dame in her twenties, sitting on her own in a room, writing hot prose.
I revealed my true identity only at the point of signing the contract. Not that there was much money in it. And just imagine taking ‘The Snake’ along to your mother: “Hey, Mum, this is my first novel! Want to read it?”
But I’d proved that I could write, and have published, a novel. Whether through Eros, Thanatos or the art of the Muses, I had developed substantially as a writer and subsequently was able to apply this praxis to future works. Furthermore, I am able to conjure up a mean sex scene! On the page, that is.
One of the best arguments for taking erotic fiction seriously in English-language literature (it already is taken seriously in the literatures of many other languages) was penned by the late, great Susan Sontag in her preface to ‘The Story of the Eye’. Also, I really don’t buy the rather snobbish and artificial division sometimes erected between ‘erotic’ and ‘pornographic’ writing. It’s a continuum (and yes, I am aware of the etymologies, histories, patriarchies and criminalities concerned); sure, there’s a lot of trash at the bottom of the barrel – but that’s equally true of f-ing ‘Home Counties’ novels, of which there are far too many published. In effective fiction, ideas arise from the physical and so such boundaries become meaningless.
But then, I’m the author of ‘The Snake’, a book which is a paean to the demonic and Luciferine, to the Great Alchemical Ouroboros and the bestial darkness that lies within us all.
Now if that doesn’t begin to turn you on, I don’t know what will.
Melanie D still appears on occasion, as a footnote or a reference, or indeed, a ‘research assistant’. But really, she is visible, audible, tactile, in every piece of fiction and drama that I have written since ‘The Snake’. My new novel, ‘Joseph’s Box’, features a quite different female protagonist. But Melanie is there, somewhere, everywhere. Actually, I wouldn’t mind meeting her someday.
Photo by Basharat Khan.
This article was first run on Vulpes Libris back in August 2009.