In The Flesh: Looking Back At Alina Reyes’ The Butcher

Remembering the most sensational and scandalous erotic novel of the 1980s.

Alina Reyes’ short novel The Butcher was originally published in Paris by Editions du Seuil in 1988, in the prestigious series Fiction et Cie, edited by Denis Roche, the ‘avant-garde’ poet and novelist who had become famous himself as a member of the Tel Quel group of intellectuals. Earlier, the recit, as the French tend to call such works, had won the Prix Pierre Louys, one of the numerous French literary prizes – though we should never put too great a store on their abundance of such prizes, except perhaps three or four that do mean something in terms of added sales and upward mobility in the career of the writer. The Butcher is a very slim work, printed in big type to make the book look more substantial. It is probably about 12,500 words long in English, little more than a short story in that respect. Shorter than The Image by Jean de Berg (Catherine Robbe-Brillet), but destined in its way to become a similarly famed erotic classic.

The Butcher became an international best-seller, and many wondered why, suggesting it was too close to comfort to Georges Bataille’s writings. Part of the answer probably lies in the fact that it was given a first-rate credential by being published not by a porn, erotic or ‘disreputable’ publisher, but instead bearing the imprint of an intellectual publisher and series (The Image likewise stemmed from Editions de Minuit, another impeccably-noted intellectual publisher). Also, The Butcher was written by a woman, and there are few erotic works written by women – The Story of O being the most renowned.

And yet that still does not answer the question, for other women have tried to establish themselves with erotic works. Why is this one different? I think there are two answers: the attitude of the author and the essence of the book, a focus on flesh.

Alina Reyes is the pseudonym of a young journalist (who was thirty-two when the book was first published) called Aline Philippon. The pseudonym was not used to hide her identity, as is often the case with erotic writings for whatever reason, but to separate her journalism from this other field she suddenly started to explore – fiction. Alina Reyes is, in fact, the character in a story by Julio Cortazar, one of Philippon’s favourite writers. Thus it is a tribute to him and to ‘fantastic’ literature, the area of writing that interested her most. In interviews, she cited Kafka, Poe and Nerval as other examples.

Alina Reyes, the author, wrote The Butcher over an eight-day period, when she found herself with free time from her job, and with her children away from home. She states she wrote it in bed as it was the most comfortable place to work. “I only got up to drink coffee. I was completely euphoric.” Though she admits she had read some Sade and Bataille – as indeed many intelligent French people have – as she notes, her intention was not to write an erotic book as such. She was not aiming to add to that genre, or to create a best-seller. She had a subject that she wanted to explore and she set about it. Though at fourteen she had worked in her vacations in a butcher’s, she insists that the story of the sexual relationship between the butcher and the young girl owes nothing to her own circumstances. What lingered for her was the look and smell of the flesh handled, cut and sold by the butcher, and the relationship between that dead meat and the living meat of his body and the young girl’s. “Perhaps it was at that moment that I understood the relationship existing between meat, the treatment the butcher inflicted on it, sexuality and eroticism.” In other words, it was a story spun from a meditation on the nature of flesh itself. “Our society admires the body, glorifies it in aerobics, jogging, pursues it with youth, but never speaks of the flesh, of true eroticism. They want to make us believe that we are glorious beings, who venture now and again into some small deviations.”

Whilst the image of the butcher is an image that appears in Bataille and others, particularly in France where the butcher’s is a key shop even in a small village, it is the focus on flesh that is at the centre of this novel. All erotic works that have become seminal have done so because they are distinct in essence from others. Bataille’s Story of the Eye, and Madame Edwarda, and My Mother, Aragon’s Irene, Reage’s Story of O, de Berg’s The Image and the others one can list, are all original in their essence. I would suggest that it is as a result of this meditation on flesh, and the fact that the author did not set out to write a sexual work or a best-seller, that it has attained its celebrity status. The author herself was surprised by the attention and by the idea that it could be called pornography. “Pornography is the degeneration of sexuality, the absence of phantasms, which express themselves most often through an inflated style, abusive use of superlatives, and imperfect subjunctives. All that I have tried to avoid.”

PAUL BUCK

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