From Toi, ma nuit to Sexualis ’95 – the story of a strange novel that mixes nihilism and hedonism into a very 1960s French study of obsession and ennui.
By and large, existential French literature is not the sort of thing that your average English-language paperback reader is generally drawn to. That was true in the 1960s as it is today, even though the Sixties saw serious and intellectual French cinema having something of a golden age in terms of international appeal, with the films of the Nouvelle Vague directors like Jean-Luc Godard having a level of populist commercial success that would be unthinkable now. Of course, this was often less to do with the films’ intellectual bent, experimental style and furious Marxist philosophies and more to do with a loosening of censorship in both the USA and the UK. Continental films of all sorts were sold to English-speaking audiences on the basis of their daring ideas and provocative nudity more than their artistic value, at least for a while – and while we can scoff at that now, it was an effective way of introducing audiences who might have otherwise shunned subtitled movies to these filmmakers, allowing their work to be seen much more widely and making them names that audiences would eventually flock to even when home-grown films began featuring similar levels of teasing nudity and sexual frankness. Sex – not for the last time – proved a great Trojan Horse for breaking what might have otherwise been difficult works into the mainstream.
What worked for movies could also work for literature. Jacques Sternberg’s 1965 novel Toi, ma nuit was in many ways typical of his work – a cynical, misanthropic dystopian tale set in a 1995 future where sexual hedonism was the norm, reducing the taboo to the banal. In a world where every movie was an erotic movie, every advertisement featured nudity and casual sex was not only accepted but expected – with sex workers included in the price of a cinema or train ticket, for instance – the ultimate act of rebellion is to fall in love and become fixated on one person, which our narrator – and advertising executive already bored with the ubiquity of sexual liberation – does, becoming obsessed with Michèle, a woman so spectacularly bored and dismissive of everything (including the narrator) that it becomes almost laughable – at times, this studied ennui and aloofness feels like one of those comedy sketch satires of the French New Wave, where everyone is stylish, gorgeous and indifferently self-absorbed. It is, in short, very much of its time.
It never becomes dull – the New English Library edition that I have is just 123 pages long, which feels almost like a short story by modern literary standards – and is full of fascinating little touches and amusing moments exploring both the sexual excess of the age (a trip to the cinema to see ‘The Rape of Frankenstein’ which includes trailers for ‘Dracula vs the Nymphomaniacs’ and ‘Sade, You’re a Prude’) and the studied boredom of the narrator, who finds it all so tedious but nevertheless engages in mechanical sex with an available usherette in said cinema. What’s most interesting now – apart from the relentless existentialism – is how this view of a sexually liberated future reflects the attitudes of the time – and, perhaps, of the French intellectuals of the time. This is very much a male liberation – while women can have casual sex with multiple partners, they still have a very passive role in everything – the sex workers are all women, the erotic advertising features naked women and eroticism often seems to equal female nudity. This might be a world free of sexual judgement and hypocrisy, but it is still a very male-dominated world. Even Michèle is ultimately little more than an obscure object of desire – though the story’s rather abrupt and nihilistic ending also suggests that she might be an alien or a time traveller – or both.
Belgian-born Sternberg had a long and respected career as a novelist in Paris, lasting from 1953 to 1995, and his novels were often science fiction works, featuring dystopian views of a near-future that reflected a paranoia and disdain for modern life – in some ways (at least thematically) his work reflects that of J.G. Ballard, making the faceless city into something that dehumanises its inhabitants. There is also an absurdist humour running through the novels, including Toi, ma nuit – this is, after all, a world where sexual freedom has become repressive for anyone who doesn’t buy into the new conformity – less liberation, more a new set of rigid social norms that are as constrictive as the old ones. The novel is a hand-wringing romance based around obsession and boredom, but it still recognises the absurdity of the world it occupies.
However, Toi, ma nuit had something that Sternberg’s other novels didn’t have, which made it attractive to English-language publishers in 1967 and that was Sex. The actual sex scenes in the novel are not especially graphic, at least by modern standards – they might have seemed a bit more provocative in 1967, especially at a time when literary works were still being hauled through the British courts on obscenity charges, but there is no explicit detail. On the other hand, the entire book is about sex and that was enough to attract the attention of publishers looking to exploit a public hunger for erotica, smut and all points in between. It’s worth noting that moral mores and censorship rules had shifted so quickly in the 1960s that Sternberg’s future probably didn’t seem as absurd as it does now.*
Of course, this was perhaps too slight and too sexy a novel to sell as serious modern literature to the sort of people who read serious modern literature – and in any case, the whole reason that this book was being published in an English translation (by Lowell Bair) was to sell it as a sexy, edgy work – “the most controversial novel since George Orwell’s 1984“ as the NEL blurb claimed. ‘You, My Night’ clearly wasn’t quite the snappy title required for the mass market and so the English title became the rather blunter Sexualis ’95. The US version appeared in 1967 via Berkely Medallion books complete with a solarised nude image on the cover – a pseudo-erotic image that was nevertheless strange and otherworldy enough to arguably capture the feel of the book’s strange obsessions. Two years later, the NEL edition appeared in the UK with a rather less artistic and more obviously erotic image of a smiling naked girl hunched over in an awkward pose. This did not quite reflect the novel’s angst-ridden cynicism and when I first found the book as a teenager keen on both smut and science fiction, I found myself very disappointed with the book. It was only on finding another copy of the novel a few years ago that I could appreciate it for what it was rather than what it was missold as.
The novel didn’t make Sternberg an international success – it’s easy to suggest that its misselling as erotica meant that English intellectuals refused to take him seriously as a writer but in truth, none of his ten previous novels had been translated and only one would be subsequently (Futurs sans Avenir, a 1971 story published in the US in 1974 as Future Without Future). While critics love the idea of dabbling in erotica killing someone’s career, that’s hardly the case here – Sternberg wrote over 20 subsequent novels and had a good reputation in his native country; the year after Sexualis ’95 appeared in US bookstores, he wrote the time travel movie Je t’aime Je t’aime for filmmaker Alain Renais – a film that seems to combine the obsessions of both artists perfectly and remains one of the great underrated works of 1960s French cinema.
Perhaps inevitably, Sexualis ’95 would seem not to have been reprinted in English since the initial US and UK editions, though it has seen later editions in France. As both the original novel and the misrepresented English language editions, it was very much of its time and place. But stripped of the baggage of false advertising and pulp fiction sensationalism, this is a fascinating slice of existentialism that would certainly appeal to fans of 1960s French cinema and admirers of satirical dystopian fiction. It probably deserves rediscovery, maybe with the original title’s translation restored – though I have to say that Sexualis ’95 is a great, evocative and provocative name**. Sternberg’s work as a whole seems fascinating and deserving of translation for a wider market. He died, aged 83, in 2006 and really ought to be better known than he is. While this novel is not a lost masterpiece, it is fascinating and strange – and I’d love to read more of his writing.
* Some would argue that we really have entered this hedonistic world, with freely available porn and a degree of sexual liberation perhaps unthinkable in 1967 – but we also have a large and vocal group of moralisers and censors battling to control what we can see and we arguably are more paranoid and uptight about sexual behaviour than ever.
** In early 1994, plans were afoot for a three-day British summer festival of sexual liberation, erotica and fetishism, to be called… Sexualis 95. The event finally fell apart under the weight of its own ambitions and a splintering production team.
Like what we do? Support us and help us do more!