BY Brian Dillon in Opinion | 19 DEC 23
Featured in
Issue 239

Catherine Millet’s Scandalous Confessions

How do we read The Sexual Life of Catherine M in the age of #MeToo and autofiction?

BY Brian Dillon in Opinion | 19 DEC 23

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 239, ‘Re-evaluations

The art critic Catherine Millet’s first memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M., was published in France in 2001, and had already sold more than 300,000 copies by the time it appeared in English the following year. There were diverse critical responses to Millet’s unashamed account of her life of impressive sexual liberty. In The New Yorker, Judith Thurman complained that Millet’s seemingly blithe confession was ‘an act of self-mortification more hard-core than any in the text’. Jenny Diski, writing in the London Review of Books, questioned Millet’s claim to be without guilt: ‘You cheer her on and hope it’s true. It would be nice if someone had got away scot-free.’ As a lapsed Catholic and apprentice critic, I liked the book and said so in print. I remember having dinner with a frieze editor who was aghast at my enthusiasm: did I not see, behind Millet’s willed debasements, a story of unrestrained misogyny?

Two decades and more after its scandalizing arrival, The Sexual Life of Catherine M. seems instructive in at least three ways: as an assuredly pre-#MeToo statement about sexual ethics, as a complex instance of authorial self-promotion – a book of her husband’s nude photographs of Millet appeared shortly after the memoir – and, perhaps most interestingly, as a precursor to more recent critical fretting about confession and autofiction. In the early 2000s, it was mostly detail and repetition that affected readers, whether they found themselves rapt or censorious in the face of her exploits. Millet was born in 1948; her adolescent adventures in group sex later turned into a determined commitment (which can seem almost comically 1970s) to orgies and swingers’ clubs. In her book, the male participants blur into uncountable anonymity: ‘Today, I can account for forty-nine men whose sexual organs have penetrated mine and to whom I can attribute a name or, at least, an identity.’

Catherine Millet, The Sexual Life of Catherine M., 2014, book cover. Courtesy: Serpent’s Tail
Catherine Millet, The Sexual Life of Catherine M., 2014, book cover. Courtesy: Serpent’s Tail

I think it was Millet’s interest in numbers, in time and in space that initially attracted me to her book:

a Sadean inexorability, a near-situationist focus on the aleatory progress of a secret society of swingers through Paris – a city made of night-time offices, museum storerooms, cars parked out of the way in the Bois de Boulogne. Less persuasive, I had to admit, was the author’s invoking of a philosophical lineage of French erotomania.

A single fleeting and glib reference to the influence on her generation of Georges Bataille seemed quite removed from the actual perplex of sexual politics and metaphysical thought in the decades Millet describes. At the time of its publication, no less a commentator than Jean Baudrillard expressed doubts about Millet’s claims and attitudes: ‘“To think like a woman undresses,” Bataille used to say. Perhaps, but Catherine Millet’s naiveté is to think that people undress in order to get naked, to reach the naked truth about sex and about the world’ (‘Dust Breeding’, 2001).

The aleatory progress of a secret society of swingers through Paris

For Baudrillard, The Sexual Life of Catherine M. was of a piece with the rise of reality television; Loft Story, a French iteration of the Big Brother format and franchise, had first been broadcast in April 2001. The implication, hardly confined to French culture, was that there existed a literature indistinguishable from the worst, self-exposing and self-aggrandizing, excesses of popular culture. It is hard now quite to recapture the widespread contempt for revelation or confession itself. It was still a time in which, in the wake of certain books of the 1990s, a person spoke disparagingly of the ‘misery memoir’, whether abject-glamorous (Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, 1994) or mainstream-sentimental (Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, 1996). The Sexual Life of Catherine M. is, in a way, a limit case, published at what looks like a turning point: before the ubiquity of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick – published originally in 1997 – and long before the concerted Anglophone reception of Annie Ernaux. Also, before the craze for the personal essay, and essays on the craze for the personal essay.

Jacques Henric, Catherine “M”: L’album, 2001. Courtesy: the artist
Jacques Henric, Catherine “M”: L’album, 2001. Courtesy: the artist

Earlier this year, a profile of Ernaux in The Observer contrasted the ways the Nobel laureate writes about sex with the mere ‘bed-hopping antics of her contemporary Catherine Millet’, who it seems does not get to participate in the belated celebration of French autofiction written by women marked by the liberations and constraints of the 1960s. But isn’t this where The Sexual Life of Catherine M. belongs? It is hard to think of a more forensic and unguarded account of an intimate life, or a more ambiguous one in terms of its veracity, than Millet’s enumeration of ‘all the eager pricks’ she has encountered, all the filthy or flabby bodies, all the confined spaces (a fixation of hers) that she has squeezed into in order to engage them. At times, the book is an admirable reductio of autobiography to the arrangements of a body in space. An almost conceptual grid of erotic interludes, one thing after another.

The problem, reading the book now, is that it is not only this blank list or inventory. Millet wants to say she somehow elevated herself by her submissions; but Diski and Thurman were correct: it all reads like an extended punishment – for what? Despite the vaunted intellectualism that some British and American critics projected onto her from a distance, Millet seems to lack the self-knowledge or the art to properly account for or reflect on her experience. A handful of other memoirs followed – on her childhood, on an unexpected fit of middle-aged jealousy. In 2018, Millet was one of four writers who composed an infamous open letter (signed by 100 women) condemning the ‘excesses’ of #MeToo and defending the right of men to ‘pester’ women. The Sexual Life of Catherine M. is perhaps a lesson in how a person may get to think like that in the first place – but it remains, too, a fascinating, flawed example of what cannot be said even in confession.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 239 with the headline ‘Taking Account’

Main image: Jacques Henric, Catherine “M”: L’album, 2001. Courtesy: the artist

Brian Dillon is a writer. His latest book Affinities: On Art and Fascination will be published in spring 2023 by the New York Review of Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.