The Sextine Chapel by Hervé Le TellierTranslated by Ian MonkDalkey Archive Press, 2011

The back cover of The Sextine Chapel (originally published in French in 2005) says that it “harken[s] back” to Singular Pleasures by Harry Mathews, who, like Le Tellier, is a member of Oulipo. (Indeed, Le Tellier dedicated the book to Mathews, including a nod to Singular Pleasures in the dedication.) I haven’t read Mathews’s book in full, but the comparison seems apt: both are about sex (though in Singular Pleasures, the characters are all masturbating; in The Sextine Chapel, they’re all paired off), and both seem interested in the human/humorous/absurd possibilities of sex.

From Mathews:

A man of sixty-eight years is lying on an unmade bed masturbating. The room, filled with packing cases and furniture in disorder, is in a beautiful house overlooking Cape Town; the man has just taken possession of it. Throughout his life, whenever he has moved, he has found that until he masturbated in a new dwelling he cannot think of it as home. His wife urges him to get on with it.

And from Le Tellier:

Elvire and Philippe. On a staircase in Rue des Saules in Montmartre, Elvire is explaining to Philippe, who is standing one step down from her, that the Kama Sutra distinguishes three types of kiss: nominal, moving, and touching. A nominal is just a simple kiss on the mouth. To demonstrate the moving one, Elvire presses Philippe’s lower lip between her lips and, while sucking on it, draws it into her mouth. Then, for the touching kiss, her tongue encounters Philippe’s lip, then she closes her eyes, and puts her two hands into his.

From nearby, “Philippe!” yells a woman who Philippe knows only too well, thus putting a stop to this demonstration.(85)

Le Tellier’s book is often much more explicit than the passage quoted above, but it’s not necessarily sexy: sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s just funny; often, any eroticism is undercut by the scene’s italicized ending. (The encounters are all presented like the above: the couple’s name, the encounter itself, then a sentence or two in italics in which reality intrudes on the sex in one way or another: maybe it’s revealed that the encounter was just a fantasy, or maybe we find out that one character is thinking of something else entirely—looking out the window, or deciding on the title for the book he’s writing, or thinking how her partner’s weight is squashing her a bit too much for comfort.) One of the book’s epigraphs, by Roland Barthes, seems particularly apt: as Barthes writes, “Sexual practices are banal, impoverished, doomed to repetition, and this impoverishment is disproportionate to the wonder of pleasure they afford.” It feels like Le Tellier comes down a bit heavier on the side of banality, perhaps in part because we see the characters in such small bits: mostly, they’re fucking, and maybe it becomes clear that one is a nurse or one is a professor or one is a truck-driver, but most of the specificity of the prose is in descriptions of body parts and what they’re doing, rather than in characterization.

The other thing about the book—because this is Oulipo, after all—is the structure of it: in the first section, the characters’ couplings happen alphabetically: Anna and Ben are followed by Ben and Chloe who are followed by Chloe and Dennis, and so on through Yolande and Zach; in the second section, we get Anna and Harry, then Harry and Oriane, then Oriane and Vincent: the pattern is less clear but it’s there, as a diagram at the back of the book shows. It’s formally interesting, but I think it’s also part of why the focus is often on the couplings rather than the couples: the formal requirements (including the sheer volume of it all—78 couplings within a group of 26 people) are such that it wouldn’t necessarily make sense for all these people, as people rather than as bodies/names, to be pairing off. Which isn’t a criticism of the book, just a thought on where Le Tellier’s interest lies. (Speaking of interests, one of my first questions when I picked this book up was whether all the pairings would be hetero. If you’re wondering that too, the answer is yes.)






One response to “The Sextine Chapel by Hervé Le TellierTranslated by Ian MonkDalkey Archive Press, 2011”

  1. […] let me back up: The Sextine Chapel, which I wrote about here, had an epigraph from Roland Barthes that was from Barthes’s preface to a book called Tricks, […]

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