Julia Chambers begins her lush, erotic, pseudo-memoir My Renaissance with an “Author's Note” stating her intentions. After rummaging in the fabulous pornography collection at the British Museum Library, surveying Reage and de Sade, Black Lace and the twentieth century classics from Olympia Press, she complains that pretty much everything she has read was penned with a male audience in mind. Her extensive research really didn't unearth what she was seeking in the way of salacious literature: erotica created by “women who wrote from the cunt by way of a mind that considered sexual parity with men to be a given.” So she decided to produce her own.
I have to admit that this rather high-handed, self-consciously intellectual foreword predisposed me not to like this book. However, I ended up enjoying My Renaissance despite myself, although it's not at all similar to what I would have written under the circumstances.
The book begins with a delightful framing narrative. On her fiftieth birthday the author encounters, by chance, “the American”, a lover from three decades earlier, an affair that ended suddenly and inconclusively. “The effect of the voice on my memory was astounding. My blood was shaking and I could not breathe for fear I would gasp like a banked fish.” He tells her “I still have your panties.” and of course the reader immediately starts to imagine what sort of history the two of them share. Over coffee, he tries to rekindle their relationship. Gently but firmly she rebuffs him and returns home to bathe (clearly an experience the author finds sensual as it is recreated multiple times in this volume). The sudden apparition from her past tempts her to look back. She begins to recount the erotic adventures she enjoyed when she was twenty, spending a year teaching English in Milan and exploring her burgeoning sexuality.
Her initiation into the unrepentant carnality of the Milanese begins at the hands (and tongue) of one of her students, Mrs. Corallo – a wealthy, voluptuous matron who wastes no time seducing the lovely young Englishwoman whom the Italian insists looks like Botticelli's Venus. Although the narrator is not completely innocent, her afternoons with “Mrs. C” prove tremendously educational, and not only in the ways of the flesh. Mrs. C. gives Julia both tangible and intangible gifts – a copy of Dante, a sense of fashion, a new appreciation of her own desirability.
Trying to escape the unwelcome attentions of a fellow teacher, Julia accepts the offer of a free apartment in a dodgy area of town. Here she becomes entangled with Luigi, the landlady's son, a young man with the face of an angel and the body of a god. Every night he visits her; they share an exquisitely physical passion that seems to sustain itself without any intellectual or emotional connection.
Luigi kissed me and licked his semen from my lips and I tasted myself in the folds of his wings. I remember his arms around me and the strong smell of our sex on our skins and while I was musing on the beauty of this man I fell asleep. I was awakened by the morning pouring in through the open window, a shower of golden light. I flung back the covers that Luigi had obviously lain across me when he left and for a few luxurious moments admired the honeyed richness of my limbs, still langorous with the exertions of last night, and ran my hands around my breasts and over my belly. I rose warm and naked, plugged in the kettle, and commenced the rituals of the day.
When Julia discovers Luigi's sordid daytime occupation, he loses his halo. However there are dozens more virile men eager to partake of her charms. From each lover she takes new knowledge, most especially knowledge of her own sexual power.
In one of my favorite chapters, the narrator travels to Florence and meets a painter, who prevails upon her to sit for him in the pose of Venus rising from the sea. Although there's no explicit sex in their interlude together, the erotic tension is devastating. One wonders whether fucking might not have spoiled it.
In another episode, one of Julia's adult students, a married man who is short and unattractive but also urbane, articulate and persuasive, convinces her to masturbate in front of him, while he does the same. All the while he regales her with filthy, explicit fantasies. This scenario is perhaps the kinkiest in the book, and possibly the one that aroused me the most.
Ms. Chambers' sexual tastes are aggressively vanilla, at least compared to mine. Again and again, starting in the foreword, she reminds readers of her total lack of interest in anything involving restraint, pain or the like. After a while, one wonders whether she in fact protests too much.
Knowing me, you might expect that I'd get tired of an erotic book without the slightest whiff of D/s. However, Ms. Chambers’ luscious prose kept me reading. She describes all her (or her narrator's) experiences in Italy with an eye for sensual detail. We feel the warmth of the sun, taste the wine and the coffee. Our heads swim with the women's perfume. I don't know Italy at all well, but her sharp observations on the society of Milan and the nature of its inhabitants reminded me of my own early experiences in foreign environments.
This erotic coming-of-age tale winds up very neatly, bringing Julia to her first incandescent encounter with “the American” and its sudden end. After this peak experience, she leaves Milan, claiming homesickness, possibly having learned everything the city had to offer.
The emotions fueling this book pulled me back to my own period of erotic awakening. I remember a time when adventures of the flesh waited around every corner, a time when I suddenly and inexplicably became an object of lust.
I often wandered around Milan in a daze, the ground falling from under my feet, my belly on fire and my womb contracting in spasms of remembered desire – the images that filled my head of others filling my body were more inebriating than any drug and I would sway from the straps on the tram, aware of the scandalised eyes on my shaven armpits (only the travestiti on Corso Garibaldi shaved their underarms).
With all her adventures, though, she remains fundamentally alone, joined only superficially with her partners in pleasure.
My sex life was for the most part skin play, surfaces like light on water, like neon flashing on the painted night faces, like the flames of candles flickering over my naked form. All intercourse was of the flesh.
Despite its rich language and sensual detail, this book left me with a sense of sterility. The narrator glories in her own desirability, but ultimately that comes to feel like narcissism. Even after fifty years, she is focused mostly on pleasure. She delights in her unlined face and still-beautiful body as she prepares to meet her old lover. The connection remains purely physical.
As I indicated, this isn't the book I would have written. It is, however, literate, stylish and unquestionably erotic, in the classic sense of the word. For some readers, that will be enough.