Erotic literature has been in the spotlight lately, thanks to the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy that now has become a hugely hyped film. But what really makes a text erotic? Is it graphic descriptions of people having sex, leaving nothing to the imagination, or is it the undertones in the text that rouse our sexual curiosity and make us draw much more vivid pictures in our heads? Or maybe a subtle blend of both?
I think we can all agree that 50 Shades is not a very erotic text, in fact it’s rather dull and one could argue that people would have to be completely ignorant about sexual practices to find it sexually stimulating. It’s just a very bad version of Beauty and the Beast with a few awkward sex scenes, for crying out loud. Where is the stimulation in that?
Having said that, it must be admitted that Icelandic writers have not been very effective in writing erotica, in fact you would have to dig very deep in icelandic bookstores to find that category listed. That does not mean that they don’t write erotic texts and if you are interested in getting to know how Icelanders look at erotic there are a couple of writers you should get to know.
The very best of them is without a doubt Sjón, whom you might know as a lyricist in some of Björk’s songs. A little over a year ago he published the novel Mánasteinn – Drengurinn sem aldrei var til, or Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was as it will be titled in the english translations that will be published both in the U.S and the U.K later this year. You should definitely keep your eyes open for that one.
The story is a about this teenage boy, Moonstone, who lives in Reykjavík in the very dramatic year of 1918. He’s poor, he’s gay, he is absolutely fascinated by movies and to top it all off he sells him self to strangers – male strangers – to be able to afford seeing every film that comes to town.
The book is hardly for the faint of heart as already on the first page we are thrown into witnessing the boy performing a blow job on one of his clients in the open air. I’ve heard of people who have thrown the book away, never to open it again, after reading just a few sentences but I’m telling you that would be a huge mistake. Not only is this one of the best written books to be published in Iceland for a very long time, but also it tells a story that anyone wanting to know anything about homosexuality in icelandic context should read. The climax when Moonstone is discovered having sex with a Danish marine in a warehouse as the independence of Iceland from Denmark is being celebrated just outside the door is a scene that you will never forget. So keep those eyes open for the english versions this spring. You will not regret it.
“…what really makes a text erotic? Is it graphic descriptions of people having sex, leaving nothing to the imagination, or is it the undertones in the text that rouse our sexual curiosity and make us draw much more vivid pictures in our heads?”
Another icelandic writer who you should check out is Vigdís Grímsdóttir. Her stories almost always have highly erotic undertones and one of the best examples of that is Z – A Love Story that was published in english a few years back. The protagonist, Anna, who is terminally ill has retreated to a cabin away from the city to examine her life and the red tread through her story is the love she had for the mysterious woman she calls Z. Their relationship did not work out but it is to the memories and feelings of that love that Anna clings in these last weeks of her life. May sound sappy but it is as far from sappy as it is possible to get. It’s erotic, it’s sad, very sad, poetic and eerily beautiful. One of the best books about love between women that I have ever read. I promise you that you will not be disappointed if you read this one.
Should you on the other hand like to explore the erotic genre from the beginning maybe you should start with the Bible. Yes, the one and only. The Song of Songs, also known as Song of Solomon, is one of the most erotic texts you can feast your eyes on, as strange as that may sound coming from that book that has been used to tell us not even to think of sex before marriage through the ages. If you don’t believe me check it out yourselves.
Another stable in “world literature” are the icelandic Sagas and even there we find an example of erotica. Bósasaga og Herrauðs has some very explicit descriptions of one of the protagonists, Bósi, tactics to get the ladies to please him. And he succeds every time with no detail left to the imagination. You can find the english translation of the story on the internet, just google “Bósasaga” and you are in for a surprise.
Other milestones in erotic literature through time are of course Justine by Marquis de Sade, which still has the power to shock with it’s brutality, and Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch but these guys, as you know, gave their names to Sadism and Masochism. They invented BDSM so they really know what they’re talking about.
There are of course loads of erotic books from bygone times and one of the first to make its subject matter homosexual sex was The Sins of the Cities of the Plain that caused quite a stir when it was first published in 1881. There are a lot of other examples, the list is in fact practically endless, but with uncle Google at your fingertips I leave you to find out of it for yourselves. Just don’t let anyone try to convince you that 50 Shades of Grey and the flood of books that followed in it’s wake have anything to do with erotica. Search for the real stuff and you’re in for a treat.
Main photo, above: Still from the film 50 Shades of Grey which is just as the book it’s based on. Below: Venus in Fur has been filmed several times and here is a trailer from the Roman Polanski version. The movie is based on the play of the same name by American playwright David Ives, which itself was inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel.