“Normally,” wrote Susan Sontag in her essay on The Pornographic Imagination, “we don’t experience, at least don’t want to experience, our sexual fulfilment as distinct from or opposed to our personal fulfilment. But perhaps in part they are distinct, whether we like it or not.” Howard Jacobson’s latest novel, The Act of Love, has as its protagonist Felix Quinn, a man who finds both agony and ecstasy in insisting on the distinction between his sexual and personal fulfilment.
Sontag remarked in the same essay that “sexuality remains one of the demonic forces in human consciousness”. Jacobson, whose literary interest in the demonic nature of sexuality is intense – even if his treatment of the subject in earlier novels has tended towards the antic end of the demonic spectrum – undertakes in The Act of Love to anatomise the dire power of sexual love in the most refined and civilised of settings.
Felix Quinn is bookish both by nature and occupation. An antiquarian bookseller by trade and an avid and fastidious reader by inclination, he draws “no distinction between literature and life”. His nature both anticipates and is formed by his literary tastes: “I was born lovesick – unrequited, highly strung, quiveringly jealous .?.?. That I too would be spurned, I never doubted.”
His future unhappiness thus assured, it remains only for Felix to devise a sufficiently exquisite mise-en-scène for his drama of erotic anguish. “A great endeavour lures me on,” he remarks, echoing that other bibliophile, Humbert Humbert. No man, he asserts, “has ever adored a woman who does not know her to be lying in the arms of someone else”. And what pains he takes to demonstrate his own adoration for his beautiful wife, Marisa.
Marisa is cool to the point of severity, thoroughbred, well-educated, fiercely unmaternal and mildly under-occupied. While Felix deals in antiquarian books, Marisa divides her time between altruism and narcissism – working as a volunteer for an Oxfam bookshop and the Samaritans, reading aloud to a blind man (Felix fantasises that she does so naked), visiting the manicurist and acting as a guide at the Wallace Collection, that jewel box of assorted artistic ravishments improbably hidden off the garish thoroughfare of Oxford Street. She is, her husband tells us, unable to recognise herself in these activities. She only feels truly herself when dancing.
It is the Wallace Collection that provides the setting for Marisa’s seduction by (and of) her lover Marius, “a character in a salacious fiction I wrote,” (writes Felix) “in imitation of all the salacious fiction I’d ever read”. He is, indeed, a figure straight from the pages of Sacher-Masoch: opal-eyed, walrus moustached, dyspeptic, oblique, Satanic. Felix takes to describing the trio formed by Marisa, Marius and himself as “our little family”. One does not expect a cheerful ending to this sort of drama, nor is there one. After an elaborately staged dance scene in a park, at which Marisa may or may not feel, for a terpsichorean instant, truly herself, a tragic conclusion is inevitable.
The ending of Jacobson’s remarkable novel, which conforms to the conventions of the pornographic imagination by dispensing summarily with a character for whom no imaginative purpose remains, is the weakest point of a book that, until that point, is as interested in the perturbations of the human soul as in carnality. “I was a Frenchman, not an American, in my erotic life, seeking carnality’s greatest prize – extinction”, Felix asserts, explicitly aligning The Act of Love (presumably for the benefit of readers who hadn’t already twigged) with the great European tradition of philosophico-erotic fiction.
Not that anyone could mistake it for anything else. The torrent of ideas, the urgent energy of their expression, the erotic tension between that and the extreme, mannered, elegant restraint of the plotting, the charm and intense, preposterous, virtuoso prettiness in which the perversity is decked, all place The Act of Love firmly in the canon that encompasses the Marquis de Sade, Pauline Réage and Georges Bataille, but also Nabokov and Henry James. It is certainly the most interesting, complicated and troubling novel of Jacobson’s career to date.