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One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed

By Melissa P.

This text, which presents itself as the diary of a teenage Sicilian girl from Aci Castello near Catania who swas born in 1985, and which covers her life from 2000 to 2002 – that is from her fourteenth to nearly her seventeenth year – likes to have it both ways. Given the journal’s erotic content, coupled with the purported age and gender of the writer, most media interest has proceeded via the latter fact to the former, rather than the other way around. Which is understandable, if a little prurient, given the Reality TV age we live in: as a society’s imagination dies, it demands that everything to be more ‘real’. The Product is shifted by The Personality. Plus, young Melissa is easy on the eye, even at the ripe old age of eighteen, if the accompanying publicity pix are anything to judge by. Except that the narrative hedges its bets by coming with a rider, as the dust jacket declares coyly that what follows is a ‘fictionalized memoir’. Which means we don’t really know how much actually happened to her, and how much she is making up. But, then again, maybe that’s not the point either: many people seem to be scandalised enough that she could think of these things at such a relatively tender (and therefore innocent?) age, let alone do them.




Briefly, the content concerns the sexual adventures of the scion of a respectable, middle-class family, named, surprise surprise, Melissa P. Disappointed at the crudeness of the consummation of her first romance, but far from being put off, she sets out on a voyage of sexual self-discovery, resolving to give her body to any man who comes along, ‘because in savouring me he might taste my rage and bitterness and therefore experience a modicum of tenderness; and because he might fall so deeply in love with my passion that he won’t be able to do without it.’ She plunges into a succession of encounters with various partners, male and female, her age and much older, married and single, some met through schoolmates, others through newspaper adverts and internet chat rooms. Her tastes run to group sex (she celebrates her sixteenth birthday at an orgy, fellating five men while blindfold), sadomasochism (dominating her maths tutor), lesbianism, and the casual pick-up. She even assumes the male gaze, in a scene with a transvestite friend. But it all ends happily, in conventional chick-lit fashion, with our heroine safely ensconced in the arms of a tender, caring, dark, handsome lover, who teaches her what true love really is. Princesses brush their hair with one hundred strokes before bed, Melissa’s mother told her, and Princesses live happily ever after. Not for nothing has the authoress referred to this work as ‘an erotic fairytale’.

This is a very elegantly written memoir. Indeed, what is much more remarkable than the girl’s promiscuity vis-à-vis her age is her finely-honed use of language in recounting it. She’s clever too, regardless of whether the Lacanian overtones of her mirror-gazing were intentional or otherwise. Her reflections on the power of sensual memory are particularly poignant, to the point of Proustian. She is also very good on capturing the sense of near existential boredom and despair, which propel her quest far more than rage or excitement do, reaching far beyond standard issue teenage angst and alienation, into something approaching innate and immutable dissatisfaction. All of which makes the sudden, idealised happy ending a bit difficult to stomach. One Hundred Strokes has been spoken of in the same breath as erotic classics such as The Story of O by Pauline Reage (pseudonym of Dominique Aury) and Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille, but it is a juvenile and journeywoman effort in comparison, lacking these seminal works’ psychological insight. At the end of The Story of O, O proceeds towards embracing her own extinction as a human being and her fulfilment as a sexual being, while Simone in Story of the Eye sets off for further salacious escapades with her compeers. But this is Italy, not France, and Melissa is a good girl really. One feels she might easily settle for having Claudio’s slippers ready by the fireside when he gets home, and the pasta boiling on the hob (and a bun in the oven?), in a life of cosy domesticity. When contrasted with a character like Laura Palmer, from David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, who managed to combine coke-addled teen whore by night with the Homecoming Queen forever doing good works in her community by day, Melissa is relatively one dimensional, requiring greater complexity. Of course, these comments presume that depth of characterisation is the point of the exercise in the first place, which may not necessarily be so.

As for the shock value of the book, the only people likely to find it offensive are the kind of people who think sex is dirty anyway. (‘Is sex dirty? Only if you’re doing it right.’ – Woody Allen). You all know the type: they want sex to always and everywhere be for making babies, for love, for anything and everything except as an end in itself. (‘Sex without love is a meaningless experience, but as meaningless experiences go, it’s not bad.’ – Woody Allen). The Pope may have issued a warning against reading it (surely a Publicity and Marketing Manager’s dream!), but the Catholic Church has long had its own agenda as regards controlling people through their sexuality. Besides, it is a little recognised truism that the path of the erotomaniac is in many ways just as extreme, and just as onerous, as that of the mystic.

The fact is that there is a lot of pious cant talked and written about the sexuality of adolescent females. The truth is that adolescence is flexitime, with one person’s level of development at thirteen not attained by someone else until they are eighteen, if ever. Indeed, wasn’t it James Dean, with a little help from Elvis, who invented the very concept of the teenager? Before that, boys were just young men, and young girls were merely little women. Nowadays, of course, it is not unusual to meet teenagers who are well into their 40s. In Republican and Imperial Rome, girls were considered marriageable at fourteen (admittedly, life expectancy being what it was in those days, you were lucky if you survived your 30s). Chinese women of my acquaintance have told me how it was not uncommon for their grandmothers to be married off at eleven, if they were from a poor family (although they weren’t obliged to start bearing children until they were sixteen). Ages of consent are not universal, but normative, tending to reflect any given society’s requirements at any particular time.

The most relevant question to ask about Melissa P’s book is whether or not it represents a trivialisation of the subject matter. In my opinion, it does not. Unlike England, where explorations of sexuality are rarely more than a saucy bit of a giggle, or America, where they are more often than not orgiastic as opposed to sensual, this is a beautiful book, serious in its intent, if slight in its execution. Rather than dwelling on Judeo-Christian guilt, with its shame of the body, it espouses Greco-Roman paganism, with its joy in the body. Sicily was Greek, and then Roman, long before it was ever Catholic. She certainly seems to have done a good job in the epater les bourgeois stakes, almost always a meritorious thing in the young, disdain for the bourgeoisie being the first sign of virtue.

All in all, not bad, for a kid, but not worth all the fuss either. It will, however, be very interesting to see what she comes up with in the future.

First published in The Sunday Independent













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