I was reading this excellent piece in Jezebel by Catherine Nichols on how differently male and female novelists write about marriage, and the possible reasons why. Roth and Bellow write about mysterious attractions and breast shape; Ferrante and Austen write about the practical quest to find an intellectual and emotional peer.
It was at mysterious attractions and breast shape that I found myself back with the pink lampshade.
Early in my eighteen-month relationship with David, which he declared mysterious from the first moment of our meeting, he asked if I would send him photographs of my body.
Taking photos of my naked body was not something I’d done before. As well, I was reeling from the ending of my thirty-year relationship with my husband, due to a massive stroke that left him paralysed, without speech and eventually unknowing of me. So I had no idea if David’s request was made too soon in terms of our acquaintance, or if indeed it ought to have been made at all, given the circumstances (him in a marriage, albeit, he swore, one more like two old friends sharing a dwelling) and our age.
In spite of reservations, which I attributed to sexual repression I should get over, I took photos. David, it eventuated, wanted more and I became imaginative in my poses, and strategic use of bits of silk, and fine, transparent cotton. It was fun, and I thought a little giddy in an adolescent way.
After some while I lost interest: the photography took up more of my time than I wanted to give and besides, I wasn’t used to being separated out into body parts and didn’t much take to it, when the novelty wore off. So I sent David a photo of me in my bonnet and gown receiving my PhD. This is just to remind you that I have a brain, I wrote.
He adapted immediately. It was your mind I first fell in love with, he reassured me. You know that. Can you send more pics of your beautiful breasts?
I began to feel like the women in the Manet painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, naked and surrounded by clothed men. I want some photos of you, I told him, for balance. He sent many. I especially liked the ones with the early morning sun glinting off his red-gold pubic hair. But it’s the one featuring the lampshade that is seared into my memory.
At first blush it’s likely your average dick pic, although I am no authority on these, David’s being the only example of the genre I’ve seen. But then you notice in the background a wooden floor lamp, topped with a pink frilled lampshade of the kind I’ve only observed as set decoration in an interminable episode of ABC TV’s interminable Midsommer Murders, a program I’ve watched when I’ve been really ill and without the strength to look away.
It was also impossible to look at this photo without immediately thinking of Elizabeth Jolly’s short story collection, Woman in a Lampshade. This seems appropriate, as Jolly’s work is variously described as fantasy, farce, a comedy of manners, moral satire, and black comedy. Our relationship was all of those and more but strangely, what the pink lampshade spoke to me most strongly of was the sad furtiveness of David’s secret life, hidden from everyone around him, lived only when the front door closed, and he was at last left alone to peruse my naked pictures, and pose himself to take his own.
From what I knew of him, the pink lampshade was unlikely to be his choice: it shrieked of everything to do with conventional notions of the feminine, and could, with some adjustments, be worn to the Melbourne Cup. It was a most bizarre background for a photo of an erect penis, an image intended to stir desire and admiration in me.
I tried not to notice the lampshade. This proved impossible. I had no idea how to tell him that the lampshade was more visually compelling than his penis, so I didn’t.
I have no doubt that were David to write of our exchange of intimate images, he would tell our story differently, in fact I know this because of his responses to the photos. I don’t think he ever noticed backgrounds. He was uninterested in the gestalt of the thing. Whether this is because he is a man and I am a woman I’m uncertain: the differences remarked on at the beginning of this piece are, to my mind, the consequence of a culture chained to gender roles, rather than inherently male or female characteristics.
As Catherine Nichols points out in her piece, using a quote from Douglas Adams:
“It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion on them. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.”
In Adams’s context, Nichols writes, he’s talking about a horse and rider, but I thought: Female novelists have been writing from the role of the horse.
I’d expand that to suggest that female writers, not just novelists, have been practising our craft from the role of the horse since we first began writing, women generally being more sat upon than sitting. This cannot help but affect our point of view.
I doubt the pink lampshade would rate a mention in David’s imagined narrative, but in mine it holds a central position, an indicator of far more than a penis, or the shape of a breast, can ever reveal.
I’m with Ferrante and Austen: a relationship with an intellectual and emotional peer can be immensely erotic, while being the horse is anything but, unless you’re playing sexual games and have a safe word. I often think of David poring over those images, and while I don’t regret having defeated an inhibition, I wish I’d chosen someone else with whom to do it. Someone without a frilly pink lampshade in his life, for example.
I have no idea why it is that male novelists appear to give their male characters a completely different focus when they’re searching out a life partner than do women novelists their female characters. The implication of Nichol’s horse thesis is that men, as riders and masters, can afford to ignore what they perceive as tiresome or difficult or awkward aspects of women’s personalities while women, from the position of the horse, must for survival acquire as much knowledge as possible about their oppressors.
David once told me I was “difficult.” All that says to me, I replied, irritated, is that you are finding yourself challenged by me, which is different altogether from me being “difficult.”
But the shape of your breast… he wrote. And this extraordinary, mysterious love…