A Parisian lawyer gets her kicks (and jabs) from an affair
By Marthe Blau; translated by Howard Curtis
San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, Sunday July 24, 2005

Marthe Blau is the pseudonymous author of the novel "Submission," the graphically sexual story -- "based on the author's own experience" -- of a relatively happily married Parisian lawyer and mother, Elodie, who gets involved in an obsessive sadomasochistic relationship with another man. The book describes in excruciating detail the heroine's encounters with the man called, in godlike fashion, "He," who becomes her master.

While it would be presumptuous to say that "Submission" has no literary value whatsoever, this reviewer could find none. It is also worth noting that if a book has even a hint of redeeming smut, despite its dearth of literary merit, I will usually not only appreciate this but also race eagerly through it (pausing, of course, to highlight and dog-ear especially salient passages for later, more leisurely rereading). "Submission" was a struggle to finish even once.

"Submission" begins with Elodie, "shaved and scented, teetering on black stilettos ... wearing an uncomfortable garter belt and a G-string that cuts into my skin," standing outside the door of the house of a man she hardly knows who has demanded her presence. Once inside, He tells her to expose herself, then, approving what he sees, tells her, "Nobody has ever treated you as I'm going to treat you." This turns out to be true, but not in the way readers or our heroine might have hoped. His treatment pretty much consists of filling one particular cavity of Elodie's nether region with extremely uncomfortable objects and then making her go out to society parties with the objects lodged inside her. He also gives her a couple of beatings. What He never does is what she craves so dearly: have sex with her in any standard fashion (thus showing she is "worthy" of him).

What Blau never bothers to do is give the reader more of a hint as to why Elodie would (beyond His initial magnetism and her newfound predilection for submission) continue to subject herself to his continued abuse, neglect and general callousness. What we are shown of Him -- and perhaps the reader is beginning to appreciate how intrusive the constant capital "H" is throughout the book -- is a vague sketch of a man who, on top of his sadism, is patronizing, inconsiderate and misogynistic. (S&M Web groups have complained about Blau's portrayal of their lifestyle.) He is also egotistical to the point of taking her to a bookstore, showing her books about submission and suggesting she might someday write a book about him.

The one time He is truly pleased with Elodie is when she recruits a "willowy" (many women in "Submission" are "willowy," e.g., "naked, her tall, willowy body is even more spectacular than I imagined") younger woman for him to play with. Outside Elodie's glamorous circle of women in their 30s, the only women here considered beautiful are those who are young and tall, and thin to skinny, with the exception of one or two women who are lanky in all but one particular area, "sirens with breasts raised to the sky, defying all the laws of gravity."

"Submission" is sloppy and sketchily done in every respect, and it's redundant to the extreme, the "nobody has ever treated you" line repeated ad nauseam along with Elodie's shock at her own desires and tearful complaints about His ignoring or denying her. In frustration with the lack of plot or character development, and the endless stretching of any credibility (for example, how does Elodie's husband have no clue that she's having an affair -- wouldn't he at least see the scars from her beatings or hear about her canoodling with Him in the middle of parties with friends all around?), the reader reaches for the only other substantial content he or she can find: brand names and exotic locales. Paris nightclubs, San Tropez beaches, Ambien, Gucci. The list goes on, a veritable CliffsNotes for a Jackie Collins novel.

Forty years ago, the pseudonymous Pauline Reage published her scandalous "Story of O," a novel depicting a woman's relationship with a lover who dominates her and shares her with other men. Graham Greene called "The Story of O" "a rare thing, a pornographic book well written and without a trace of obscenity." Thousands upon thousands of titles with similar subject matter have followed. Three years ago, French art critic Catherine Millet's brave and sexually frank memoir "The Sexual Life of Catherine M" was published to both shock and acclaim. Blau is being hyped as a worthy successor to both Reage and Millet (whom Elodie actually refers to, dismissively, in the novel), which only shows that this book's publicists are as shameless as the author herself.

So why then, when stores and catalogs are full of cheap paperbacks that are more titillating, have much greater depth, and are much better written, is "Submission," at least in Europe, getting so much attention? Why did the book supposedly, as a promotional quote from a London Times article reads, send "tremors through the French establishment"? Because the author is a glamorous Parisian lawyer married to a "morning television show host." While this surely sparked titters and speculation in France (as it would in the United States if, say Regis Philbin and Condoleezza Rice decided to publish an account of their affair with a Shetland pony), it's hard to imagine it will do so stateside, where few people know or care about who the president of France is, let alone who "Marthe Blau" or her husband might actually be.