March 7, 2014

The NSFW Files: "The Ages of Lulu," by Almudena Grandes

The NSFW Files | A CCLaP essay series

(Once a month through 2013, CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff investigates literature of a more carnal kind with The NSFW Files. Despite being erotic, is there literary value to be found? For all the essays in this series, please click here.)

The Ages of Lulu, by Almudena Grandes

The Ages of Lulu
by Almudena Grandes
Review by Karl Wolff
Personal History: It would be untrue to say I don't choose books by their covers. Case in point, The Ages of Lulu, by Almudena Grandes. With its luscious black and white photograph by Craig Morey and a Booklist blurb saying, "Intensely erotic," it ended up getting purchased. I bought it at my local Half Price Books in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Despite buying it years ago, this has been the first time I read it. I was glad I did.

While I'm familiar with Spanish-language literature, I'm not too familiar with literature from Spain. I've read my share of Mexican and South American literature, notably Roberto Bolano and Octavio Paz. My unfamiliarity with Spanish literature doesn't mean I'm unfamiliar with Spanish erotica. I've encountered it in different forms: comics and film. I've read the erotic comics of Ignacio Noe and seen numerous Spanish erotic films. These include: Jamon Jamon (Bigas Luna, 1992), starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, both in the bloom of their youth; Sex and Lucia (Julio Medem, 2001); and several films from the master, Pedro Almodovar. Jamon Jamon is a modern sex farce involving underwear and pigs, while Sex and Lucia is the hallucinatory journey of Lucia that becomes darker and more labyrinthine as it progresses. Almodovar is a category unto himself, creating films that are simultaneously comedic, tragic, and ornate. His well-rounded characters and baroque plotting put him in the company of Shakespeare in terms of storytelling mastery.

It turns out that Bigas Luna also directed a film version of The Ages of Lulu in 1990. I have not seen this film, but if it is available on Netflix, then I will have to watch it.

The History: Since The Ages of Lulu was written in 1989, I'll fold the historical material into my book summary. Like The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, this could be classified as a "modern classic."

The Book: Told in the first person, The Ages of Lulu is about the life of Maria Luisa Ruiz-Poveda y Garcia de la Casa. The novel charts her life, beginning as an impulsive fifteen year old up to the brink of middle age. Like The Piano Teacher, it alternates between chapters set in "real life" and chapters that are Lulu's sexual fantasies. As the novel progresses, reality and fantasy bleed into each other. We learn that Lulu was eleven in 1969, meaning she was born in 1958, during the heyday of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. She comes from a large family and is a rebellious teen. When she gets seduced by Pablo, her brother's friend, she is fifteen years old.

The seduction occurs after an illegal Socialist rally. When Pablo introduces her to the concept of fellatio, Lulu's remarks are telling. "Somewhere far inside my head, far back enough so it didn't bother me, but near enough to be noticeable, throbbed the fact I was under-age, six years to go before I was twenty-one (at that time, coming of age was twenty-one -- I couldn't give a shit, nobody could vote anyway)." The repression of Franco's Spain gives Lulu incentive to become reckless and rebellious. (Francisco Franco ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975.) While in others it becomes manifest as political opposition, for Lulu it becomes a means to explore the darker fantasies she harbors.

But the book doesn't begin with this seduction. It begins with Lulu and Pablo happily married. They have a daughter named Ines that they pick up from school. As the story progresses, we learn about Pablo's brief imprisonment on political grounds, Lulu's large family, and her work as editor of Martial's epigrams. She becomes friends with Ely, a tranvestite prostitute she meets while on a "transvestite hunting" trip with Pablo. Lulu, Pablo, and Ely have a menage a trois. The bisexuality of Lulu's encounters lead her to more dangerous things. She fantasizes a scenario with Pablo as her father, the role playing prefiguring the quasi-incest erotica subgenre.

Other acts include one between Pablo, herself, and her brother. She also participates in group sex with a group of gay men. In the end, she goes to a bondage scene run by a madam. The scene is notable for its frank brutality. She eventually escapes, thanks to a conveniently timed police raid. The novel closes with Lulu contemplating the consequences of her actions and facing the prospect of aging.

The Verdict: I would classify The Ages of Lulu as a modern classic. Through the genre of erotica, it weaves together the personal history of Lulu, her sexual compulsions, and her intimate fantasies. These inner and outer experiences confront the repression and monotony of the Franco dictatorship. It does this with language that captures the quotidian, but also illuminates Lulu's compulsions and fantasies in visionary scenarios. My only quibble is minor. My translation, by Sonia Soto, reads as British English and it doesn't fully capture the verbal flavor of the original Spanish. It reads like British actors in a Spanish novel, with Lulu talking about blokes and mates. The true power of Grandes's novel stands out despite its British-y translation. It is a backhanded rebuke of Franco's Spain and an exploration of the volcanic fury of female sexuality.
Read even more about The Ages of Lulu: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
Coming next: Matriarchy: Freedom in Bondage, by Malcolm McKesson

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, March 7, 2014. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |