There is levity here, but the novel is much more preoccupied with exploring the dimensions of Jeanne’s quest for pleasure. For once we are getting a woman’s point of view on the male anatomy, instead of the other way around... Leger’s rendering of Jeanne’s penile preoccupation is virtuosic and precise while also surprising, even surrealist... the famously irascible writer Yann Moix claimed to detest the book, saying that it was “old-fashioned”, that it wasn’t as shocking as Georges Bataille’s pornographic writings, and that in his view it presented sex as an obscenity. Whether this was a wilful misreading of the novel, or a genuine inability to understand what Leger was up to, it provided a case study in why her book is urgently necessary: because there are still men out there who don’t understand how rare and revolutionary it is for a woman to write about what their penises look like to her. For a woman to adopt the surrealist approach, and show, for once, a man in pieces.
The Collection offers unflustered accounts of sex, precisely detailed rather than steamy or clammy-handed. But given that male genitals are still all too often portrayed as simply grotesque or comic, having such care lavished on them feels genuinely fresh. The translator, Laura Francis, does a fine job of capturing Leger’s poise and poetry. There will no doubt be readers – probably uneasy male readers – who’ll suggest such objectification is a step back for gender equality. Really, it’s a reminder of how rare it still is to have a female gaze on the aesthetic aspects of sex. From Cat Person to Fleabag, female narrative perspectives are finding huge and hungry audiences – but Leger’s writing is doing something different. It isn’t “relatable”: it’s cool, detached, specific. However, Leger’s refusal to offer any specifics, context, or inner emotional life for Jeanne inevitably becomes rather limiting. The Collection is more an exercise in style than imaginative empathy. Like Jeanne herself, the book is easy to be impressed by, but hard to fall in love with.