Monday, October 28, 2013

9 Great Period Dramas for Grown-Ups (Part 2)

The pleasures of period dramas are greater than the beautiful and, to our eyes, exotic costumes, and the recreations of vanished cities and societies. Period drama, in delineating antiquated social problems, customs, and conventions, exposes our own modern problems, customs, and conventions all the more clearly, by highlighting the differences and not infrequently the similarities between the past and the present. While the movies on the first list were all set in the nineteenth century, this list covers more ground, from the 1750s to the 1930s. Given my love of period drama, odds are there will be a third installment.

Barry Lyndon (1975)
One of Stanley Kubrick's most fascinating and complex films, Barry Lyndon, based on the novel by Thackeray, recounts the adventures of its hero, from the battlefields of the Seven Years' War to the gambling parlors of the most chic spas and resorts across the continent to the boudoir of Lady Lyndon. Director of photography John Alcott, determined to give the film a more historically accurate atmosphere, shot all of the interiors without recourse to electric light and won a well-deserved Oscar for his extraordinary cinematography.

The Bostonians (1984)
This adaptation of the Henry James novel was a difficult and unlikely project, but Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala brought its story of nineteenth century feminism, misogyny, and eroticism brilliantly alive. Vanessa Redgrave stars as Olive Chancellor, a wealthy single woman determined to improve the lot of her sex and deeply infatuated with an innocent and charismatic inspirational speaker (Madeleine Potter). Her erotically charged monopoly of her friend is complicated by the arrival of a dashing and very old-fashioned Southern landowner (Christopher Reeve).

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
A pair of extravagant diamond earrings are the axis around which the characters in this film revolve. They are first sold by Louise, a cosseted noblewoman whose opulent lifestyle leads her into debt, who tells her husband that they were stolen, only for the jeweler to send them back to the husband, and as the earrings pass from hand to hand, the stakes for each of the characters grow steadily higher. Director Max Ophuls has a remarkably intuitive grasp of gender inequity and his films consistently portray complex and deeply unhappy women, trapped by their marriages, social position, and lack of occupation.

Howards End (1992)
Merchant and Ivory's best film and one of the best literary adaptations of all time, Howards End, based on the brilliant novel by E. M. Forster, is a kaleidoscopic social portrait of the relationships between the classes in Edwardian England: the Wilcox family are affluent capitalists, the Schlegel sisters, two cultured and socially progressive young women, represent the bourgeoisie, and the Basts are a lower middle class couple. A beautiful score by Richard Robbins, Tony Pierce-Roberts's cinematography, the most gorgeous I've ever seen, and first-class performances by Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter, and Samuel West make this one of the finest period dramas of all time.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
This sumptuously romantic tragedy set in early 20th century Vienna, another wonderful film by brilliant director Max Ophuls, stars Joan Fontaine as a young woman infatuated with a handsome concert pianist and womanizer (Louis Jourdan) who has no idea that she exists. From this slim premise emerges a richly moving and complex love story, a fairy tale about unrequited love, its sentimentality cut by a thick vein of astringent realism. One of the few truly flawless films ever made.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
As good as, if not superior to, Citizen Kane, Orson Welles's second feature is based on the Booth Tarkington novel and recounts the downfall of the wealthy Midwestern Amberson family, brought low by the modern age, represented by the automobile. Welles makes superb use of his favorite actors, from Joseph Cotten to Agnes Moorehead, and inspires wonderful performances from B-actor Tim Holt and forgotten muse of the silent screen Dolores Costello, and although purists may complain that the final editing was taken over by the studio, the result is one of the most sophisticated, bitter, and intelligent American dramas of the 40's.

My Fair Lady (1964)
With a knockout score by Lerner and Lowe, gorgeous couture by Cecil Beaton, and lively direction by George Cukor, this musical adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion, is purely delightful. Rex Harrison gives one of his best performances as Professor Henry Higgins, a deeply arrogant and even more deeply misogynistic scholar of phonetics, who, along with his friend Colonel Pickering (charmingly portrayed by Wilfrid Hyde White), decides to transform Cockney flower-seller Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) into a convincing aristocrat. Hepburn is enchanting and extremely funny, particularly at the Ascot races where she bawls at Dover to "move your bloomin' arse."

The Remains of the Day (1993)
Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins star as the housekeeper and butler of Darlington Hall, where a meeting of politicians has been convened in an attempt to negotiate a peaceful detente between supporters and opponents of Hitler's regime. Hopkins is the perfect domestic servant - unflappable, efficient, all-seeing, and utterly invisible - and while Thompson is equally efficient, she refuses to ignore Lord Darlington's ugly support of Hitler and his anti-semitism. A fascinating glimpse of the moral pitfalls and complex interdependencies that emerge in the relationships between domestic servants and the people who employ them, The Remains of the Day is the thinking person's Downton Abbey.

A Room With a View (1985)
Another wonderful collaboration from Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, this faithful adaptation of the E. M. Forster novel is about Miss Lucy Honeychurch, a prim young English miss whose passions are aroused on a tour of Italy, where she meets George Emerson, a free-thinking and unabashedly romantic young man, whose father has offered her their room with a view. An astute selection of Puccini arias, exquisite locations and cinematography, and a witty script give Forster his due as a perceptive and ingeniously critical chronicler of English manners and transgressions.

Friday, October 18, 2013

6 Tragically Unfinished Books and Why We Should Read Them

Many authors leave behind unfinished work. While it can be enormously frustrating to be deprived of the character and plot resolutions, and most unfinished work will lack the polish of a fully revised manuscript, these writings so often reveal unexpected facets of a writer's genius, provide glimpses of the birth of new ideas, or are purely and simply beautiful works of art. Just as Mozart never finished his sublime Requiem and Leonardo da Vinci never finished his Gran Cavallo, these authors never finished their great books.

6. Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman - Mary Wollstonecraft
This novel would have been the fictional counterpart to Wollstonecraft's revolutionary feminist treatise, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a dramatic depiction of the abuses and limitations women were forced to live under within marriage, an institution that Wollstonecraft felt was patriarchal and injurious to all women. Maria, trapped in an unhappy marriage, has been locked in an insane asylum by her husband (this was an entirely legal practice at the time), but she finds ways of preserving her well-being through a romantic affection for another unjustly imprisoned inmate and a friendship with the servant entrusted with her care. This friendship is significant because it marks perhaps the first instance in feminist fiction of a binding friendship between women across classes. Wollstonecraft died before completing the manuscript, leaving us with a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been a seminal work of feminist fiction.

5. The Dark Tower - C. S. Lewis
This is a short fragment of a possible sequel or prequel to Lewis's science fiction trilogy, which Lewis scholar Walter Hooper rescued from being burned by Lewis's brother in a moving day bonfire (an act that makes my blood curdle - what ended up in that fire?). The manuscript is less than a hundred pages, with occasional sections irrevocably lost, and there is some debate about its authenticity, but unpolished and unfinished as it is, the draft starts an engrossing and fascinating story about time, memory, identity, and self-determination. A fictional version of Lewis, along with Elwin Ransom, the hero of the science fiction trilogy, and other scholars at Cambridge come together to experiment with a "chronoscope," a device that allows them to see some sort of alien world they call "Othertime." An adventure in interdimensional travel commences, though sadly we'll never know just where it was to bring us.

4. Dead Souls - Nikolai Gogol
This satiric masterpiece about the flaws of the Russian social character ends mid-sentence. Originally meant to be a trilogy, with each part a parallel to the three parts of Dante's Divina Commedia, Gogol only completed part one. Chichikov, in a cunning attempt to become wealthy and powerful, travels through the countryside offering to buy "dead souls" - serfs that had died but remained on census records and were taxable until stricken from those records - thereby gaining legal ownership rights and the chance to take out a substantial loan against his serfs. Chichikov is one of the best characters of Russian literature - cunning, complacent, morally corrupt, and yet guileless - and his string of misadventures is both hilariously absurd and unexpectedly tragic.

3. The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Originally intended to be the first part of a massive epic novel that was never completed due to Dostoevsky's death, The Brothers Karamazov is a spiritual and philosophical novel that examines morality, free will, and religious doubt. After Fyodor Karamazov, a callous and brutish landowner, is ruthlessly murdered, his sons' lives are torn apart - Ivan is on the verge of a psychological breakdown, Mitya is suspected of the murder, and Alyosha tries desperately to keep his family from falling apart. Enormously wide in scope and shot through with the visceral pain of complex moral dilemmas, this is one of the truly essential classic novels.

2. The Confessions of Felix Krull - Thomas Mann
A parody of Goethe's autobiography Poetry and Truth, Mann's last novel tells the story of Felix Krull, a narcissist and conman, whose flexible morals reward him with a life of sumptuous luxuries and hedonistic love affairs, always on someone else's bill. Krull writes his memoirs, claiming to fully condemn himself to honest self-reflection, and excelling rather at self-important apologetics. The unexpected windfalls and disasters are engrossing, and Krull's egotistical fatalism and capricious whimsy are delectably charming. This book is also proof that Mann had a sense of humor, and a well-developed one too, something that is often lacking in his other great works, much as I love them.

1. Suite Francaise - Irene Nemirovsky
Nemirovsky had completed only two of the five planned parts of her novel in 1942 when she was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz, where she died of typhus. The first part of Suite Francaise follows a group of diverse people, from all walks of life, living in Paris as the Germans march in and defeat the French, while the second part is about the inhabitants of a German-occupied French village as they adjust to defeat and occupation. The fact that Nemirovsky was writing these scenes as they actually occurred gives the novel a visceral intensity and heartbreaking immediacy. A rare work that allows us, decades later, to relive the terrifying uncertainty of the early years of World War II, this novel would have been an extraordinary achievement if Nemirovsky had survived the war and finished it, but her death renders the work all the more significant - it is a first-hand record of what life was like, without the reflections of hindsight, and a testimony to a great and silenced voice.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Very Best Films of the 70's

The 1970s were an intense decade - modern terrorism reared its ugly head, the disastrous war in Vietnam came to an end, Iran had a revolution, and thirty five nations signed the Helsinki Accords, an agreement guaranteeing human rights and freedoms. The cinema was no less troubled. The notorious Hays Code was replaced in 1968 by a form of the ratings system that we still use today and the years following were ones of cataclysmic change. Though many filmmakers, particularly in Europe, had been pushing the limitations imposed by censorship for a long time, the 70s were a time of intense and graphic exploration of adult themes, particularly sex and violence, in the cinema. Since I couldn't manage to restrict myself to just one choice per year, I've included some runners-up.

1970 - Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion
Elio Petri's satire of police corruption stars Gian Maria Volonte' in one of his finest performances as a respected police inspector who murders his mistress so that he can see if his colleagues will actually charge him for it, becoming increasingly desperate as the investigation founders. The combination of Dostoyevskian drama, blistering satire, and the turbulent politics of the time make for a potent viewing experience. A perfect example of the scathing political commentary many Italian filmmakers have integrated into their work.

Runners-up: Deep End, Little Big Man

1971 - Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Gene Wilder's iconic performance as Willy Wonka, a witty and sophisticated script by the novel's author, Roald Dahl, and David Seltzer, and fabulous songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley are just a few of the reasons this film is a masterpiece of the grotesquerie and the joy of childhood. Without pandering to more comfortable conceptions of innocence and wish-fulfillment, the film explores the disgusting effects of the materialistic consumerism and greed the parents teach their children, the exception being the charming and unselfish Charlie Bucket, played by non-professional actor Peter Ostrum.

Runners-up: A Clockwork Orange, The Sorrow and the Pity, Harold and Maude

1972 - Sleuth
Tour-de-force performances from Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine (who both received Oscar nominations) and a mind-bogglingly unpredictable plot make this superb film a classic. Andrew Wyke (Olivier), an aristocratic and eccentric writer of crime novels, has discovered that his wife is having an affair with Milo Tindle (Caine), a hairdresser and self-made man, and he invites him to his estate where they become involved in a tense competitive game, humiliating each other as more entangled secrets come to light.

Runners-up: Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Solaris, Cries and Whispers

1973 - Amarcord
Fellini's semi-autobiographical surrealist film recounts the coming of age of Titta during the Fascist regime. The comedic antics of Titta and his compatriots are punctuated with moments of nostalgic poignancy and an affection for the vagaries and perverse innocence of adolescence. The funniest scenes involve a parade of ecstatic jogging Fascists ("Mussolini has got balls this big!"), a madman who refuses to climb down from a tree unless he's brought a woman, and the most dangerous pair of breasts in movie history.

Runners-up: The Long Goodbye, Fantastic Planet

1974 - Young Frankenstein
Mel Brooks directed and Gene Wilder wrote and starred in this hilarious and yet emotionally dramatic send-up of classic monster movies, with a fabulous supporting cast including Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Madeleine Kahn, Marty Feldman, and Peter Boyle. Frankenstein's scientist grandson returns to the castle, where he decides to recreate his grandfather's experiments in reanimation. Unfortunately his assistant has stolen him a brain belonging to one "Abby Normal." The score by John Morris is lush and romantic, underpinning the sincere drama underneath the comedic routines.

Runners-up: Chinatown, Blazing Saddles, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

1975 - Picnic at Hanging Rock
In this suspenseful film by Peter Weir that offers no simple explanations, several schoolgirls and their teacher disappear into a recess at Hanging Rock while on a school outing, leaving their companions devastated and bewildered. The question of what has happened to them accrues ever more complex spiritual and psychological dimensions as the film progresses, with the haunting music of Gheorghe Zamfir and the delicate cinematography by Russell Boyd (achieved by stretching a bridal veil over the camera lens) deepening an already fraught atmosphere. 

Runners-up: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Barry Lyndon, The Magic Flute

1976 - Carrie
Brian De Palma's adaptation of the Stephen King novel has made an indelible mark on pop culture and continues to have a major influence on horror films (a remake directed by Kimberly Pierce comes out this week). When a group of girls in Carrie's gym class bully her after she gets her first period, the gym teacher punishes them so severely that it inspires a sadistic prank at the prom. The supernatural elements are largely peripheral until Carrie hits her breaking point, but, after, all this isn't so much a film about the horror of supernatural powers as it is about the horror of high school. 

A caveat: I haven't yet seen Taxi Driver, The Ascent, or 1900, all films that are likely to supersede Carrie.

1977 - The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
This is the finest film that the Disney studio produced between Walt's death in 1967 and the Disney Renaissance that began with The Little Mermaid in 1989. Based on A. A. Milne's beloved stories for children, the film is comprised of three linked episodes, centered around Pooh's adoration of "hunny," Eeyore's dogged attempts to find a house for Owl, and Tigger's acrimonious relationship with Rabbit. Though undeniably a children's movie, the voice performances are brilliant, the animation is top-notch, and the dialogue doesn't reveal the full extent of its wittiness until you're an adult.

1978 - La Cage aux folles
The owner of a drag nightclub (Ugo Tognazzi) has his life turned upside down when his son asks him to meet his potential and very conservative in-laws, while his long-time partner and star attraction (Michel Serrault) decides to take his role as substitute mother very seriously indeed. The radicalism of this early depiction of a fulfilling and happy (if flawed) gay "marriage" is easy to miss today, but the unpretentious and warm humor hasn't aged at all. The American remake doesn't hold candle to the original.

Runner-up: Days of Heaven

1979 - My Brilliant Career
One of my all-time favorite films and a feminist masterpiece, Gillian Armstrong's feature debut is based on a landmark Australian novel by Miles Franklin. Judy Davis plays Sybylla, a headstrong young woman determined to have a brilliant career, despite the limits of her 19th century world and provincial upbringing, who meets the wealthy and debonair Harry Beecham (Sam Neill). Her romance with him is soon in conflict with her artistic and professional ambitions. Historically accurate and yet still painfully relevant today, My Brilliant Career examines the decisions women face when they are not willing to be submerged in roles defined by the people around them, rather than by themselves.

Runners-up: Breaking Away, Being There, The Muppet Movie

Monday, October 7, 2013

How Feminist Are the Disney Princesses? (Not Much)

Like pretty much everyone of the home-video generation, I grew up on repeated viewings of Disney films. While I'm convinced that many of those films are masterpieces, as a woman and a feminist it can be really hard to swallow the female characters and particularly the princesses, especially when the Disney company seems to think the definition of feminist is "woman who sometimes speaks or does things" - a definition which actually asserts that she is alive, not feminist. It doesn't help that the princesses barely qualify as women - Cinderella is 19 or 20, Pocahontas is 18, Belle is 17, Aurora, Ariel, and Mulan are 16, Jasmine is 15, and Snow White is only 14. And nearly all of them get married at the end of the movie because child brides always live happily ever after. The princesses are all idealized personalities - modest, innocent, unselfish, sweet-tempered, virginal, and most of all, beautiful. Simply being those things doesn't automatically make them un-feminist, but do these characters have any feminist qualities? (Since I haven't seen more recent films like The Princess and the Frog and Tangled, I haven't included their heroines.) 

Snow White
Snow White's primary talents are domestic - she excels at cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry and she playacts a maternal role with the dwarfs. Her sole ambition and dream is to be carried off to Prince Charming's castle where they will live happily ever after. However, she also has an unexpected strength - an ability to recover her equilibrium and positivity after traumatic events. After she runs into the woods to escape her stepmother's assassination plot, she does get hysterical, but after she's expressed her fear, she begins to think practically and figure out where she's going to sleep that night. Snow White's hopes may be entirely tied up in Prince Charming, but she shows surprising self-sufficiency in the meantime.

3 out of 10.

The most mature and even-tempered of the princesses, Cinderella is also the most confined by circumstance. While all the other princesses seem to live in relatively comfortable if not downright luxurious households, Cinderella's family fortune has been squandered and her stepmother has complete financial authority. While it may be easy to question Cinderella's submission to doing the work of a household of servants, she has no means of supporting herself outside of her stepmother's control. She is undeniably oppressed, but she is also acting responsibly within the confines of a situation dictated by the patriarchal society in which she lives. She's far from a revolutionary, but she retains a strong sense of self and finds ways of lightening her burdens through friendship. It's also interesting that Cinderella never explicitly states what her dreams are, beyond "a dream is a wish your heart makes." 

4 out of 10.

Aurora (Sleeping Beauty)
Though there is a fatalistic quality to Philip and Aurora's meeting and falling in love, Aurora chooses Philip as much he chooses her, without caring about social station (fate takes a hand there) or familial obligation. Unlike in the traditional fairy tale, Aurora sees a familiar face when she wakes up, rather than being kissed (or in some versions raped) awake by a total stranger. While it is true that her dreams and ambitions are bound by romance and marriage, Philip's dreams are equally romantically and maritally focused. Ultimately Aurora is the victim and Philip the rescuer, but the dynamics of their relationship, far more egalitarian, have already been established. Aurora is almost entirely passive, following more powerful personalities, but it is worth noting that Philip is rather passive as well. He shows determination to defeat Maleficent, but he's pretty helpless without the (female) good fairies.

2 out of 10.

Ariel (The Little Mermaid)
Ariel is willing to give up everything - her family and friends, her ability to return to the only world she's ever known, her ability to speak - for the sake of a man who doesn't know she exists. The loss of her voice is crucial because it deprives her of any means of communicating complex thoughts or feelings. She is reduced to expressing only the most basic of emotions with simple gestures and facial expressions. Because of this, she is unable to form an actual relationship with Eric, continuing to hero-worship him, even as he treats her like a meaningless distraction. Although her infatuation with Eric is the catalyst for her decision to barter her voice for human legs, she had an underlying interest in exploring the human world long before she saw him and her enthusiasm for new experiences, like riding in a carriage or seeing a puppet show, stems from that enthusiasm. Her ambitions are primarily romantic, but she also has a strong desire for greater knowledge and understanding.

4 out of 10.

Belle is frequently cited as a feminist Disney heroine, due to the fact that she reads books - mountains of books. But what is she reading? Apparently, in her favorite book, "she meets Prince Charming, but she won't discover that it's him til chapter three." Reading is far from an inherently feminist pastime - novels and fairy tales are traditionally women's literature. The reading argument would only sort of make sense if she were reading philosophy or natural science or some sort of book traditionally considered suitable only for men. Belle's actions are usually reactions to her feelings for the men around her, and though she, like Ariel, is sometimes rebellious, ultimately she is a dutiful daughter and girlfriend with no ambitions of her own, despite her avowed desire for "adventure in the great wide somewhere" - that only works if by adventure she means being held prisoner in place of her beloved father by a really angry guy that she eventually marries.

3 out of 10.

The main problem with Jasmine is her stupidity. She is one dumb broad. She spends significant time crying over a boy she is told was beheaded and then, when she realizes that the prince she's dating is the same guy, she never stops to wonder, who got beheaded? How the heck did he get out of that mess? Aladdin of course describes her as smart because that would be the politically correct thing to do, but doesn't change the fact that she's stupid. Jasmine makes a lot of noise about not being "a prize to be won," which is all very nice except that that is exactly what she is. While she does choose the guy who loves her rather than the power of the sultanate, she remains the path to the throne - and the option of not getting married is never considered because the kingdom needs an heir. And by choosing Aladdin as her husband, she's also choosing him - a completely uneducated boy without any training in statesmanship - to take control of an absolutist government. Her personal choice might be smart for her, but for the sultan's subjects.... I'd be a bit concerned.

4 out of 10.

First of all, let me relieve my feelings by saying that Pocahontas is maddening - it takes a fascinating historical occurrence and comes up with a version in which Native Americans speak English and wear mini-dresses and those Europeans wouldn't have been such meanies if it weren't for Governor Ratcliffe. Now that I've got that off my chest, back to business. Pocahontas relishes her freedom and her solitude, but sees marriage as a duty to her father - "Should I marry Kocoum? Is all my dreaming at an end? Or do you still wait for me dream-giver?" The unfortunate implication is that her dreams are wrapped up in some shadowy male figure, which she eventually identifies as John Smith, who provides her with her dreams. This highly adolescent attitude posits her decision as a choice between reality and adulthood with an actual husband or an airy fairy dream-fueled mirage with an imagined ideal. In the end however, Pocahontas chooses to remain with her own people rather than leaving for England with John Smith and leaving behind everyone and everything she's ever known or loved. Her own life and happiness is tied up in her identity, rather than the man she loves.

6 out of 10.

Mulan spends most of the movie disguised as a man, strengthening her body and developing fighting skills, and taking the substantial risk of losing her life if she is discovered. In the early scenes, her tomboyishness and inability to fit in are demonstrated by her total incapacity in such traditional feminine skills as serving tea and putting on make-up. Mulan is undoubtedly the most physically formidable princess and the one most capable of taking care of herself. She doesn't abandon her familial obligations; rather, she reinterprets them to fit her own personality. Her relationship with Shang is also the most complex of the Disney repertoire of romantic couples - she and Shang develop a friendship and a brotherly bond, which only develops into romantic interest at the very end of the film. Shang does rescue Mulan at some points, but Mulan also rescues him, creating a positive reciprocal bond, with less clearly defined gender divisions. Mulan is also the only one of the princesses that's allowed to be imperfect and make a fool of herself.

7 out of 10.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

If You Think Sex Was Invented in the Sixties, Read These Books

Human beings have always had a distinct taste for the bawdy and salacious, but it isn't uncommon in our modern age of swoonily nostalgic Janeites and easily accessed pornography to assume that sex as we know it was invented at Woodstock in 1969, a renascence of the distant Roman Empire's debaucheries. Not so. Every era has produced its own erotic literature and relished it. While there's little doubt that sex in Victorian literature was a wee bit more, ahem, refined, even the Victorians, whom we so love to deride as prudish and repressed, made up for it with a booming trade in prostitution and pornographic photographs. All of the books on this list were written, and most published, before 1800.

The Metamorphoses - Ovid (8 AD)
Chronicling history from creation to Caesar's deification, and recounting more than 250 mythic stories in the process, Ovid's masterpiece is one of the most influential works of Western literature. Ovid's favored theme is love in all its incarnations, from the lustful love of Venus for Adonis to the self-love of Narcissus, the tragic love of Orpheus for Eurydice to the jealous love of Juno for Jupiter. Sex in the Roman mythological universe is a lavish cornucopia of experiences, which makes modern day pornography look rather tame.

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (1616, written 12th century)
Abelard and Heloise were two of the most brilliant minds of ecclesiastical Medieval society, lovers whose tempestuous affair led to an illegitimate child and Abelard's castration at the hands of her incensed relatives. Abelard became a monk, a renowned philosopher and teacher, while Heloise became an abbess and one of the few respected and admired female scholars of her time. Their correspondence centers on religious and spiritual concerns, but also divulges the history of their legendary amour.

The Decameron - Giovanni Boccaccio (1353)
A group of young men and women take refuge in a country estate from the plague raging in Florence, where they pass the time telling stories on different themes. Sex, the most conspicuous theme, is portrayed as both a healthy human impulse and an undeniable appetite. The clergy, particularly cloistered nuns and traveling monks, are as susceptible as the troublemakers, gamblers, and aristocrats. The stories, ranging from the side-splitting to the tragic, weave a colorful and kaleidoscopic tapestry of 14th century Italian life.

The Canterbury Tales - Geoffrey Chaucer (1400)
The seminal work of English language literature, Chaucer's magnum opus is a collection of tales related by the diverse men and women who meet on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. The prologue of the Wife of Bath, in which a sexually rapacious woman exhausts her husbands to death with her unending demands, is the most notoriously lascivious of the tales. The book is heavily influenced by The Decameron, particularly in its often humorous depictions of the clergy. 

Pick a Shakespeare, Any Shakespeare (1589-1613)
Shakespeare is undoubtedly the king of sexy one-liners, puns, and metaphors, and nearly every play has examples, from Romeo and Juliet to As You Like It, A Midsummer Night's Dream to Hamlet. Take this advice on women that Mercutio gives Romeo: "Oh that she were/An open arse and thou a poperin pear." Or this from "Sonnets to Sundry Notes of Music:" "Were kisses all the joys in bed,/One woman would another wed."

Moll Flanders - Daniel Defoe (1722)
Written as the memoirs of a reformed prostitute and thief, Moll Flanders follows its anti-heroine from her birth in Newgate Prison to a mother facing transportation to her eventual penitence and return to an honest way of living. The book's frank depiction of female sexuality, prostitution, and incest, and in particular Moll's eventual good fortune, has made it a frequent target for censorship.

Tom Jones - Henry Fielding (1749) 
Tom Jones is a foundling child, adopted by the Squire Allworthy, who despite his affection for his foster son, objects to Tom's pursuit of the virtuous Sophia. Tom's situation as a bastard of unknown parentage is the occasion of biting social satire, but his amorous adventures with various ladies of both ill and sound repute would give Casanova a run for his money. Tom Jones is a comic gem.

Les liaisons dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1782)
This epistolary novel tells the story of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, aristocratic ex-lovers who exact a heady revenge on each other by seducing and humiliating the innocent and virtuous, recounting their successes and misadventures in a malicious correspondence. Whether interpreted as a condemnation of the excessive vices of the blase aristocracy or a salacious and voyeuristic glimpse into their luxurious debaucheries, this novel is a guilty pleasure.  

The 120 Days of Sodom - Marquis de Sade (1905, written 1785)
Written while the Marquis was imprisoned in the Bastille, this notorious novel is about four wealthy men who repair to a remote castle and indulge in every conceivable sexual and sadomasochistic scenario they can think of. Deeply misogynistic, the unfinished work portrays sex as a parade of rape and torture, most of it committed on women. Though I can't recommend a book that I find repulsive, look no further for confirmation that our ancestors weren't as straitlaced as we might think. In the Marquis's own words, "the most impure tale that has ever been told since the world began."