When I was 12 or 13 years old, you couldn’t keep me away from the novels of Dennis Wheatley – more precisely, away from Wheatley’s occult novels, such as The Devil Rides Out, To the Devil a Daughter, They Used Dark Forces and Gateway to Hell, which coincidently are the only books in Wheatley’s huge catalogue that anyone remembers today.
These were crammed with things that at the time seemed utterly cool to me, things such as astral projection, demonic possession, revived corpses, evil slug-like elemental beings from other planes of existence, diabolic homunculi needing virginal blood to be brought to life, chalk pentacles offering shelter from assaults by the powers of darkness, unholy talismans with the potential to unleash the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and devil-worshipping sabbats climaxing in the summoning of the Goat of Mendes (who was basically Old Nick himself, in the form of a goat-headed man). Admittedly, there was some tedious stuff too in those books, such as Wheatley’s prose style, which even at the age of 12 or 13 I realised was pretty bad, and the large number of boring-seeming Satanic orgies that went on – though I was prepared to wade through those orgies so long as the Goat of Mendes was guaranteed to make an appearance at the end of them. Of course, I now realise that I was the only adolescent boy in the world who wasn’t reading Wheatley’s potboilers for the orgy scenes.
There was a problem with getting hold of Wheatley’s novels, however. In the 1970s, his occult thrillers were published by Arrow Books in a variety of saucy covers – each book was adorned with a picture of a naked, big-breasted lady dancing about a giant flame while some Satanic-looking artefact (a skull, a goat’s head, a broken cross, a devilish-looking African mask) hovered in the foreground. With the amount of naked female flesh displayed on them, I felt extremely awkward as a 12 or 13-year-old boy buying those novels in Whitie’s, which at the time was the main bookshop on Peebles High Street. In fact, when I bought my first Wheatley novel – The Devil Rides Out – I remember Mrs Whitie, a formidable old lady who could probably have taken on a coven of Wheatley’s evilest devil worshippers and kicked their heads in, staring over the counter at me with a withering mixture of pity and contempt, and then sighing and saying, “I suppose we’d better stick this in a brown paper bag for you.” What I could really have done with in the 1970s, I realise now, was a Kindle, so that I could have downloaded any novel I wanted without worrying about smutty covers and the disdain of terrifying bookshop owners like Mrs Whitie. (Of course, back then, I would have also needed an Internet from which to download those novels…)
(c) Vintage Books
Which brings me in a roundabout way to Fifty Shades of Grey. Unless you’ve spent the last few months living on the moon, with a serious communications-satellite malfunction disrupting contact between you and the earth, you’ll know that this is a massively fast-selling novel by British novelist E.L. James. Apparently, it’s already sold in such quantities that it makes Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows look like a minority read in the category of Finnegan’s Wake or Tristram Shandy. Part of Fifty Shades’ phenomenal success has been attributed to the discretion with which it can be downloaded onto e-reading devices – quite simply, you can get hold of it without anyone else knowing you’ve got hold of it. And the reasons why you might want to keep your acquisition of Fifty Shades of Grey a secret are as follows:
1. It’s full of descriptions of BDSM. (That’s bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism, if you’re not familiar with such naughty acronyms.) Indeed, the book’s supposed graphicness, and its popularity among women over the age of 30, has caused the media to label it ‘mummy porn’. I should say that I know loads of women over the age of 30, both mummies and non-mummies, whom I don’t think would touch this book with a bargepole – not out of prudishness, but because it comes across as being totally, well, lame.
2. It has already become infamous for the low quality of its writing, so it’s not the sort of book you should wave around if you want people to think you possess any sort of brain
3. And its origins are embarrassing. Originally, James wrote the story as fan fiction involving the two main characters in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, and put it on a Twilight fan website. (Only later did the protagonists turn into those featured in Fifty Shades of Grey, a college student called Anastasia Steele and a successful Seattle-based entrepreneur called Christian Grey.) Needless to say, reading a book that was initially about Bella and Edward in Twilight is unlikely to enhance any adult person’s street credibility.
Now I have nothing against BDSM – if that’s what floats your boat and if you find a consulting adult to do it with. And I have nothing against bad writing – after all, I still harbour a soft spot for Dennis Wheatley and his prose was turgid to say the least. And I even have nothing against fan fiction. (For the record, I should say that the first book I ever wrote was one composed at the age of 11, written by hand and self-illustrated, which was inspired by the then-popular Target-Books novelisations of adventures from the classic Doctor Who series. It was titled Doctor Who and the Blood-Lust of the Sontarans. However, I think even my 11-year-old self would have drawn the line at writing stories about wimpy, spangly Mormon vampires. And by my calculations James was writing those when she was in her forties.)
No, what riles me about the Fifty Shades phenomenon is the manner in which it is so obviously a huge marketing exercise – not about nurturing and disseminating story-telling talent but about shifting units of lucrative product. During the book’s inception, you can imagine a boardroom of guys in suits obsessing over a Microsoft Power Point presentation detailing the targeted demographic – a few million Daily Mail-reading ladies of a certain age who have a secret yen for getting flogged with a riding crop. The fact that Mills and Boon, which is to women’s romantic fiction what McDonald’s is to cuisine, has recently jumped on the Fifty Shades bandwagon by launching a new, laughable-sounding series of erotica called Twelve Shades of Surrender says it all.
The website buzzfeed.com has done the discerning reading public a favour by printing the fifteen worst (or possibly, depending on your viewpoint, best) lines from Fifty Shades. In other words, you can get a flavour of it without having to read the whole damned thing. I can only say that prose such as “The muscles inside the deepest, darkest part of me clench in the most delicious fashion…” or “Desire, acute, liquid and smouldering, combusts deep in my belly…” or “My insides practically contort with potent, needy, liquid desire…” doesn’t really bring to mind taboo-breaking sex games in Seattle. Rather, it makes me think of sitting on a toilet in Delhi with a severe dose of the runs. Anyway, you can subject yourself to more of this by visiting http://www.buzzfeed.com/expresident/the-15-bestworst-lines-from-erotic-bestseller-fif.
Meanwhile, another recent book by a female author that, if you can’t download it onto your Kindle, you might want to remove from the bookshop hidden in a brown paper bag – in Tunisia at least – is Ma Verite by Leila Trabelsi.
Ms Trabelsi, of course, is a former hairdresser and the wife of former Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. She, her husband and most of her family had to flee Tunisia on January 14th, 2011, when the Tunisian Revolution – caused largely by people’s rage at the shameless manner in which the Trabelsi clan had helped themselves to the country’s wealth since her marriage to Ben Ali in 1992 – reached critical point.
Leila and her husband have spent the past 18 months in exile in Saudi Arabia. I assume that life in Saudi Arabia, which is not supposed to be exciting, has provided her with the free time necessary to pen this book and put forward her side of the story.
Attitudes towards the Trabelsi family in Tunisia can best be described as vitriolic. For many years the Trabelsis were effectively the country’s constitutionalised Mafia. They had a finger, or several fingers, in every possible financial pie – services, property, construction, tourism – and their overall wealth was rumoured to be to the tune of £3.5 billion. And while they led lives of luxury, they showed no qualms about squashing anyone who got in their way. Right up until January 14th, I heard a few Tunisians muttering that they even felt sorry for Ben Ali, since he was married to the grasping old dragon. He might even be able to remain in office, they speculated, “if he divorces his wife now.”
I’d heard that Ma Verite was obtainable in Tunisia, though booksellers were only stocking it behind their counters. Thus, it was a surprise to walk into a shop last weekend and see it openly on display – though when I picked it up and thumbed through it, I started to feel unpleasantly conspicuous, as if I was sniffing my way through a hard-core porn magazine in a public place. Because the book is written in French, I was unable to absorb much of it. I can only wonder how Leila presented her version of now-infamous events like, for instance, the day before her family’s hurried departure when she removed 1.5 tons of gold bars – half of the country’s gold reserves – from the Central Bank of Tunisia. “I absolutely had no idea. I was sitting on the plane to Jeddah and just happened to open my handbag and there it was! I must’ve accidentally placed the gold in my handbag while I was in the bank vault…”
I wonder too how she described her first and no-doubt passionate meeting with Ben Ali – back in 1992, when he was a dictator who obviously needed the love of a good woman, and she was a humble and from all accounts crass-minded and badly-educated hairdresser. Were there any echoes of E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey in her prose when she recalled how she felt her first stirrings for Zine El Abidine? “I rubbed the Grecian 2000 into his lustrous and virile locks and, meanwhile, my insides clenched and contorted as desire, acute and liquid, flooded through them…”
In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey and Leila Trabelsi’s life story have surely one thing in common. They both contain large amounts of BDSM. Leila and her brood kept their country in Bondage for nearly twenty years, ran it with ruthless, self-serving Discipline, and displayed plenty of Sadism in order to stay on top of the pile. And having to put up with the Trabelsis for so long was surely a joyless form of Masochism for the Tunisian people.