The sated world

Felicity Plunkett savours the delicious details of an ardently lived life in Susan Johnson's My Hundred Lovers

My Hundred Lovers has two epigraphs. The first is from Walt Whitman's exuberant ''Song of Myself'' - the celebration of a vast and multifarious persona, who declares: ''I contain multitudes''. Johnson's excerpt is a vision of lovers ''crowding my lips, thick in the pores of my skin''. Restless in their crying and calling, they illuminate the persona's ''every moment''. The second is Simone de Beauvoir's suggestion in The Second Sex that if ''the body is not a thing, it is a situation … the instrument of our grasp upon the world''. In this sensual novel, Johnson follows Whitman and de Beauvoir in reimagining the self and charting the currents of desire, connection and eroticism.

Since her debut novel, Messages from Chaos, Johnson's writing has explored the embodied heart and imagination. There, protagonist Anna defines and curtails her own happiness through her relationship with her married lover. Since then, Johnson's work has often taken in abjection and pining, perhaps most strikingly in the eroticism and loss of Hungry Ghosts, in which two women friends find themselves in a destructive triangular relationship.

In her powerful non-fictional work A Better Woman, Johnson writes about birth and motherhood. While her craft is such that a fictional ''I'' is often assumed to be autobiographical, in this case craft and crafting - and in very literal ways the making and remaking of women's bodies and lives - brings the necessary artifice of life-writing into focus. At the same time, it offers a raw expression of feelings of loss in motherhood.

My Hundred Lovers is again about a woman's bodily experience. Its conceit is a 50-year-old woman considering the lovers she has had. The novel works playfully against its title to highlight the reductiveness of such a taxonomical approach to a history of pleasure. Instead, this alternative history begins with conception and flourishes in utero as the protagonist is created: ''the glistening chambers of the heart, the ductless glands, the nuchal membrane'', and then, importantly: ''the coiled ear getting ready to hear, the pearly eye to see''. The baby is born into her first love. Because her eyes are closed, she discovers her mother through her scents.

At 50, the protagonist believes her body to be ''in the thrilling first flush of its death throes''. In her first five decades, though, the accretion of sensual memories within and beyond relationships is her focus, and Johnson's short chapters capture radiant moments: a kiss, flight, skin, feet, a cat, as well as flashes of limerence and love.

The pleasures of bathing, cycling, Paris and song are threaded through memories of unrequited love, unrealised longing and lovers known by arch nicknames - the dissolute lover, the beery-mouth lover, the sad-faced boy. An overarching narrative of marriage and motherhood is foreshadowed in fragments. Slivers of a life are juxtaposed in ways that generate wit and verve, and the sublime sits alongside the surprising, the latter exemplified by the sexual predilections of ''the bottom lover''.


Johnson's melding of lyrical moments with anatomical detail and bawdy humour makes for a lively catalogue of 50 years of love, but wrapped around this is another layer that enriches the novel. Johnson returns to the observation that it is a rare kind of privilege that allows the sensual to be life's crucial focus.

Early in the novel the protagonist describes herself as ''an ordinary citizen of the sated world''. In the 50 years of her life, she reflects, she has experienced no wars or plagues. Her experience is not without loss and betrayal, but in this ''rare, safe moment of history'' she has been able to live ''unembroidered by historical grandeur or incident''. Later, she puts it this way: ''For everyone safe from war, injustice, plagues and starvation, the choice of who [sic] to love becomes the most important question of existence''. She ponders: ''Work and love, is there anything else?''

This is not to say that life has been without incident for the protagonist (who is only fleetingly referred to by her name, which, teasingly, is Susie). There is reference to historical events, but Johnson's characters are comfortable and busy as they unfold. ''It is a well-known fact'', Johnson's narrator comments in a tone reminiscent of that of the opening of Pride and Prejudice and freighted with similar ironies, ''that private obstinacies take precedence over history.''

Super Nan, the protagonist's great-grandmother, is imagined ''looking the other way, tying her shoelaces'' as the Great War takes place. In a whimsical whirl through her life, reminiscent of Kate Grenville's early novel Joan Makes History, events whip past: the invention of aeroplanes and cars, the introduction of electricity, telephones and flushing toilets.

Later, in a dazzling passage, Super Nan's daughter, Nana Elsie, is depicted arguing with her husband ''about his long-standing refusal to learn to dance''. As the young couple argues over their breakfast eggs about her dancing with a handsome captain the night before, the bomb is dropped on Hiroshima.

This tying of shoelaces and bickering over breakfast recalls Auden's poem ''Museé des Beaux Arts'', in which Icarus falls from the sky while ''everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster''. The poem argues that suffering takes place while ''someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along''.

There's not much of the dull or leisurely in Johnson's novel, but her framing of the novel's pleasures with a similar philosophical stance is provocative. The description of the narrator as a ''citizen of the sated world'' returns in the final chapter. Here, she proclaims herself, in one of the novel's jolts into the first person, ''hopelessly ardent'' as she stands before life in all its terror and thrill. The delicious details of this ardently lived life are charted in ways that never lose sight of its luck and luxury.

Felicity Plunkett is poetry editor for UQP.

My Hundred Lovers. By Susan Johnson. Allen & Unwin. 266pp. $27.99.