My Hundred Lovers, p.1Susan Johnson
Praise for The Broken Book
‘Both very Australian and resoundingly international, The Broken Book confirms Johnson’s status as one of the finest Australian writers . . . fiercely beautiful.’ The Australian
‘A bold narrative, in which we’re constantly reminded by the quality of her prose that this is an imaginative work . . . It’s a kaleidoscope of memory, jagged and disordered as the artist’s tragic life.’ Canberra Times
‘An astonishing novel . . . a jewel of a book.’ Vogue Australia
‘The Broken Book is wonderfully rich, complex and compelling. Susan Johnson has created an audacious and original novel with an awe-inspiring ability to explore emotional truths.’ Daily Advertiser
Praise for Life in Seven Mistakes
‘Feeling, insight, rambunctious wit.’ New York Times Book Review
‘She has a knack for presenting what can be unbearable in reality, of rendering it on the page with tremendous heart.’ Sydney Morning Herald
Susan Johnson was shortlisted for the 1991 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for her novel Flying Lessons, shortlisted for the 1994 National Book Council’s Banjo Award for the novel A Big Life and shortlisted for the National Biography Award 2000 for her memoir A Better Woman. Her other books include Hungry Ghosts, Messages from Chaos, Women Love Sex (editor and contributor) and Life in Seven Mistakes. The Broken Book was shortlisted for the 2005 Nita B Kibble Award; the Best Fiction Book section of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award; the Westfield/Waverley Library Literary Award; and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal Award for an Outstanding Australian Literary Work.
In 2010 she returned from ten years in London to live in Brisbane. She is a feature writer at Qweekend magazine, and lives with her teenage sons in Kangaroo Point.
ALSO BY SUSAN JOHNSON
Latitudes: New Writing from the North (co-editor, 1986)
Messages from Chaos (1987)
Flying Lessons (1990)
A Big Life (1993)
Women Love Sex (editor, 1996)
Hungry Ghosts (1996)
The Broken Book (2004)
Life in Seven Mistakes (2008)
A Better Woman (1999)
On Beauty (2009)
First published in 2012
Copyright © Susan Johnson 2012
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.
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For Simone Bocognano, with love and admiration
My lovers suffocate me,
Crowding my lips, thick in the pores of my skin,
Jostling me through streets and public halls, coming naked to me at night,
Crying by day, Ahoy! from the rocks of the river, swinging and
chirping over my head,
Calling my name from flower-beds, vines, tangled underbrush,
Lighting on every moment of my life . . .
‘Song of Myself’
If the body is not a thing, it is a situation . . .
it is the instrument of our grasp upon the world.
SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR,
The Second Sex
The seventh lover
The first girl I loved
Ten, Eleven, Twelve
The smell of love
Mother’s red fingernails
The dog who loved me
The perfect lover
I slept with the man who slept with the girl who slept with the man who slept with the girl who slept with Bob Dylan
A lover’s kiss
The beery-mouthed lover
The first lover who entered my body
The music lover
The flowered bud, wrestled
The shadow lover
Kiss me, Steph
Even dead husbands must be counted
Words in her fingers
Forty-Four, Forty-Five, Forty-Six
Three men in one day
The lover who fell in love with desire
The lover oblivion
The blind lover
The boss lover
The dissolute lover
The impotent lover
Nana Elsie, encore—épater le bourgeois!
The romantic lover
The bottom lover
The deflowerer, again
The wine lover
The beach lover
The beautiful lover
The house she fell in love with
The love of hands
The worried lover
The bird lover
Marché aux puces
Song of Songs
The legs pumping
The bath lover
Coup de foudre —The princely lover
The tree lover
A black pearl
David, David, David
The unrequited lover
The first lover I slept with after I lost my husband
Another house as object lover
The deathly lover
The second-last lover
The Hundredth Lover
ROMANCE BETWEEN THE AVERAGE COUPLE dies two years, six months and twenty-five days into marriage.
This regrettable statistic is based on a 2009 survey into the hearts of three thousand English couples.
Romance was alive and well one night in 1959 in Sydney, Australia, when my father’s penis first slipped inside my mother. In the back seat of his blue Humber my mother was losing her bra, her girdle, her girlish breath and it was not yet clear what she was gaining.
Romance between this average couple died on a bright winter’s morning some eight months, two days and ten hours into their marriage, when my mother caught my father kissing the prettiest of his secretaries while simultaneously attempting to unhook her underwire bra. My mother had thought to surprise my father with an unannounced visit to his office but it was she who got the surprise.
She was eight months pregnant, no good at forgiveness, and she was trapped. Trapped in a marriage, trapped in her body, trapped, trapped, trapped.
My father, David, was fatal to women. Technically he should not have been handsome, in that he possessed somewhat large crooked teeth and a lopsided smile, yet somehow his hooded grey eyes and his slow easy grace made you think he was good-looking. He was tall and big-shouldered, with a kind of drawling sensuality about his person which more properly belonged to the bedroom. He had very sensual lips.
My father was what is called a seductive father.
My father was a suburban sex god.
HERE IS THE WARMTH, NO, the heat, the pulse of blood. Here is the collision—of circumstances, of DNA, of myriad impossible, unutterable hopes.
Everything is coming together: the past, the future, memory, forgetting. A circumstantial joining, a burst, a throb.
Soon the glistening chambers of the heart, the ductless glands, the nuchal membrane, as transparent as vapour. The coiled ear getting ready to hear, the pearly eye to see.
Soon the first sound: the beats of my mother’s heart.
All the world’s wonders, arriving!
Some time later, I am born.
I feel the embrace of arms, of hands, of soft materials against my skin. For the first time I feel the roll of the nipple against my tongue. Sweet milk floods my mouth, a trace of salt. My eyes are closed and there is the smell of the first woman, my mother, a musky animal smell that comes from under my mother’s arms, from her breath, from between her legs. My first love.
Can a body, confined to the modest compass of an ordinary skin, tell you everything? In the fifty years between my birth and now I have experienced no wars or plagues. I was born into the western world in a rare, safe moment of history. I stand here unembroidered by historical grandeur or incident.
I am an ordinary citizen of the sated world and nothing exceptional has ever happened to me, save the commonplace and extraordinary fact that, like you, I was born, I was born, I was born.
In the last few years I have felt myself to be increasingly laden with memories, as if the past is more weighted, more densely textured, than the present.
On certain days I feel as if I might walk straight from the present into the past, so near does it feel to me. I remember the smell of rooms, and the way my legs looked on a summer morning long ago when Nina Payne and I lay on our backs and put our legs up against the wall of our house. I remember the feel of the hot wall against my heels and noticing for the first time that my legs were hairy. There was the rattle and hiss of cicadas in the trees above us and the sickly smell of frangipani mixed with fragrant clouds of jasmine. The jasmine ran up the wall, spilling above our legs in white frothy profusion.
The topography of this long-ago moment is readily available to me, the exact shape of it, the colour and taste: it is the present moment which is dissolving.
In the months leading up to my fiftieth birthday I observed the first tentative signs of life’s waning. The blood which had flowed from me month after month for almost forty years began to flow fitfully. At the same time the face I had worn all my adult life began to change into the face of someone else. I was forced to understand that there was a direct link between the body’s hormonal succulence and the succulence of youth.
I was drying up.
My body was in the thrilling first flush of its death throes.
I have witnessed my grandmother’s waning, and my mother’s, both reduced to pure body in the end. In their last years and months each became a body without a mind to comprehend it, fleshy vessels for ingesting and excreting, since everything their once-teeming brains knew had vanished. They lived without cognitive maps, living on in their bodies without memories. As I watched the departure of my mother, I began to consider exactly what is essential in a human being. It seemed to me that once a person forgets the music she has heard, the places she has seen and the faces she has known, she becomes like a person in a photograph, resembling herself but locked in a moment that has passed. And once a person loses the memory of desire, the ability to understand the difference between want and its absence, between happiness and unhappiness, the most fundamental apprehension of existence is lost.
I understood then that a person estranged from the body’s meaning has slipped the bonds of herself. Disembodied from the memory of touch and want, from the remembered breaths of lovers and children and friends, a self is vanished. If it is true that we are more than our bodies, it is also true that without an apprehension of our
Half a century has passed since I entered the world through that now-perished body.
A human lifespan is less than a thousand months long.
I find myself gripped by an urge to tidy up, to sort through my body’s memories, a curator arranging artefacts in a museum. I have lived my way into a time in which my body has its own archaeology.
I am in a fever to outrun myself, to be first to reach the ribbon, before my body forgets what it means to run.
I look behind me and remember a prickle upon the skin, a swoop of pain, the rush of blood to the face when I saw a man with whom I was newly in love. I remember the way my stomach lurched whenever I saw him, as if I were travelling too fast in a car over an unexpected hill. My heart has a memory.
I recall the sensation of love in the rhythm my grandmother, Nana Elsie, tapped out upon my back when she was cradling me, long after I was a child, when I was a big, ungainly adolescent girl with hormonal pimples. Her love singled me out, filled me with a swelling feeling of joy, as if inoculating me against the grief and pain to come.
I remember a peach I once ate in a garden in France, sitting next to my new husband. The sweetness of the peach seemed to match the sweetness at the heart of the world. At that moment I believed I would never again feel contingent, or estranged from sweetness.
I remember the hot swell of newborn flesh against my breast as I suckled my son, and how there was nothing but repletion in his fresh eyes.
And who but me will remember these things? Who but me experienced them with her ten fingers and ten toes, with her plain body with its particular scars, the story of a life made manifest?
So, as I begin my sure withering, I pluck the humble stories from my body, knowing that as I do I am not eminent or lofty or exceptional. I am but one of many, one of the hundreds, thousands, millions of bodies that have passed this way. I am one of the shabby crowd, nameless, singular.
Here’s another thing: one day not long before she lost possession of her body, Nana Elsie told me that she could no longer find her lips. ‘Someone’s taken them,’ she said, running manic fingers across her face.
I took her fingers and placed them on her lips. ‘Look,’ I said.
‘Here they are.’
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