“But then or now, decent underwear or none, wild women never could hide their innocence – a kind of pity kitty hopefulness that their prince was on his way. Especially the tough ones with their box cutters and dirty language, or the glossy ones with two-seated cars and a pocket-book full of dope. Even the ones who wear scars like presidential medals and stockings rolled at their ankles can’t hide the sugar-child, the winsome baby girl curled up somewhere inside, between the ribs, say, or under the heart”
[Toni Morrison, Love]
Melissa Panarello doesn’t like the sound of diciannove (nineteen), the age she has just turned. Not that it matters, as she points out herself, in Italy after the publication of her first book One Hundred Strokes of the Brush before Bed (Cento colpi di spazzola prima di andare a dormire) upon hearing her name people immediately know how old she is. Her age was the key point of discussion when the book was published. Panarello was far from surprised by the scandal, when the book, with its frank portrayal of various sexual encounters, was published: ”Well, certainly the superficial reading the book got didn’t make me happy – she explains via email – but it was the easiest route for the critics and newspapers to take. Talking about the sex, in a scandalised fashion, as if it were the only thing interesting in the book”.
It seems slightly disingenuous, on Melissa’s part, suggesting that the critics had somehow focussed in on a minor issue. Be in no doubt, sex is central to the book, and it’s a particularly de-romantacised sex, that might shock coming from a mature woman, let alone one in her teens. She’s clear in her intent though, dismissing comparisons for example with Catherine Millet’s The Sexual life of Catherine M., precisely on the grounds that it is too considered a portrayal of sex: “I read it – she states – and didn’t like it. I don’t think of sex as intellectual or philosophical. I believe that sex is flesh and blood. The comparison couldn’t be more mistaken or forced: Millet is in her fifties, I’m nineteen, we come from different worlds, with different minds, plus – with what seems to have become a characteristically arrogant flourish – she’s uglier than me”.
So is her book pornography or literature, or does one rule out the other? “Well, first of all, I think that both pornography and erotica can definitely be works of literature”. She goes on to cite Henry Miller’s Opus Pistorum and Anaïs Nin’s Spy in the house of love as works of literature (with a capital L) that fall into the category of pornography/erotica. For the record, she considers her own book pornography. She has quite a different conception of pornography, though, from that of any so-called ‘moral majority’: “I find a sincerity in pornography (not in the common sense of ‘loyalt’), and purity of intent. Not everything that is pornographic is by definition superficial or vulgar. When pornography has an idea behind it, it can be profound and introspective, as much as any other work”.
It’s interesting that she uses the word introspective, because her own book is profoundly introspective. The diary runs from July 2000, through to August 2002. Reading through the book one could be forgiven for thinking that nothing noteworthy happened in the world, outside of Melissa’s sexual awakening. The only time the outside world gets a look in is an elliptical entry on 11 September: “Maybe Daniele is watching the same images on TV, the same ones as me”. She’s in agreement that the book is introspective and explains, tongue in cheek, “I’m a terrible narcisist, the critics should know that”. But the introspection was more than simple vanity: “The only world the reader can access is that of Melissa. All the other worlds are unreal and far away, just disturbing echoes of the private reality”.
Much of the focus of critics has been on the degree of autobiographical detail in the book. Indeed, in Italy there was an undercurrent in much of the criticism, suggesting that the book couldn’t have been written by Melissa herself, and must have been written by someone much older and more experienced in the ways of the world. The argument was patronising to say the least, and, one feels, came more from an inability to accept that a young girl could have had such sordid experiences rather than a serious analysis of the author’s style. What it did do though was to provoke Panarello’s defence of her own experience. The book is described as autobiography mixed with fiction, but, by strongly defending the veracity of the experience, isn’t there a danger of minimising the imaginative role of the writer? “Even though my experiences were real – she defends – I can’t deny that imagination played a strong role. If you write without imagination the result isn’t a novel, rather some type of journal or chronicle, devoid of emotion and inspiration”. She continues, “there are two types of experience: the real and the virtual. Every author, in every genre, writes between the two”.