Jamie Rector for The New York Times
Toni Bentley, a former ballerina, is the author of ''The Surrender.''


Once Forbidden,
Now Championed

By CHARLES McGRATH

Published: October 15, 2004

Every now and then there's a dirty book so literary, or a literary book so dirty, that it becomes a must read or at least a must-discuss among the sorts of people who would never let themselves be seen hanging around the porn shelf.

"The Sexual Life of Catherine M.," a French art critic's memoir of her numberless sexual encounters, was such a book; though indifferently reviewed here, it spent months on the best-seller list in 2002. "100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed," a fictionalized erotic memoir by Melissa Panarello, a 17-year-old Sicilian girl, will almost surely be such a book when it's published here next month; it has already sold more than half a million copies in Italy. And in the meantime there is a homegrown version, "The Surrender: An Erotic Memoir," by Toni Bentley, a book whose demure black dust jacket folds back to reveal the same painting of a wispily clad posterior that was the opening shot in the movie "Lost in Translation."

No less a highbrow than Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has declared "The Surrender" a "small masterpiece of erotic writing."


Jamie Rector

"The Surrender" is an extremely graphic memoir and also a paean to a sexual practice once thought so forbidden that Constance and Mellors, for example, didn't get around to it until Chapter 16 of "Lady Chatterley's Lover," and even then Lawrence veiled his description in a way he thought might confound the censors. (They weren't fooled.) The passage — the one in which Constance, "a little startled and almost unwilling," is "pierced again with piercing thrills of sensuality, different, sharper, more terrible than the thrills of tenderness" — depicts what Section 12 of the British Sexual Offences Act used to call "buggery."

We have the more clinical term "anal intercourse," and according to several recent books, it is now just one more item on the vast, taboo-less sexual menu available to consenting adults. The subject is still not so embarrassment-free, however, or so un-nervous-making that a single conversation about Ms. Bentley's book can take place without eliciting a frantic spate of jokes and bad puns. Even the author can't help writing about her "back story" and her "behind-sight."

But Ms. Bentley also has this to say: "Bliss, I learned from being sodomized, is an experience of eternity in a moment of real time" and "The penetration is deeper, more profound; it rides the edge of sanity. The direct path . . . to God, has become clear, has been cleared."

The author is a throwback, in other words. At a time when so much sexual writing aims, like Catherine M.'s book, to demystify and de-emotionalize sex — to reduce it to a physical and hormonal process not much different from, say, scratching an itch — Ms. Bentley belongs to the old tradition of hyperbole and overwriting, the tradition of Lawrence, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, which sees sex as an avenue to spirituality, to the mystical and sublime.

A lot of this writing, with its billowing waves, its dark abysses and searing flames burning the soul to tinder, is nonsense, of course, but it's sometimes splendid nonsense, and every now and then, when she's not talking about crotchless panties or how she collected her lover's used condoms, Ms. Bentley hits the grand rhapsodic note, as when she writes, "I became an archetype, a myth, a Joseph Campbell goddess spreading my legs for the benefit of all mankind for all time."

Tall, graceful and still ballerina-thin, Ms. Bentley, who lives in California, was in New York City this week for a book party (sponsored by Playboy, which has excerpted "The Surrender") and for what must surely be a first in the history of book publicity: consecutive interviews with the Howard Stern show and "Topic A With Tina Brown."

Ms. Bentley is not your typical dirty-book writer. For 10 years she danced with the New York City Ballet, under Balanchine, and in 1982, when she was just 21, she published "Winter Season: A Dancer's Journal," one of the better dancer's books ever written. She was co-author of the autobiography of her idol, Suzanne Farrell, and also wrote a book about the costume designer Barbara Karinska and "Sisters of Salome," a scholarly book about striptease, which she herself researched by stripping at the old Blue Angel in TriBeCa. (One night she made $89 in tips, more, she says, than she ever earned dancing "Concerto Barocco" or "Symphony in C.")

Much of the fuss about her book, she acknowledged in an interview, has to do with its subject matter. "Anal sex — it's not a taboo, but it is," she said, and she added that she originally thought of publishing under the pseudonym Madeleine Leclerc (in partial homage to the character Madeleine, the Marquis de Sade's lover in the movie "Quills").

After some amicable discussion, her parents and brother decided not to read the book. About the reaction of others, she said, "I'm wary, but I know I can't stop people from seeing it the way they want to see it." She has already heard from the predictable weirdos who are eager to date her; from dozens of feminists, who think she has set back the cause by a hundred years; and from a number of married men who wish their wives were more sexually adventurous. "For a lot of these men, I think I'm like Florence Nightingale," she said.

But Ms. Bentley, who talks in very rapid, perfectly formed sentences, like a dancer performing fouettés, is not in the least coy or embarrassed about "The Surrender," nor does she see it as a break with her ballet past. "For a dancer, dancing is an art form that offers the possibility of physical transcendence," she said, "and that's what great sex does. It's about using your body to get to a higher spiritual plane."

She went on: "I'm obviously an exhibitionist, but I wrote this book for myself — to understand what was happening to me. I want to live in that land — fairyland, the place of transcendent beauty — and I found that that can happen in reality. But no one was more surprised than me to discover that it could happen by this particular route."

When she was working on "Winter Season," Ms. Bentley recalled, she worried about how Balanchine, who was a father figure to her, and whose presence — charming, formidable, elusive — dominates the book, would react. It turned out he admired "Winter Season," which he read not long before he died.

Inevitably, she has wondered what Mr. B. would have made of "The Surrender." "I think it would have amused him, " she said. "My greatest flaw as a dancer was timidity. I was less than I might have been because I was too shy and modest. And I like to think that Mr. B. would say; `Now look at what she's done. She didn't dance that way for me.' "