“In this respect we are rather backward in France; a certain lack of persistence and determination causes us to lose out in the race for pleasure. It’s different in the United States. There people band together, organize group therapy sessions, make pornographic films, found institutes and clinics, all dedicated to combatting the decline of the erection. America is the last true phallocracy. By comparison, we French are a sorry lot of quitters.”
When Emma announced a Romain Gary Month, this was the perfect excuse to read an author I’d been meaning to discover for years. The big question became which title to pick first, and after reading a synopsis of Your Ticket is No Longer Valid, all the other possibilities faded into the background.
This is the story of Jacques Rainier, a one-time resistance fighter and a wealthy businessman man facing his 60th birthday. When the book opens Rainier’s business is in jeopardy, but this is overshadowed by his worries about his flagging virility. The questions of erections, masculinity, and sexual potency are vital since his lover is 37 years younger. This novel was written pre-Viagra. Romain Gary would probably have had great fun adding Viagra to this novel if he’d had the chance.
Parts of the book are pure brilliance as Gary mercilessly explores this painfully embarrassing arena of male sexuality. How many times will Rainier be able to have sex with his Brazilian lover, Laura? Will he be able to sustain his erections? Will Laura be able to orgasm? All of these questions relentlessly plague Rainier, and so he finds himself somewhat reluctantly seeking help and advice from the medical profession. The advice he gets isn’t exactly what he wants to hear.
“Any trouble with urinating?”
“Not so far.”
“Do you get up in the middle of the night?’
“When I can’t sleep, yes, sometimes.”
“To pass water, I mean?”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“Is it a powerful stream?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“When you pass water, is the stream strong, quick, in an arc, or does it come dripping feebly from the urethra in a thin thread, with interruptions, and does it require an effort to bring it back?”
“I hadn’t noticed. I seem to piss without any complications. I shall of course try to be more observant in future, but…”
Do you stain your shorts?”
I stared at him with my mouth open.
The novel opens with Rainier discussing and then meeting Jim Daley, “the heir to one of the greatest fortunes in the United States.” Daley, “larger than life” and according to a past casual sex encounter “there was no stopping him, he kept it up all night long,” is a bit of a bête noir for Rainier. Even at almost seventy, Daley still had a reputation as an “international playboy,” but then gradually his “trophies” moved from women to “the realm of high finance.” Daley, firmly in his seventies, former lady killer, has now become somewhat pathetic. He claims to be the same age as Rainier and complains, rather distastefully that he’s “noticed” that women’s vaginas “suffered from the same internal deformity.” Finally, Daley admits, with no small amount of chagrin, that it’s not a universal vagina problem as much as his own shrinking erections. It’s a difficult meeting as Rainier has applied for a loan from Daley’s bank, and here’s Daley, at least 15 years older, pretending to be the same age and waiting for Rainier to exchange stories of his sexual failure.
There’s painful honesty here from a man who is facing old age while partnered with a young woman young enough to be his daughter (or even if we stretch it a bit, his granddaughter). He worries about their sex life, but there are also life stage issues which coalesce like ghosts around the bedroom. There are many clichés around these sorts of relationships, and I’m sure we’ve all known people in situations like Rainier. Do we envy them, laugh at them or feel a little sympathy? Would Laura even consider a man like Rainier if he weren’t stinking rich? Having a lover almost 40 years younger certainly puts an enormous amount of pressure on Rainier who admits that “it was only with Laura that I could see myself truly in decline.” As the book continues, Rainier’s worries grow to dark obsessions.
I had always assumed that aging was an orderly affair. There would be, it seemed to me, signs of incipient change, progressive seasons that would give one time to think, make one’s arrangements and manufacture one’s “wisdom.” Ideally, you simply came one day to regard your body with tolerant detachment, and turned to more appropriate interests–cruises, bridge, antiques.
While the novel is on one level merciless in its examination of the flagging male performance, the novel is still pure male fantasy of a 23 year-old beautiful woman deeply in love with a man almost 40 years her senior who is just so wonderful that she loves him for himself–age and $$$ are not part of the equation. In spite of its vicious realities, the book still rests on that old tired Pygmalion Complex of the older man who offers experience and economic security in exchange for a parking spot next to a beautiful, nubile young woman who is a living, breathing male fantasy. Perhaps part of my reaction comes from knowing a couple of men, Rainier’s age, but not as wealthy, who’ve jettisoned off into relationships with women three or four decades younger. It hasn’t been pretty.
For this reader, by far the best parts of the novel were the scenes at doctors’ offices–especially the doctor Rainier terms “a fanatical defender of the prostate.” Here’s Rainier consulting the doctor about groin pain he’s experiencing.
“Yes, I see, well then, my friend, take it from me, when a woman says to you: ‘Not yet, not yet’ or ‘Wait for me,’ remember, don’t let her get away with it.”
“Get away with it?”
“Defend yourself. Let go, ejaculate. Our organs are designed to function normally, naturally, not to show off in performances–acrobatic, artistic, whatever you like. You should let yourself go, take your pleasure with a good conscience, and that’s that. Surely you know that there are castrating types, women who think the penis is some kind of automatic mechanism that you can use at will. You’ll never find a woman worrying about your prostate. Most of them haven’t the slightest idea what it’s all about. At your age, you should take it easy, set your own pace, don’t worry about your partner.”
The novel is at its best when Rainier is forced to acknowledge his insecurities and the realities of the less-than-smooth sex life of a 60-year-old man with flagging libido. Unfortunately, the novel reverses from its boldness and ultimately rests on clichés, and for this cynical reader, the novel just didn’t go far enough….