[EDITOR: Acute accents on the letter "e" in the author's first and last names, thanks]
The Little Black Book of Grisélidis Réal: Days and Nights of an Anarchist Whore
by Jean-Luc Henning; trans. Ariana Reines, with Grisélidis Réal
Semiotext(e)/The MIT Press, Los Angeles, CA, 2009
176 pp. Paper; $14.95
Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University
When I went away to college, my high school friend Valerie let me choose a couple paperbacks from her parents' eclectic, hip, and high-quality bookstore. One that I picked was the silver-covered Gentleman of Pleasure, the memoirs of a pimp named Silky. Its titillating erotic quality was minimal, and instead proved to be an interesting workplace discussion along the lines of Studs Terkel's oral histories of folks reflections upon how they do their job, with strategies or staff management, competitors and maintaining respect.
Grisélidis Réal‘s book is like that, too. A seasoned woman in her fifties when these interviews were held with Jean-Luc Henning, Réal had worked as a prostitute since her thirties when this book was first published in France in 1981. She matter-of-factly discusses her arsenal of sexual techniques, including invented specialties she calls the Vampire and the Japanese Fire Ants. She mentions the proclivities and preferences of various ethnicities, from effusively articulate English and Eastern European men, to Portuguese and Spanish guest workers who speak no French. She parses characteristics of black men from Francophone Africa, from North Africa, and military servicemen from the United States. Along the way we learn the nuts and bolts of her craft, the freshly washed panties and clean sheets.
About half way through, this reader started getting bored, feeling she'd told what she had to tell about her work and subtle understanding of human nature learned from it. Then it perked up with philosophical insights as she recounts—one can almost see her sparkling smile—her feeling of dematerialization after a busy night of 17 clients. In the tradition of Stendahl and Roland Barthes, she discusses love and its vagaries, including the hazards of letting it mix with her self-employment in the sexual service sector, and the lengths she went to in pleasing a petulant man she calls the Berber, the great love of her life.
Réal became active in prostitutes' rights movement, which in the United States was championed by Margo St. James of San Francisco, and is pictured marching in a demonstration. Whereas other marchers, including some men, are masked, she is not. She does what she does for a living, is proud of her professionalism, and seeks the legal protection due to any honest worker.
The "anarchist" title is just a teaser, to probably help snare its publication by Semiotext(e) and sale to its intellectual readership. There are a couple mentions by Réal of how she distributes anti-authoritarian literature to conservative clients and around her neighborhood. Heck, even I do that, leave red and rad papers strewn about my university to enlarge students’ perspective. Much as poet Ron Silliman used to leave leftist and communist newspapers of all sorts of sectarian stripes he'd picked up around San Francisco in its Central City Hospitality House, whose clientele included many teenage streetwalkers both female and male.
Since she's been dead since 2005, readers might show their respect to Grisélidis Réal by nodding a greeting across the café or boulevard to members of her hardworking sisterhood. Rather than picking them up, anyone who enjoyed The Little Black Book might instead cruised rare bookshops, in hopes of spending evenings with Grisélidis Réal‘s two untranslated autobiographies.