Rikki Ducornet is so attentive, so game, so solicitous, that I find it hard not to imagine this novelist-in-residence at the University of Denver as a mother confessor to a large band of troubled students, whom I picture in her office, pouring their hearts out over steaming bowls of caf filtre. Over the course of our 45-minute telephone conversation, she draws me out about my life, applauds a literary reference spotted, and as an interviewee, gives the flattering impression that her answers are not preformulated, but are stimulated by my own brilliant questions.
As the daughter of a philosopher who fed her many of the classics of Western thought, including Sade, by the age of 16, Ducornet moves naturally (I'm tempted to say "unthinkingly") in a world of abstract terms. When during a spirited discussion about food, she accuses a local supermarket chain of "bad faith" in organic labeling practices, I reply that Sartre would have been delighted to hear his term used in this everyday context, for what could be a better index of the social utility of philosophy than to come in handy on a trip to the market? I am rewarded by rich, affirming laughter.
I ask if she read a lot of the copious commentary on Sade before undertaking the novel. She mentions Kosslowski and Simone de Beauvoir, but qualifies this by remarking that "one doesn't want to become too critically aware, because then one finds one has vegetables to sell," which I assume is a translation of some pungent French idiom.
I ask about her interest in fan-making, an erotic language in the 18th century, much as bandanas were in the 1970s. Ducornet describes a trip to the museum of fanmaking in Paris and remarks: "It was a way to make the difficult subject matter bearable for the reader as well as the writer. ... I've always been interested in writing about difficult things ... all my novels do a sort of dance over the coals."
"I was interested in writing about Sade not as a hero or a monster but as a man," said Ducornet. The writers who have done so (Ducornet includes de Beauvoir in this category) can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Sade the letter writer, gossipy, ironic, self-contradicting, not Sade the novelist, is the source for the rounded portrait in The Fan-maker's Inquisition.
The marquis' self-contradictions, indeed paradoxes in general, fascinate Ducornet. The paradox of Sade's sexuality was that this apostle of sexual anarchy was "profoundly harmed as a sexual being" and "could not be satisfied without the use of theater and paraphernalia."
Why, I ask, are modern feminist writers, including Angela Carter, who is considered a British counterpart to Ducornet, so drawn to Sade? Ducornet directs my attention to Sade's Eugenie de Fracel, with its incestuous seduction. "It was a gutsy thing to do at the time, to portray not just father-daughter incest, but the rage of the daughter against a mother who is a simpering fool who does not allow herself to see what is going on." An enabler? I suggest. Again, that generous laugh.
Why is our popular culture more Sadean than at any time since the Jacobeans? Why this fascination with cruelty and sexual torture? Isn't Hannibal Lector, with his combination of refinement and savagery, a Sadean character?
Ducornet pauses before this barrage of questions, replying with grave emphasis: "The obsession with the body, which is really a hatred of the body, is a legacy of our Puritan ancestors ... the belief in man's innate badness is always a problem in Christian cultures."
Finally we come to what might be, given the decidedly nonliterary drift of our times, Ducornet's greatest claim to cultural immortality: She is, or believes herself to be, the Rikki of the Steely Dan song "Rikki, Don't Lose That Number." The circumstances were these: Donald Fagen was a recent graduate of Bard College, and was hanging around the campus, making music. Ducornet was slightly older and unavailable, the wife of a visiting professor.
I picture her (judging by her jacket photo, a big-eyed, dark-haired Gallic beauty) smiling and leaning over the piano while skinny, big-nosed Fagen improvises long Mingus-like jams for her; I see intemperate letters unanswered, long sulks. I advance by theory that the song might also be about an attempt at homosexual initiation ("You tell yourself you're not my kind/ But you don't even know your mind"), but Ducornet appears not to hear me, lost in the sort of sweet reverie you have about someone before they had the carapace of fame, when they were young and awkward.