Thursday, March 16, 2023

The Sinner's Grand Tour by Tony Perrottet

We all want to believe we're unique, until we realize we're doing the same damn thing as a million other people a lot like us. For example, I am a middle-aged suburban man; therefore I will read a bunch of pleasant but undemanding non-fiction.

I don't have to like that to realize it's true a lot of the time. I do tend to grab books from my shelves that I think I can get through quickly and will enjoy at least moderately. [1] And then I damn them with faint praise here, which I seem to be already doing today. (Sorry! Maybe I can raise the tone of the praise before I'm done.)

That's how I came to The Sinner's Grand Tour, a 2011 travel book by Tony Perrottet that was originally a series of articles for Slate under a slightly more shocking title, in which the tourist was a "pervert." I've never read Perrottet before, and I got this book semi-randomly, when it was mostly new, during a grand buying orgy while the chain Borders was flaming out. It sat quietly on my shelf since then.

And I use the word "orgy" deliberately - maybe jokingly, but deliberately - since that's what Grand Tour is about, in a classy, historical way. Perrottet is a historian, mostly - of the "writing about it for publication" kind, I think, most of the time, rather than "talking to undergraduates" - and this is a history of... well... famous European smut and sexy stories, basically.

He travels through the UK, France, and Italy, starting with the British Museum and ending at the fabled vacation isle of Capri, looking for records of things like 18th century Hellfire Clubs and the Marquis de Sade, Casanova and randy medieval peasants, chastity belts and historical condoms and the great brothels of Paris. He's trying to visit and view as much of those things as he can, and most of the chapters are largely about the roadblocks in his way - most obviously near the end, when he wants to see some smutty frescos Raphael painted in the Vatican, which are now in a highly secure area used by the Pope to meet with visiting heads of state.

I don't know if he did this on purpose, but he was also doing this in high summer, in the company of his wife and two young sons (ages 10 and 3), which is not the usual baggage train for an assault on the Great Smut-Dens of Europe. (Wife, maybe, depending on the relationship. Kids, definitely not.) So there's also a lot of material about negotiating with the family about spending the next two weeks in a lousy rented flat somewhere boring, far away from the ways the rest of his group would want to spend their summer. The descriptive copy of the book, perhaps sensing mentioning this would ruin the mood it's trying to set, wisely keeps silent.

But it's an interesting, quirky thread to the book, making it much more than just "a tour of some smutty historical sites in Europe" - if I wanted to be expansive, it turns Grand Tour into something more like the tug-of-war between desire and necessity, between what anyone wants and what they need to do to keep their normal life going.

I mean, you're going to read Grand Tour, if you ever do, because you're interested in that smutty history. I think a lot of people are interested in smutty history, but, being someone who is interested in smutty history, I would, wouldn't I? But know, if you do, that there's more here than that.

Perrottet is a pleasant, discursive writer here - he's got a lot of good material, and makes strong use of it. I'm not going to claim this is some lost classic, but it's a lot of fun and about something of perennial interest (maybe two things: sex and travel), and I read it quickly, smiling a lot, laughing a few times, and learning things I'll probably never have a chance to work into polite conversation.

[1] The odd thing there is that the books I get the most out of are always the ones that demand I put the most into - demanding, thorny books, more often fiction but not always. So there's a weird Benthamesque weighing of inputs and outputs going on the back of my head, I think: is this book worth it?

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