- 1 1. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
- 2 2. Metamorphoses by Ovid
- 3 3. Cock & Bull by Will Self
- 4 4. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
- 5 5. Myra Brekinridge by Gore Vidal
- 6 6. The Breast by Philip Roth
- 7 7. The World’s Wife by Carol Ann-Duffy
- 8 8. Mademoiselle de Maupin by Théophile Gautier
- 9 9. The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter
- 10 10. Season of the Witch by Jean Marie Stine
It seemed only fitting that my novel, a homage to Will Self, our greatest living novelist, should contain transmogrifications of gender. Self once said that he often felt like a nervous, feminine creature in the body of a fierce, hulking male. His novella Cock & Bull plays about with genital gender changes (see below), and he is particularly adept at creating female characters, his best to date being Audrey Dearth in Umbrella. And so The Quiddity of Will Self also plays games with gender.
The novel kicks off with a girl called Sylvie who has a sex change and undergoes plastic surgery in order to look like Self; she gargles with salt on a daily basis in order to imitate the guttural tenor of his voice.The last section is narrated by Sam Mills, a male novelist, who develops a fetish for making love to a woman in a Will Self mask. I got my first publishing deal with Faber back in 2005 by pretending to be a man, capitalising on the androgynous ambiguity of my name, for my book was aimed at male readers. In symmetry with Will, I suffer from sex dysmorphia; I habitually feel like an angry young man trapped in the body of a female …
1. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
Orlando, Woolf’s fantastical biography, records the 400-year life of Lord Orlando. He begins as a nobleman in the court of Elizabeth I, and at 30 he falls into a slumber and wakes as a woman. Woolf believed the creative mind is androgynous. As a woman, Orlando doesn’t feel any different – but society certainly treats her differently. The female Orlando finds she cannot inherit her beautiful house; her titles are pronounced in abeyance and her estates put into chancery. Only by cross-dressing, can she escape the constraints society has imposed on her.
2. Metamorphoses by Ovid
Ovid’s dazzling epic poem includes sex changes galore. Hyenas change sex. Iphis is changed from a girl into a man by Io. Maestra is changed into a man and back again several times by Neptune. Orion’s daughter’s ashes change into two young men. Tiresias is turned into a woman and back to a man. Sithon becomes male and female, and the female Caenis becomes Caeneus.
3. Cock & Bull by Will Self
Cock and Bull are a pair of thematically linked novellas, each containing an extraordinary metamorphosis. In the former, a bored housewife discovers she is growing a penis; in the latter, John Bull, a rugby player turned cabaret critic, wakes up one morning to discover a vagina growing on the back of his knee. Self explores the fluidity and mutability of gender and successfully satirises a “world in which social and sexual characteristics were already being tossed and dressed like salad”.
4. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides’s Pultizer-prize winning epic is narrated by Cal Stephanides (initially called “Callie”), a hermaphrodite who is born with a “small crocus” for a penis. Initially, s/he is raised as a girl, but during adolescence her sexual ambiguity is revealed by a medical examination. A sexologist tells her parents that gender-identity development is determined by sex assignment and rearing, not biology, and recommends that Calliope should be “castrated” and continue to live as a female. Instead, Cal flees, renounces his feminine identity and lives life as a man. However, he reflects that, “I never felt out of place being a girl, I still don’t feel entirely at home among men.”
5. Myra Brekinridge by Gore Vidal
Myra was denounced as pornographic and obscene upon its publication in 1968. However, it has come to be regarded by some as an American satirical classic. At the start of the novel, Myra boasts of how large and beautiful her breasts are, though there is a hint that she might be an unreliable narrator with the aside, “shall I ever be free of the dull lingering pain that is my peculiar glory, the price so joyously paid for being Myra Breckinridge?” She takes up a job at an acting academy and picks one of her student “studs” as her first victim, luring him to the school infirmary, where she ties him up and rapes him with a strap-on dildo. When she is injured in a car crash, however, it is revealed that Myra is really Myron. Her injuries prevent her from taking her hormone treatment and force her to have her breast implants removed. At the end of the novel, she returns to life as a man and enjoys heterosexual bliss with a female lover, Mary-Ann.
6. The Breast by Philip Roth
In this Kafkaesque tale, Professor David Alan Kepesh transforms from a man into an enormous breast, weighing 155lbs and measuring 6ft in length. The breast possesses a nipple that can hear, talk and experience sexual stimulation but never reach orgasm, forever howling “more!” His existential question of identity now resides in the physical, and what a dull, frustrated existence he has to suffer: his father visits and makes smalltalk and his doctor tries to move his life on as though nothing has happened. Roth has described the metamorphosis as “an exploration of terrible loneliness”.
7. The World’s Wife by Carol Ann-Duffy
In Greek mythology, Tiresias was a male who was turned into a woman for seven years. He also became a blind seer after being drawn into an argument between Hera and her husband Zeus on the theme of who has more pleasure in sex. Hera claimed it was the man, Zeus claimed it was the woman; they asked Tiresias because he had experienced both. Tiresias replied: “Of 10 parts, a man enjoys one only.” Hera instantly struck him blind for his impiety. Tiresias makes his appearance in a wide range of literature: he pops up in Metamorphoses, narrates part of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and is condemned to the eighth circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Mrs Tiresias is one of the wittiest takes – it is written from the point of view of his wife. When her husband goes out for a walk and comes back as a female, she tries to be kind – but then Tiresias starts his period. “One week in bed/Two doctors in”, and soon he is writing to the powers that be “demanding full-paid menstrual leave twelve weeks per year …”
8. Mademoiselle de Maupin by Théophile Gautier
A novel based on the life of the French opera singer Mlle De Maupin, also known for her swordswomanship, bisexuality and predilection for dressing up as a man. The novel’s confusions of gender were inspired by Shakespeare’s As You Like It: a man, D’Albert, and his mistress, Rosette, both fall in love with a dashing cavalier named Théodore. It is eventually revealed that Théodore is actually De Maupin in male disguise. She fantasises about alternating between the two sexes to satisfy her double nature, for she feels that “I have the body and soul of a woman, the spirit and the force of a man”. In the end, she decides that neither satisfies her; she belongs to a separate third sex “that does not yet have a name”. The novel was published in 1835, so her inability to name her condition is symptomatic of the time – there was no adequate language with which she could articulate her sex and gender awareness.
9. The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter
Evelyn treats his lover, Leilah, with heartless cruelty, tying her up, raping her, getting her pregnant and then abandoning her. He runs off to the desert, where he is kidnapped and punished by the Mother Goddess, who turns him into a woman. However, Eve is not fully female; though he has been castrated, he is a man trapped inside a woman’s body, a body that arouses him. “I had become my own masturbatory fantasy. And – how can I put it – the cock in my head, still twitched at the sight of myself.” In order to survive, Eve has to learn to behave and act like a convincing woman. The novel might sound like a feminist revenge fantasy but it is far more complex than that: Carter parodies matriarchal myths, illustrating that they often end up reinforcing phallocentric representations of women’s bodies.
10. Season of the Witch by Jean Marie Stine
The punishment of a misogynistic male by imprisoning him in a female body seems to be a dominant theme in novels about sex changes. Like The Passion of New Eve (although not as beautifully written), this is set in a post-apocalyptic future where Andre is punished for raping and murdering a woman by having his brain transplanted into his victim’s body. His own body is given to an elderly, brilliant scientist. The novel explores Andre’s search for his original male body as he suffers a sequence of disorienting sexual encounters.
Source: The Guardian