Our friend Jack Murnighan’s new book, Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits, is guaranteed to inspire you to pick up at least one classic this summer. And not because you “should” or because it’ll make you a better person or a more interesting date (though all these things are true), but because they’re actually, you know, good. As in, funny, sexy, engrossing beach reads. Back when we were all colleagues at Nerve.com, Jack penned a weekly column called Jack’s Naughty Bits, in which he mined both modern and classic books for the sex — and yet still managed to make you feel high-brow just for reading it. We chatted with him about his latest below. Stay tuned for Part 2, an excerpt from Beowulf on the Beach on the most sexed-up parts of the Bible.
In Beowulf on the Beach, there’s a “What’s Sexy” section for each of the fifty books. Which title was the biggest challenge to find something sexy?
Well, in general, Dickens and Jane Austen tend to ignore their characters’ between-the-legs lives.
And which “What’s Sexy” do you think readers will find most surprising?
I’d guess Milton’s Paradise Lost, since he’s got two full-on sex scenes, a speech advocating (marital) whoopee, and a description of boot-knocking in Heaven. Not bad for one of England’s most pious poets.
What’s your favorite sex scene in classic literature?
It’s kind of obvious, but the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament. “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for his love is better than wine.” Oh my.
What do you think is the most overrated sex scene in classic literature?
Maybe parts of the same Song, like when the lover says that if he “puts his hands by the hole of the door” her “bowels will move for him.”
What’s a surprisingly romantic novel in the classics?
Well, one novel that’s technically called a romance, in the Harlequin sense, actually won the Nobel Prize: Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter. And it has a lot of the coerced sex and eventual yielding that marks that genre.
You rave about One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and actually spent two years after college reading nothing but that and Autumn of the Patriarch, also by Marquez. So tell us about Gabo sex…
Well, in 100 Years, among many other scenes, there’s an incredible passage of losing one’s virginity — one of my favorite of all time — and in Autumn of the Patriarch, there’s lots too, including one where the protagonist “marinates” asparagus spears before eating them — excellent!
What’s your favorite romantic line in all of the classics?
From Dante’s Purgatorio: “I am one who, when love breathes inside me, takes note, and in the mode in which it is expressed within, I seek to express it without.” It’s much more beautiful in Italian.
What’s your favorite sex-related line in all of the classics?
Probably the hysterical speech about drunk dick by the porter in Macbeth. I shit you not; it’s really there.
Of these 50 greatest hits, which is the dirtiest?
Joyce’s Ulysses and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow tie. The former has most every sexual deviancy alluded to, while the latter has an extended orgy and SM scat scene. Both can make you more than a little squeamish (where are the censors???).
And which is the most romantic?
Probably Dickens’ Bleak House, where the couple the Bagnets love each other in a way we’d all want to end our days with. They’re incredibly inspiring.