The Erotic Lives of Nuns

England in 1947 might not seem like the best place and time to have released a film about the most secret desires of a group of nuns in a convent, but not only did the Archers pull it off, but is was successful at release and no one was lynched in the strait-laced streets of Surrey.

Black Narcissus is an unusual film.  Simultaneously ahead of its time and awfully aged, it relies on underlying themes and use of spectacular color filmography for most of its impact–the story itself is pedestrian at best.  And, of course, in 1947, you couldn’t show any nudity, even in a film about lust.

Without spoilers, a quick synopsis of the film is as follows: a group of nuns under an inexperienced sister superior (played by none other than Deborah Kerr) set up a school and hospital atop a mountain in an old harem house in colonial India which still has much of its original allusive decoration on the walls.

Quickly overcome by the sensuality of the place, the tropical pace and values of life, even the stoutest of the sisters begins to waver and doubt, eventually causing one of them to crack under the strain.

David Farrar on his Pony

Unfortunately, certain elements that would have worked well for audiences in the 1940s have had their impact lessened by time, often becoming unintentional comedy.  The most prominent of these is the initial entrance of the male object of desire.  He enters his first scene and the important agent of the general wearing exactly the wrong length of bermuda shorts and riding a pony.  As an object of female desire, I’m pretty sure this is a look he’d want to avoid in 2018.

Men were luckier.  The female sex symbol in this film was Jean Simmons as Kanchi, a local girl of the lower classes falling into disrepute before our very eyes.  Though her story is a subplot, her presence helps solidify the erotic undertones of the film by including one character whose sensuality is in no doubt.

Jean Simmons as Kanchi

The rest of the interactions occur with a look here, a word there and perhaps the laying aside of practicality for color somewhere else.  It’s done at a slow burn, which makes the suddenly frantic ending all the more satisfying.

In conclusion, this is a decent and surprising film.  It has its flaws and hasn’t aged brilliantly, but is admirable for having done what it did when it did so.


Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  If you’re interested in eroticism (not quite as subtle as in Black Narcissus, but definitely more in tune with 2018), his ebook story Pacific Wind is available here.


James Bond? Not Exactly…

I’m a fan of Joseph Conrad.  I believe that his novella Heart of Darkness is one of the greatest explorations of what really resides in the souls of men ever written.  Today, it has fallen somewhat out of favor because certain vocal literary critics focus on the colonial trappings… and thereby manage to miss the point of the book entirely.  In fact, I like this book so much that I became a bit of a scholar regarding it, and was even asked to write the introduction to the edition linked above.

So when I sat down to read a Conrad book about spies and conspirators, I thought to myself “I am in for quite a treat.”

Turns out I wasn’t.

The Secret Agent - Conrad - First Edition

The Secret Agent, a seminal book about a terrorist plot in England seemed dry and stale and boring.  The bad guys seemed painfully incompetent and unimaginative, and the plot moved at the speed of frozen molasses in quicksand, ti mix three metaphors.

This was the book that, directly or indirectly led to–or at least influenced–the spy genre as we know it?  This is the one that inspired the Unabomber?  Really?

Well, yes, and the secret to understanding what went awry in my own reading comes down to one thing: expectations.

What I was expecting was a fantastic story about glamorous spies that flirts with the edges of plausibility.  What I got was the slightly dramatized retelling of a real-life story of badly-organized and somewhat incompetent anarchists.

Let’s start with that second part, first.  The bare bones of the plot are based around a failed bombing in London in 1894 whose only victim was the bomber himself (a man who intended to plant his bomb and walk away unscathed).   Names are changed, but that is the story. Not only is the plot uninspiring, but it is also told from the viewpoint of the bad guys… which is cool if your protagonist is Al Capone, or someone equally competent, but not so motivating in this case.

So yes, the book is somewhat at fault–even in 1907 there had to be better secret villains to write about–but let’s look at my other point: fantastic vs. slightly dramatic.  In hindsight, it becomes clear that, as the secret agent novel gained popularity, more baroque and twisted stories needed to be concocted and the heroes slowly migrated from regular men in extraordinary circumstances as in The Thirty-Nine Steps (another book with an intro by yours truly… I’m beginning to sense a pattern here) to very exceptional men and women tested to the limits of their own enormous capabilities.

Joseph Conrad

When we read a book in this niche today, we expect the writer to stand on at least some of the shoulders of the giants who came before him.  Yes, the Fleming books from the sixties are tame by today’s standards, but at least some of the tropes are already present, and the cover art is marvelous.

This immediately leads to the question of who those giants are.  And that is where this volume truly comes into its own.  When you dig into the mass of names: Fleming, Buchan, Householder, standing near the bottom, holding up many of the cherished authorial heroes, is old man Conrad.

So, if you are going to read one Conrad book in your life, read Heart of Darkness.  But If you want to understand where Tom Clancy and John LeCarré are coming from, The Secret Agent is worth the effort. At the very least you will have a good example of art that was a victim of its own success.