In Henry and June, Anaïs Nin asks her cousin Eduardo if one can be freed of a desire by experiencing it. ‘No,’ he says. ‘The life of freed instincts is composed of layers. The first layer leads to the second, the second to the third and so on. It leads ultimately to abnormal pleasures.’ A hunger sated only uncovers a darker, more rapacious need. There is no endpoint to desire, no fulfilment that can snuff it out entirely.
The protagonist of Cleanness, a novel in the form of connected short stories, is an American teacher living in Bulgaria who will be familiar to readers of Garth Greenwell’s much lauded 2016 debut, What Belongs to You. Our teacher seems doomed to play every role in the lover’s repertoire, with some pleasure, yes, but with little or no satisfaction.