In Delta of Venus Anais Nin penned a lush, magical world where the characters of her imagination possess the most universal of desires and exceptional of talents. Among these provocative stories, a Hungarian adventurer seduces wealthy women then vanishes with their money; a veiled woman selects strangers from a chic restaurant for private trysts; and a Parisian hatmaker named Mathilde leaves her husband for the opium dens of Peru. Delta of Venus is an extraordinarily rich and exotic collection from the master of erotic writing.
WELL NO NOT EW ACTUALLY. I mean yes, ew, if you like, of course a lot of these things may not be very appealing depending on your tastes, but more fundamentally I just think this is a misunderstanding of the genre. The whole point of erotica is often not so much to turn you on as to go to places that other writing cannot – to break down taboos. Like other kinds of genre fiction, it should be mind-expanding. In the same way that, for instance, science-fiction or fantasy tries to conjure up other civilisations in order to contextualise our own, so erotica is the one genre which gets to look at social conventions one by one and imagine what would happen if they didn't exist or if they were systematically ignored. The idea is to open you up to new experiences, and it's often meant to be unsettling and challenging rather than arousing – although certainly one key motive is to prompt that unexpected jolt from the reader where an internal voice says, Whoa, why do I find that idea so hot? I thought I'd dealt with all this in therapy.
Having made the counter-intuitive case that good erotica isn't necessarily sexy – Exhibits A and B being de Sade and Bataille – I should say that Anaïs Nin is nowhere near as far along the scale as those two. Her writing is – well I won't say ‘sexy’, because that's so subjective (one man's boring theme exercise being another woman's dependable two a.m. go-to), but it is definitely rich and sensual and I think there is a lot to admire about her prose style. Here we go, let's check out some hot Pierre-on-Elena action:
He was in France without papers, risking arrest. For greater security Elena hid him at the apartment of a friend who was away. They met every day now. He liked to meet her in the darkness, so that before they could see each other's face, their hands became aware of the other's presence. Like blind people, they felt each other's body, lingering in the warmest curves, making the same trajectory each time; knowing by touch the places where the skin was softest and tenderest and where it was stronger and exposed to daylight; where, on the neck, the heartbeat was echoed; where the nerves shivered as the hand came nearer to the center, between the legs.
This is typical of her approach, which makes use of a lot of short, simple clauses, either separated into different sentences, fairytale-like, or strung together with semicolons into long, dreamy bouts of poetic description. She applies this ruthless sensuality equally to the sex and to the moments of violence or sadism that crop up in the book. I am far from the world's biggest Anaïs Nin fan, but I do think it is important that we have a woman finally writing about this kind of thing, rather than what we had for hundreds of years previously, viz. men guessing what women thought about it. I'm thinking John Cleland, Pierre Louÿs, et hundreds of al.
Nin always prompted a lot of varied reactions from other women, some thinking, Finally someone is saying it, and others being more like, Whoa there, speak for yourself, sister. Meanwhile men's excitement was split between the stuff they recognised (‘women think like us!’) and the stuff that seemed new (‘women don't think like us!’). I do think it's interesting that you can draw a line from Delta of Venus in the 1940s right through to, let's say, Nancy Friday's Women on Top in 1991, and see that most of the themes have barely changed at all.
I don't think Delta of Venus is a great book, but I do think it's an interesting and important one and I have a real soft spot for it. Of course in real life Anaïs Nin was as mad as a box of frogs, but she was the right person at the right time and I like a lot of what's in here – as the reviews show, it still has the power to challenge people today, when you might think the whole thing would have seemed rather passé.
‘Don't burn someone's genitals...it is NOT OK,’ says one reviewer earnestly. Well, yes, fair enough…it's just as well then that this isn't fucking reportage, it's a piece of creative writing. Jesus. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be in my bunk going over page 117 again.
While the characters who people these stories may be caricatures, they are still quite believable and incredibly human in their foibles and plights, though somewhat underdeveloped (It's erotica, after all; what can one expect?). Despite her efforts to "leave out the poetry," these stories are wonderfully lyrical. If anything is "caricatured," it's her not-so-subtle marriage of form and content: the stories, like the sexual act itself, tend to exhibit a grace and fluidity throughout only to come to an abrupt and jarring end.
The blurb on the back cover says that Nin "conjures up a glittering cascade of sexual encounters". A cascade of sexual encounters it surely is. Whether it's a glittering one is another matter.
Ultimately this book fell flat, or maybe flaccid, for this reader. Erotica, of all forms of writing, is a fragile thing in which pages of careful, teasing build-up can be deflated instantly by a single jarring word and it doesn't help that Nin is writing in American English and in dated American English to boot.
apart from anything else, to this Brit an ass is a large, hairy, grey and long-eared quadruped of largely equine persuasion. So when Nin writes, as she repeatedly does, that her protagonist of the moment "spread the buttocks of the/my/her ass" it conjures up images of a sexual encounter very different the one she was clearly intending. "Ass" instead of "arse" is just naff.
And what on earth is one to make of the word "panties"? Has there ever been a less erotic word used of female underwear?
But the biggest cringe of all is the repeated use of the word "sex", mostly for the female genitals but also occasionally for the penis. Sorry, but this is a tweeness much too far. Used of the cunt, it's the sort of word an embarrassed nun might use to explain a medical problem to a young male doctor. Erotic it is not. Even when I can stop laughing. Sorry.
On the one hand, it's Anaïs Nin, the one-woman powerhouse who wrote erotica in the 20th century. Erotica from a female perspective, which no one was doing at the time. On the other, reading it, it didn't always feel like her.
And I generally don't read books for the plot or the characters, I read it for the writing. So if it didn't feel like her, it just took me twice as long to read one story as it might've otherwise.
I realised, while reading this book, that I much prefer Nin's stories when they were written from a female perspective. I feel that she puts parts of herself in her stories, and the more I read, the more I'd find out about her. Her vulnerabilities, her eccentricities, her dreams.
Yes, it was dark, yes it was erotic and sensual in that it engaged all the five senses.
It's hard to rate this book because overall, it's not my favourite of her works, and yet some of the stories were my favourite in this book and otherwise.
It's been a strange and wild ride, Anaïs. Only you could puzzle me the way you do.
And thank you so much to Christina for buddy-reading this with me! It's been on my shelf so long, it's great to tick it off my to-read list.
(Uh, also, I should say, this book is riddled with triggers. So, let's get started. tw: rape, non-consensual sex, beastiality, necrophilia, underaged sex... all the things. It's pretty dark.)
So far, Nin has written about incest, gang rape, pedophilia and mutilation in almost clinical prose. I’m glad I read her preface where she explains that she wrote these stories under financial duress for an anonymous client who specifically requested stories about sex with no love and no poetry. She thinks however that in spite of that, the stories do contain a feminine voice buried within them. I believe that to be true and perhaps Nin is subversively (within this context of commissioned stories) highlighting the terrible things that can happen to the human psyche when you remove love, attachment and poetry from desire. Whilst I respect Nin as a writer, I just don’t want to spend any more time in this disturbing world.
This book is not for the faint-hearted or the overly sensitive and is definitely not for me. But for those who are more robust and curious…well, sure…see what you think. It has a kind of beautiful darkness.
So Anais Nin wrote this stuff at a dollar a page for an unknown collector who kept telling her to write less literary crap, more of the in and out. Which infuriated her, because she thought he was destroying everything interesting about sex. Which is basically the same debate people are having today about internet porn.
And she keeps punishing him for it. In one story a woman has an erotic opium experience, and it's pretty hot I guess, and then suddenly it's like
In the first story, a dashing guy who's basically The Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials is bored by normal sex and starts seeking out increasingly perverse experiences. So the first bit, where there's this hot singer lady who goes around to the private booths after her act and blows guys, is - again - pretty hot; but by the end of the story,
And that's also a debate that continues today: some anti-porn folks say that the ubiquity of porn encourages people to search out ever-more-extreme forms just to find something new. For what it's worth, anecdotally, this has not been my experience.
In any case, I don't know why this guy kept paying Nin. She was pretty much just fucking with him
Update: putting this aside until Jo catches up with me.
Think of this as a pyscho-sexual-emotional smorgasbord. And enjoy it.
this isn't erotic in the slightest. don't even start with milestones and breakthroughs in literature and art. if i'm in the mood for something like this book's contents, my time will be better spent watching tentacle porn.
call me rattigan's aunt edna, i don't give a damn.
still interested in her journals.
I like it so much I own a hard cover copy.