ColumnRead a book. Sustain your mind.
I confess that I knew where this was going when I bought Fifty Shades of Grey. One of my rules for this column is that I don’t write bad reviews (if I don’t like a book, I leave it be) and while I hoped to maybe have some fun with the BDSM bodice-ripper, I doubted that I would muster enough like to write about it here. (Having finished the book—the first of the phenom trilogy—I’m proved right. Nothing really to say about it that you probably haven’t already gathered.) But now that I have your attention, here’s the bait and switch: You want hot? Let’s talk Anaïs Nin.
Anyone who’s read Nin’s erotica likely has a vivid memory of their “first time,” as it were. I encountered the work when I was 14 years old. By then I had seen my share of dirty magazines and pre-internet (pre-cable, even) porn and was thus as misinformed and misinspired as any young person would be given such mostly poor data in. Then, in my father’s library, I found an advance copy of Delta of Venus. I read a few pages. Then I read more. This was different. This was beautiful and deep and, yes, perverse—and it was hot. I’ve been a fan ever since.
Most acclaimed for her magnificent and comprehensive diaries, Nin is almost a genre unto herself. Her life and career traversed continents (Europe to North America), cultural and social movements (bohemian Paris in the 1920s to the U.S. feminist movement in the 60s), and featured intimacy with many literary giants (most notably her one-time lover, confidante and friend Henry Miller). For better or worse, her erotic writings—released primarily in two volumes of short stories published posthumously in the late-1970s (Delta of Venus and Little Birds)—have eclipsed her other work in terms of bringing her international notoriety. For many, in fact, the mere whisper of her name—Anaïs—is synonymous with erotica.
She completed the majority of her work in this genre during difficult financial times in the 1940s. A mysterious “collector” contracted her, Miller and a small cadre of their contemporaries to write pornography for him on a fee-per-page basis. All told, Nin claimed she received $100 for these stories. At the time, she was uneasy with the effort, which by order required the group to “leave out the poetry” and “focus on the specifics.” (“Didn’t the old man know how words carry colors and sounds into the flesh?” she laments in the preface of Delta.)
Regardless of the collector’s instructions, Nin was incapable of writing “clinically.” Her language flourishes as, both individually and as a body of work, her erotic tales swerve and soar in and out of the body and the soul, exposing countless emotions while always circling back to a titillated heartbeat. In Nin’s world, roles and role-play do more than arouse the characters and the reader alike—they also beg questions about fantasy and identity. Perversions—exhibitionism and voyeurism, blurred lines between pleasure and pain, and other unmentionables—exist on a razor-thin line between playful light and borderline psychotic darkness. Shades? Nuance? It’s all here.
Conversely, some of the stories depict the suppression of sexual thought as exploding into inhuman violence. (In one very difficult piece featuring a priest at a strict boarding school and his unfortunate charges, a rape is perpetrated in this context.) Indeed, in this work you’ll find a broad exploration of the psychology of sexuality (another story features a hyper-sexualized reaction to a Spanish Fly placebo). The effects of childhood experience, and issues around intimacy and objectification—and the relationship and opposition between them—are pried open. Additionally, in her very powerful short novel, A Spy in the House of Love, Nin focuses on adultery and its relationship to self-exploration.
None of this is to say that Nin’s stories aren’t erotic for eroticism’s sake. The circumstance of their writing is partly responsible for this, although not completely. The author is a woman who was clearly unafraid of not only her own observations of human sexual thinking and behavior, but of herself, as well. Her stories stare at sex. They don’t flinch and they don’t blush (although her characters might). And, perhaps most important, she does not judge.
A Woman’s Language
Despite the stories’ quality, for years Nin carried distaste for them and the patron for whom they were written, and “put the erotica aside.” (“Dear Collector: We hate you. Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone. It becomes a bore.”) Later in her life, however, she began to see the work in a different light. Having once thought that her charge to “leave out the poetry” had resulted in a style that was “derived from a reading of men’s works,” she changed her mind, concluding, “My own voice was not completely suppressed… I was intuitively using a woman’s language, seeing sexual experience from a women’s point of view.” In the end, she seemed to see her own irrepressible voice (I’ll call it brilliance) shining through the perverted (I use the term advisedly) challenge. The collections, she determined, would be published.
Nin’s wrestling with her erotica begs all sorts of questions. As much as some of us might want to see great work as simply great, voice, theme and even plot are all inexorably (though I think too often seen as overwhelmingly) informed by gender—and certainly by individuality. Nin felt this was particularly true when it came to writing about sex:
I knew there was a great disparity between Henry Miller’s explicitness and my ambiguities—between his humorous, Rabelaisian view of sex and my poetic descriptions of sexual relationships… I had a feeling that Pandora’s box contained the mysteries of woman’s sensuality, so different from a man’s and for which man’s language was inadequate.
Indeed, there’s another story here, for another time, which explores why women and men handle erotica so differently (as writers as well as readers). In any case, legions of fans of every sex and sexual orientation will attest to that fact that Nin holds up well for anyone who wants to explore the genre—though each reader will, of course, experience the work through his or her own particular lens. (Now is a good time, I suppose, for “the warning”: Anaïs Nin’s erotica is not for everyone.)
With respect to E.L. James and her wildly successful Fifty Shades trilogy, it’s not really fair to make a comparison to Nin (and from what I understand, she makes no claims to literary gianthood). And to be more than fair (call it diplomatic), bravo to her for getting her novels out there—and if she has succeeded in stirring up a sexually languid reading populace, that’s no small accomplishment. And know this: Writing erotica is difficult. Describing the Big It and the Big O (et al) can challenge the most generous of vocabularies as well as the most fanciful style. But this once again speaks to Nin’s dominance in the genre: She somehow manages to never throw out single a line that will leave you laughing at its triteness. (If you laugh, it’s because she wants you to. There are no accidents in her work.)
Further, if you want to argue that Nin’s pieces are simply short abstracts when compared to the thrust (pardon me) of the bodice-ripper approach to the sensual, I have to say Nin scores here again—her collections are utterly absorbing. Intrigue abounds, characters appear and reappear throughout the work, themes are opened, danced around, poked at and examined from myriad angles. As short story collections, Delta of Venus and Little Birds really hold up well; these are books you will not skim.
Finally (and perhaps of course), Nin even circles back on the genre itself and explores the role of erotica in (some of) our lives. In Delta, her character Elena opens D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The description of Elena’s experience with the novel might have you believe that Nin was speaking directly to the audience that James’ Fifty Shades seems to have tapped into:
[Elena] discovered that she had never known the sensations described by Lawrence, and second, that this was the nature of her hunger. But there was another truth she was now fully aware of. Something had created in her a state of perpetual defense against the very possibilities of experience, an urge for flight which took her away from the scenes of pleasure and expansion. She had stood many times on the very edge, and then had run away. She herself was to blame for what she had lost, ignored.
It was the submerged woman of Lawrence’s book that lay coiled within her, at last exposed, sensitized, prepared as if by a multitude of caresses for the arrival of someone.
Delta of Venus, 1978, and Little Birds, 1979
The two celebrated collections written for the infamous patron who famously instructed, “Leave out the poetry,” are nothing if not poetic. Infused with sexual philosophy, moral ambiguity and emotional exploration, perversion accompanies the lovely, objectification dances with intimacy, and sensuality erupts from both the loving and the painful. Whether strong and rich archetypes or bundles of unpredictable subtlety, the characters are riveting as we watch them dare to push themselves—and us as willing voyeurs—to the edges of sexual exploration.
A Spy in the House of Love, 1954
The novel emerges from the mind of Sabina, a married woman involved in a number of adulterous affairs, who sees herself a “spy” or witness to her own experiences. Nin’s dreamy, yet unflinching style (that also lends itself so well her erotic writings) creates an intense psychological atmosphere, where the reader crawls inside the thought processes and sensitivities of a woman as she betrays the man she loves in order to explore her own personal nuances. An ethereal, semi-autobiographical tale that offers an intimate view into a woman’s complicated life. (Excerpted from “10 Must-Read Books for Girls and Boys, by Boys and Girls.”)
Editor’s note: News & Culture contributor Scott Adelson’s biweekly column, InPRINT, reviews and discusses books new and old, as well as examines issues in publishing.
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