|Scan of my copy|
The story goes that in 1940 a wealthy weirdo approached writer Henry Miller and offered to pay Miller a dollar a page for pornographic stories for his private personal collection. Miller suggested to Anaïs Nin that she also write some erotica for the mysterious "Collector," and over the course of a few years she did so as a means to supplement her income, particularly in times of financial hardship. Several other struggling writers joined in. In the 1970s Nin decided to publish some of these stories, and in 1977 Delta of Venus, which contains fifteen of them, was presented to the public by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, and achieved some measure of acclaim. I'm a fan of Miller's, and have enjoyed the Nin I have read, and so I have been curious about Delta of Venus for years. This week I read about 50 pages from the collection, the first six of its stories.
The six stories, I was disappointed to find, are quite poor, lacking style, feeling, plot and character. Most are so full of rape, incest, pedophilia and violence that I found them more disturbing than arousing. (That collector must have been a real piece of work!) It was a mistake to read so many in a row, because they get really monotonous.
I am lead to wonder about all that critical praise you can see on the back cover of the book and hear about on wikipedia. Maybe "erotica written by women" is just not for me. Maybe the stories in the rest of the book are better, but I am loathe to go on. In fact, my original plan was to read half the book (Delta of Venus totals 250 pages) but I couldn't do it.
In Nin's defense, she was writing this stuff to order for a freakazoid, and said freako specifically enjoined Miller, Nin, and all the other down-and-out writers who took up his commission to "Concentrate on sex" and "Leave out the poetry." The "Collector" complained that George Barker's submissions, which Nin herself loved, were "too surrealistic." Nin herself fully recognized how weak these stories were; according to wikipedia she worried that they could negatively impact her reputation. In 1941 she wrote the collector a letter, saying she and the other writers hated him and explaining to him that his mechanical monotonous view of sex was boring, that it was emotion and human relationships that made sex exciting.
(The passages from Nin's diaries that describe the collector and include the "we hate you" letter are all reproduced in the front matter of Delta of Venus, which is far better reading than the first six tales in the body of the book.)
|Three of the many Penguin editions of the collection: gotta catch 'em all!|
So, if these stories are bad, and Nin recognized they were bad, why did they get published? (In two volumes--Delta of Venus was followed by Little Birds, another selection of Nin's dollar-a-page erotica.) Nin tells us in the Preface to this volume that, "I finally decided to release the erotica for publication because it shows the beginning efforts of a woman in a world that had been the domain of men." According to Nin, for centuries erotica had only been written by men, and this makes Nin, who tried to write about sex from a woman's perspective, "using a woman's language," a pioneer.
People interested in Nin and her milieu and/or the history of women in (erotic) literature should check out Delta of Venus but I can't recommend the six stories I read as entertainment, though the ability of some of them to shock cannot be denied.
For a description of each of these six stories, read on. Adults only, please!
"The Hungarian Adventurer" (7 pages)
Sample crazy line: "...for the delight of her admirers who sat around her, she was rouging her sex with her lipstick..."
This story tells of episodes in the life of a man known as "The Baron," a man incredibly good-looking and well-dressed. He travels the world, marrying women, stealing their money, and then abandoning them; he is so hot that the women don't regret this thievery or call the cops to pursue him. In our first vignette the Baron, in Peru, meets a Brazilian dancer whose "sex was like a giant hothouse flower, larger than any the Baron had seen...." This dancer is also an expert at fellatio, and performs on theatregoers while they watch other parts of the show. The Baron stays with her a few years, she bears him two children, and then he leaves her.
In vignette two the Baron is in Rome. Every morning the Spanish ambassador's daughters, one ten, one twelve, climb into his bed to wake him up, and Nin describes all the little ways he tricks them into helping him achieve satisfaction.
The final vignette finds the Baron in New York, fifteen years after leaving Peru. He has yet another wife, and a fourteen year old son. The Brazilian dancer has died, so the Baron gets custody of their kids, two girls, one fifteen, one sixteen. To the surprise of nobody, he rapes his daughters and keeps them under lock and key. To the surprise of me, one night he is still aroused after exhausting his daughters so he goes to his son's room to take advantage of him while he sleeps.
Is this what the people at Cosmo mean when they use words like "elegant" and "sophisticated?"
Judged as we conventionally judge stories, this one is not good. There is little style or feeling, the events are described in a detached, lifeless way. The characters are flat; only one of them even has a real name. Judged as pornography, you could only call it a success if you are into incest, rape, and ten-year-olds. Ugh.
"Mathilde" (11 pages)
Mathilde is a twenty-year-old hat maker in Paris. She finds the crude way men proposition her disgusting; she wants "to be courted with mysterious language." She moves to Lima, Peru, where the men covet Parisian women and are skilled in seducing her "with flowery words, disguising their intent with great charm and adornments." Mathilde has a host of lovers, and they lay around all the time, smoking opium (this gives Nin the chance to throw in a little surrealism) and having hours-long orgies. There is a long scene in which Mathilde masturbates while admiring herself in a mirror--again Nin compares female genitalia to a flower. At the end of the story Mathilde falls in with some cocaine addicts and is almost raped with a pen knife, but the police burst in to save her just in time.
"Mathilde" is a big improvement over "The Hungarian Adventurer," in that Nin tries to develop characters with distinct personalities (Mathilde and the pen knife cokehead) and, in drug-infested Lima, an interesting setting.
"The Boarding School" (3 pages)
Nin really crams a lot of twisted stuff into this brief tale, but doesn't find any room for a plot. In rural Brazil a Jesuit with some Indian blood takes advantage of his students, young boys from wealthy families. We also learn that the local Indians have sex with vicunas--vicunas, Google is telling me, are "wild South American camelids." In the final scene the prettiest boy is gang raped by nine other boys while on a "botanical excursion."
Despite what the New York Times would have you believe, this is no joyous celebration!
Even worse than "The Hungarian Adventurer;" two "Ugh"s!
"The Ring" (3 pages)
Another Peruvian caper--if I were an attorney I would advise the government of Peru to sue the estate of Anaïs Nin and Harcourt Brace Jovanovich for malicious slander.
An Indian and a white woman whom Nin doesn't give names fall in love and exchange engagement rings. The woman's father objects to the match, so they keep their betrothal a secret. The Indian doesn't want anybody to see the ring, but he wants to wear it, so he puts it on his you-know-what. It's a tight fit, so whenever he kisses his fiance he suffers tremendous pain. Later, (after he's had the ring filed off) he suspects his fiance of being unfaithful and ties her up. Being tied up and hung by her wrists from a rafter excites the woman so much that their make up sex is the best sex of their lives!
In a subplot (yes, this three-page story has a subplot) an Indian goes crazy and rapes a little girl "with a long knife used for skinning animals." The villagers catch up with him and he is tortured with acid and flogged to death.
Ugh, ugh, ugh.
"Mallorca" (3 pages)
Sample crazy line: "She was beautifully formed, with high breasts, long legs, a stylized body."
On the island that us philistines have always called "Majorca," a young American man, late at night, impersonates his sister and tricks a beautiful Spanish girl into swimming with him so he can have his way with her. At first she resists, but then surrenders her virginity to him.
This is more what I had expected from a collection of stories that are said to "celebrate sexuality." Still a little rapey, though.
"Artists and Models" (22 pages)
This is a first-person narrative from the point of view of a professional model who poses for artists. The artists, and some of the other models, relate to her erotic stories which excite her sexual hunger. The narrator loses her virginity to a married man, John, who sets her up in an apartment and forbids her to work. The narrator soon finds being a kept woman stifling, and John often has trouble getting away from his wife, leaving our narrator, whose sexual appetites continue to grow, all alone. So our narrator begins having sex with another married man, a sculptor named Millard, behind John's back. Millard's jealous wife is always trying to catch them. There is no resolution or climax to the story; the last line is "The two secret relationships became difficult for me, but I enjoyed the danger and intensity."
The five stories within the story, each appealing to some kind of outre fetish:
1) A tubercular nymphomaniac, wife of a modern painter, who wears a large belt that reminds everyone of a chastity belt, finds satisfaction with a "tremendous dark man," a Cuban, who dominates her in bed: "he bent her as if she were made of rubber...as she moved, the big belt made a clinking sound, like the chain of a slave."
2) Mafouka the hermaphrodite lives a life of frustration; he is attracted to women but is unable to achieve an erection, and lesbian sex does not satisfy him.
3) An artist who finds women repulsive can only be aroused by seeing a woman wearing lingerie.
4) A woman marries the perfect man, but somehow can't get aroused by him. "I do not even let him kiss me if I can help it. I hate his mouth on mine." While they have sex she pummels him and scratches him in disgust; he thinks it is because she is so excited.
5) Smoking marijuana gives a woman the feeling she has been transformed into a dog; she crawls around the floor and asks her male friends to suckle her as if they are her puppies and to sniff her and possess her as male dogs do female dogs.