Book review entries
March 15, 2007
- Anais Nin - Delta of Venus
The first time I ever became aware of this book, I was around the age of sixteen. I stood in a hidden section of the public library, feeling slightly criminal. I nervously thumbed a short story entitled 'Artists and Models'. The prose was full of all sorts of sexiness. Some actually sexy. Some intriguing. Some faintly disgusting and frightening, even.
If you haven't read 'Artists and Models', it concerns an outsider's efforts to find out the sexual leanings, or physical characteristics, of a Parisian, gender-ambiguous artist named Mafouka. Mafouka turns out to be a hermaphrodite. At the end of the story, the narrator - so aroused by Mafouka's revelation, begs to make love to Mafouka. This is rather jarring, but perhaps a clever plot device. The sudden change in the narrator's feelings, from strict observer, to suddenly being overcome by desire, is a shock to read, especially when the visual imagination is seeing a "small, atrophied penis..."
My favourite way of thinking about this work as a whole is that it is perhaps an attempt at 'sexual anthropology'. It seems that the main purpose in collecting these varied stories together is to show a variety of psychological condition. A married woman does not orgasm until she has a sapphic encounter with her best friend on a trip to the cinema. A young male life model can only become sexually aroused when he is observed in the nude, and to the frustration of the female artist, has no interest in the sex act itself. The book is low on emotion. It is about sex drive; not romance. Orifice upon orifice.
It's a work with a lot of holes in it. There is bizzare violence in places, certainly, which always has its place in anything primarily about sex, however there is only one piece that strikes me as being absoloutely taboo. 'The Boarding School' contains a priest who abuses young boys, is merely three pages long, and concludes on a gang rape scene. For a collection which is marketed (the intent is a more difficult question - scroll down for my confusion on trying to contextualise the book) as being primarily intended to arouse and inspire, this makes for uncomfortable reading.
One way in which the book surprised me in its' tone was Nin's characterisation of her female protagonists. They are a bevvy of cheesecake-beauties, all tiny waists, ample bosoms and flowing hair. I knew nothing of Nin before reading the book, and vaguely thought of it as something that was probably penned in the sixties or the seventies. My research (wikipedia) informs me that the stories in 'Delts of Venus' were written in the 1940's for "a dollar a page", by a Nin deseperate for cash. This explains all the Vargas girls, then. The "dollar a page" bit suddenly makes the book seem as cheap and crumbly as a packet of Jacobs crackers... and this new perspective on when the book was written both explains a lot and makes a lot seem bizzare. It fulfills some of my ideas about forties culture, in that it's a bit like a really dirty film noir, but in book form. But why does Nin put homovestites and hermaphrodites side by side, mixing symbols of submissive feminity with trangressive and highly individualistic figures? Wikipedia tells me that Nin hung out in the highbrow literary circles, so this qualifies her status as a 'serious' writer, I guess. She luurved a few serious writers, anyway. Gore Vidal? Henry Miller?...
Maybe next stop De Sade? He is by reputation of course, much nastier, and probably very funny. It should be interesting - if I can work up the courage to borrow it from the public library.