The man who gave me the ‘Delta of Venus’ knew, for me personally, it would make an especially meaningful read. This is because of the peculiar parallels between my recent life experiences and the eccentric circumstances under which Anais Nin’s stories were originally written. In the early 1940s, an anonymous stranger approached Nin (through intermediaries) and paid her to write erotica, for his own private indulgence. He attempted to exert control over how these stories were written and an intriguing power struggle emerged between writer and patron. Decades later, the works were collated into the DoV, which was published in the 1970s.
DoV is brutal, twisted and shocking… and it makes no apologies for this. Right from the outset, the reader is assaulted with traumatic tales of incestuous abuse and slasher-horror-style sexual violence. The first few stories are the most extreme, but the savagery continues throughout. Nin might’ve been a masochist in the bedroom, but she wrote like a true sadist – ruthlessly scarring her readers with nightmarish visions they’ll never forget.
I usually love dark erotica, but this is too much… much too much! DoV is deeply disturbing and in many ways repulsive. It makes one wonder: Why so harsh? Why go so far? And why put the nastiest bits right at the beginning? Was this the order Nin originally wrote the stories in? Or did she decide to compile them like this later? Either way, it’s quite a statement: underlining the fact that erotica (and sex in general) is not all sunshine and rainbows… far from it!
Although the brutality tones down a bit, many of the stories include extreme taboo elements that make the reader feel uncomfortable. I spent most of the time reading through a grimace of squinted eyes, face half-turned away from the page and head tilted back – cowering and reeling with my focus fascinated by fear (the kind of face you might pull if someone’s just punched you in it… and you’re expecting them to do it again in the next few seconds). DoV feels like a horror – the tragic kind of horror where no one escapes. And it’s so ruthlessly well-written that the reader is left haunted by powerfully-disturbing images and gruesome backstories.
Nin delves deep into the sexual history of her characters – regaling the reader with their detailed erotic biographies. Lusts and desires are traced back to their roots (often in childhood). We witness the flowering of various peculiar sexualities and the development of many bizarre fixations, fetishes and perversions. All of which are highly personal and unique to an individual’s particular life experiences. And the reader is able to observe how these predilections and impulses shape the way the characters go on to live their whole lives. Nin’s writing really emphasises how much is missing from fictional worlds that fail to explore the erotic aspects of their inhabitants.
The writer describes how sex, eroticism, personality and emotionality are deeply entangled within the human psyche. In DoV, the immediate drama of orgasmic pleasure is set against an atmospheric background of dark, brooding emotions – loneliness and melancholy, anger and hatred, longing and despair. The grim, overcast city-scape that Nin paints is thus spattered with hedonistic splashes of bright blood.
Interestingly, Nin’s patron requested this entanglement between emotionality and sex be removed from the stories. He just wanted the cold mechanics of sex described in detail… telling the writer to, ‘leave out the poetry’. This is what caused their disagreement, with Nin arguing that removing the emotionality would also remove the eroticism. Many have interpreted this story as being a representative microcosm of what happened on a grander scale: with female erotica writers facing a backlash as they attempted to elucidate a much-needed feminine perspective on human sexuality… penetrating deeper than men had ever dared.
Despite being a collection of short stories, DoV has the air of a grand, epic tragedy. In fact, Nin manages to make each separate story feel like an epic, in itself… enabling readers to feel the whole lifetimes of characters ebbing by in just a few pages. Many of the stories are very short, and the longer ones often contain characters telling stories within them… stories within stories, reflections and memoirs, reminiscences and biographies… all running into one another. The overall effect causes the reader to begin to forget who’s who and what’s connected to what. Despite the unique individuals and novel circumstances, DoV’s characters and narratives all blend together, creating a messy menagerie of erotic thoughts and memories – shadows dancing and raping each other in the darkness. The whole book feels like Paris at 5pm… when the denizens of the city sneak off to carry on their illicit love affairs. Or when the lights go out during the ambiguous ballroom ‘orgy’ scene.
Overall, I’m in two minds about DoV. It’s certainly meaningful literature and I’m glad to have read it. But unfortunately, I didn’t really enjoy reading it… and I didn’t find it that sexy. Which, considering this is erotica, is obviously a significant negative. A few of the scenes did get my juices going: I loved the naked women riding the horse and then whipping each other with the crop. And I was very attracted to Bijou: the buxom sex-worker. She oozes sexuality and her hearth-fire warmth provides much-needed relief from the cold darkness surrounding. However overall, the tragic-horror atmosphere of DoV just doesn’t feel that sexy to me… and the extreme taboo stuff turns me off like a switch. It’s all much too grim for my tastes. As an epic tragedy this is great literature, but I prefer my erotica to be more fun and upbeat… and significantly less traumatic!
On a personal level, reading the preface to DoV was very enlightening for me. Because the man who gave me the book is the same mysterious patron who’s been funding my own erotica writing, over the past months. So I guess this is his way of telling me where he got the idea… as well as boasting about how much more successful he’s been than Anais Nin’s patron, when it comes to controlling his writer (fuck you!). Although I suppose I should be grateful that my patron would never instruct me to ‘take the poetry out’.