‘The Madam of this Snobbish Literary House of Prostitution’ An Essay on the Erotica of Anaïs Nin
Of the two hundred and forty two books I have read in my life so far, only two have sufficiently arrested me to finish in one sitting. Little Birds was one of them. I lost myself peeping into the rear window of Nin’s world of sexual deviance and slipped through all thirteen stories half way through taking off my socks. Exhilarated, I observed Nin’s courage to dance back and forth across the boundaries of okay and not okay, of right and of oh so wrong. Deliberately dancing over it, she twirls like the giggling school girls of the title story who frolic beneath Manuel’s window, enticed by his display of exotic birds.
After a whirlwind trip through Nin’s menagerie of desire, myself as goggle-eyed voyeur, I became ensorcelled by Anaïs Nin and her psychological style of erotica. She kept diaries from the age of eleven, incredibly lucid and eloquent descriptions of her own temperament, until the time of her death in 1977 but she did not begin her career in erotica through any voracity of her own. Although, she undoubtedly lived a sexually charged lifestyle with Henry Miller and his wife, June, she only began to write erotic stories when Henry needed money for his travels. Miller was paid by a collector to write sordid stories for a dollar a page. A man named Barnett Ruder represented this patron and there is speculation that the collector was fictional and the stories were actually for Ruder himself. When Miller could no longer bear the artistic shackles laid upon him by the collector, Nin, his good friend and lover agreed to fund his trip to America. She did her research and delved into the world of erotica that existed at the time, in the early 1940s, and found it to be ‘badly written, shoddy, and by second-rate writers’ (Stuhlmann ed., 1970, p.147). This stuff was not being written by real artists with sympathies for their characters, it seemed to have been poorly copied from medical textbooks, focusing too acutely on cold anatomical descriptions instead of the red hot passion and torturous desire which Nin weaves through her own stories.
Both Delta of Venus and Little Birds were published in the 1970s as collections of short stories. The two volumes contain a few recurring characters but ultimately each story performs the act of capturing a moment and can be viewed as an individual entity.
Published in 2016, around forty years after her death, Auletris contains only two stories. The first is a largely unedited version of ‘Marcel’ and a work previously unpublished, ‘Life in Provincetown’. The discovery of this story which had been ‘originally typed on latrine rag’ (Herron ed., 2016, p.v) is a very exciting one. The editor’s interference is minimal and so the layers are peeled away and the reader gets a rare insight into what Nin created for Ruder’s collector. Her first two publications contain sexual encounters viewed, beginning, middle and end, from afar through a set of binoculars; foreplay, intercourse and climax, but the stories in Auletris read like glimpses through half-drawn curtains.
‘Life in Provincetown’ is split into six smaller narratives and in these stories the sexual deviants are the unchallenged protagonists. The ‘perfectly bourgeois families who came from Boston on their vacation’ (p.44) are the outcasts in this bubble of free sexuality. They are forced to move further out of town to shield their children’s precious ears from the ‘undercurrents of amoral lives which surrounded them’ (p.45). What these middle class holiday makers perceive as a lack of morality is actually an open appreciation of beauty, anyone charming to behold, ‘served the painters for subject, and one could watch them work at the beach.’ (p.46). The whole town is a voyeur unto itself; with the full-mouthed woman and her perpetually open curtains, Pietro watching her lie naked on the beach and the smoky clubs which were perfect for ‘straying hands and knee brushings’ (p.45). The place is an exhibition of beauty, a writhing sensual performance where an alley leads to a cobbled path you trod not an hour ago, brushing shoulders with the characters who inhabit in the cracks of the story.
The reader follows Pietro’s journey, which weaves the six stories together. We look on as he develops confidence in his sexual endeavours, his tale beginning with him as a man who has never known a woman. He shadows the full-mouthed model, unseen, to the beach where he watches her pleasure herself. He is confused and aroused by her feminine objectiveness to her own body, intoxicated by the ordinary. In his eyes she is an enigma, a creature whose ‘pubic hair shone like a jewel’ (p.27), a mysterious liquid called forth by her flower-like touch from the centre of her being. As she rides the crest of her orgasm he is amazed by the violence of her pleasure ‘as if thoroughly murdered by her own caressing’ (p.28).
The next time we find Pietro he dips his toe into the waters of sexual touch. He doesn’t dive head first in to the deep end where women can be found but finds pleasure in the safety of a relationship in which he firmly holds the power. The eleven year old girl who delivers his laundry is subject to the chore of fellating him. A woman can use her powers against him but a child cannot, thus he reaches the next step in his own sexual discovery. After this encounter Pietro is aroused to the point of torture and seeks the services of a prostitute whose apartment, coincidentally, is the one which neighbours the full-mouthed model’s home, the apartment she shares with the son of a Portuguese fisherman. Pietro is intimidated by the prostitute’s deft exploration of his body and his desire dulled by it. He notices some murmuring from the next room, he can hear the neighbouring couple making love. He closes his eyes and mirrors the movements of the model and her lover with the woman he paid for beneath him, imagining himself in the Portuguese man’s place. The last story, while not about Pietro directly, is where we witness his newly found confidence. A European mime dancer tells him about her traumatic past in which a division of German soldiers queued up outside the captain’s tent for five minutes each with her. This torture was in exchange for her freedom. Pietro has become so self-assured, knowing ‘himself to be handsome’ (p.48) that he is confused when she doesn’t accede his advances. He has moved so far away from the ‘excessively timid’ (p.20) virgin of the second story and transformed into a beast of an entitled nature; a transformation which takes place over just twenty-eight pages.
Every narrative, save the final story, has an uncanny power to make the reader reserve judgement but this last story feels heavier and sombre in the telling. The finale to ‘Life in Provincetown’, this lasting impression is one of violence, in act and in imagery. The soldiers approached her ‘with all their blood in their genitals ready to explode.’ (p.49), this image is not an arousing one, more representative of their absolute dominion over her. These men did not know it but they changed the dancer, they obliterated her enjoyment of plain old sex. This is when she tells the second part of her story about the Catalonian, a man who features in the trapeze artist’s story as the sadistic elderly lord. In this anecdote the trapeze artist explains to Pietro why his buttocks remain permanently clenched, the old lord had slashed him across the backside with a razorblade after inviting him for dinner. Nin introduces the Catalonian in the finale and makes reference to this earlier farce, ‘There was a story about him and a trapezist, but it was not proved.’ (p.51). Nin’s dramatic irony is a perfectly timed joke and another thread connecting the stories, creating the expansive and socially claustrophobic rabbit warren of Provincetown.
At the climax of this most uncomfortable of stories, I find myself laughing as the mime dancer does at the end of her tale. The Catalonian has ‘a special collection of objects’ (p.50) which grow ever more bizarre with each of his costume changes. He first appears with a rubber tongue, then emerges wearing a spiked rubber penis, a Leaning-Tower-of-Pisa penis and finally a model-of-Napoleon penis, complete with Napoleon’s famous hat which she ‘felt…inside [her] womb, the three points like the points of a star, lodged against [her] flesh’ (p.55). She finally emerges victorious from her experience in the captain’s tent. Her laughter contains raw power, power enough to conclude Nin’s saga of sexual pleasure and eccentricity.
The trapeze artists, the whores, the sadistic elderly lords, it is these sexual miscreants who are given the spotlight and Nin, unabashed, shows them in their truest form with no moral interference. When Pietro kisses and bites a little girl and encourages her, in her innocence, to fellate him, she leaves the judgement up to the reader, the voyeur, the collector. Ruder’s wealthy client did not harbour any judgement on the moral integrity of the characters, just the emotional subtleties of Nin’s prose. A phrase he used repeatedly was, ‘cut the poetry’. Their creativity stifled, Nin and her fellow literary prostitutes came to despise him and she fought against his restrictions when it came to the inclusion of sensuality, desire and love in her erotica. She believed she had created such outlandish caricatures that the collector must accuse her of mocking him, but his one objection remained the same. His refrain enraged the writers, they were devoting their intelligent prose, their three dimensional characters to a brick wall, devoid of any feeling outside the parameters of primal lust. They wrote him a letter, explaining why they hated him, a letter which cautiously begins, ‘Dear Collector: We hate you.’ (Nin, 1978, p.12). She argued that without its connection to the mind, stories about sex become educational descriptions, to inform rather than to excite. Her steadfast position on the inseparability of the physical and the emotional, whether that be love or fear, is what made her erotica as intelligent, challenging and disturbingly thrilling as it remains to be today.
Nin said that our sexual lives are ‘enveloped in many layers […] a veiled woman, half-dreamed’ (Nin, 2002, p.viii) and in her erotica she has created countless little worlds in which the layers are stripped away and the veiled woman bares all to the voyeur.