Review: Stories of Love, by Anaïs Nin (Cleo edition)

During my postgraduate studies in writing, I spent a lot of time reading about the great diarist Anaïs Nin. That’s right — not the author, the diarist. We were interested in how she delved into her thoughts and feelings and what she brought out of those strange dealings. I read so much about her person and her mind, but until recently I’d read none of her fiction or erotica. So when I found Stories of Love at the Lifeline Bookfest for a dollar, I was sold.

I then hesitated to read the book, not because I was worried about its naughty content, but because I was scared to be seen in public with such a cover — it showed a woman caressing her own naked flesh. I’ve heard you can’t judge a book by its cover, but no one said you can’t judge the reader! (I think this is one of the advantages of e-books.)

Anyway, I took the book with me to New Caledonia, thinking a French colony would be the ideal place to read such forbidden words. Surely no one would think poorly of me if I read it by the pool? Still, I chickened out of reading it poolside, instead only reading it on the boat and in our bungalow.

The book is a special edition created for Cleo readers as a free gift. (I wonder if it will become a collector’s item, since the final issue of Cleo was released just recently.) I’m not sure if the selected stories are a good indication of Nin’s entire body of erotica; I suspect they were specifically selected for their target audience — an audience that’s somewhat younger than my thirty-five years. Nin’s other stories may be wildly different, so I won’t write off her erotica just yet, but I’ll say this particular selection didn’t really do it for me.

Each story is beautifully written; I didn’t find myself cringing at any Mills & Boon-esque euphemisms. Nin touches on *cough* tender subjects such as first orgasms, polyamory, gender identity, and the very concept of intimacy. Each story explores physical love in a new context, but I grew bored with what was essentially the same story arc: a journey of discovery from unwholesome repression to blossoming sexual freedom.

Perhaps the stories failed to *cough* excite me because I live in a time where so many of the issues raised are no longer taboo in polite society. I understand how desire can make us insecure, but I don’t know its guilt. I understand how it can be overwhelming, but I can’t see it as shameful. The specific acts Nin depicts are not foreign to me — while her stories were groundbreaking at the time she wrote them, such tales are now shared freely on the web. It’s sad to think I might be missing out on the wonders of her writing because I’ve been conditioned to see nothing extraordinary there.

Perhaps my problem with these stories was the prevalence of words over elisions; my imagination was allowed no space to tease the tale into something that *cough* touched me personally. I guess this is always a risk with explicit prose, and more so with erotica.

Perhaps I detached from some of the tales because of the dark violence lurking beneath them. As a domestic violence survivor, I find nothing sexy about the prospect of partners wanting to hurt each other with the force of their desire. It’s an animalistic touch, but unlike the idea of wanting to consume a lover, which fascinates me, this one repulses me.

Perhaps I was turned off by the way all sexual acts, even those performed between two women, seemed constructed to satisfy men’s gazes — a dangerous lesson for the young women I believe this compilation was aimed at. It was a stark contrast to the womanly beauty that surrounded me in New Caledonia, where women of all shapes and sizes and ages and ethnicities revelled in the simple pleasure of donning tiny swimsuits, not to lure men, but simply to swim and sun themselves.

Or perhaps I’m overthinking it, and I simply overdosed by reading too many of the stories in a row.

While I didn’t love the collection, I didn’t hate it either, and it saddens me to think that fiction may no longer hold a place for uncomplicated journeys of sexual discovery. The market is now saturated with erotica about dinosaurs, werewolves, BBW, bikers and bears — none of the simple pleasure of expressing love in a physical way. But if that’s what the world wants, who am I to argue? It’s difficult to defend a genre I have no real interest in reading. (I have some interest in writing it, but only because I’ve heard it’s lucrative.)

As a bonus, here’s a terrifying and intense love letter Henry Miller wrote to Anaïs Nin during their affair. If you haven’t checked out Letters of Note, you’re overdue.

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