It is rare when I put down a book of erotica and feel a sense of literary satisfaction, but that is what happened when I finished Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus last week. Comprising of 15 short stories, the book was commissioned by an anonymous collector in the 1940s. Nin managed to infuse the stories with a sense of the literary, and unusually for erotica, the book manages to be sexy without being distasteful. There is nothing extra here; there is nothing added for the sake of shock value, and a lot of modern erotic writers can take a page or two out of this book.
The characters in these short stories are both exceptional and compelling, and there is a sense of leaving you wanting more, even after the story ends. Whether it is Mathilde, the Parisian hatmaker who leaves her husband and her cushy married life in order to travel to the opium dens of Peru, or the Hungarian adventurer who seduces wealthy women in order to abscond with their money, or the veiled woman who scans the guests at a fashionable restaurant as a prelude to romantic trysts, it is impossible to put this book down, even for an instant.
What is interesting about this book and the characters is that they do, to an extent, toe the lines of socially acceptable mores. We are so jaded to sexual descriptions today because anything goes, a la Fifty Shades et al, but when you remember that Nin was writing this book in the 1930s and the 1940s you start to develop a deeper appreciation for her craft, because this book both toes the line and flouts convention in one delightful package. Nin’s depictions of erotica are not dirty or shocking or bawdy; rather, it is literary and sensually pleasing, and written with amazing and compassionate insights into humanity and human psyche.
It is to be noted that Nin modelled her book after the Kama Sutra and others, but as a woman, she was deeply conscious that the languages of male and female sexuality are very different, and that comes through the book in its entirety. She was very clear that she was writing the book for her commission, and was actually afraid of the impact that the book would have upon her literary reputation. She need not have worried; the book is solid in and of itself, and is widely regarded as pioneering work by sex-positive feminists the world over.