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March 4, 2013 | by  | in Books |
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Book Review – Delta of Venus

Written by Anais Nin

Is there any way to write well about sex? Too much metaphor and the thing itself is destroyed in a glut of words, too little and it can become cold and clinical. The issues of gender politics, the fluidity of sexuality and sexual identity, and different sexual kinks also come into play. It’s a thin line to walk, one which Anaïs Nin only just fails to tread in her deeply engaging chronicle of interconnected sexual episodes, Delta of Venus.

 
Delta of Venus was assembled from a collection of erotic stories written by Nin—“the madam of a house of literary prostitution”—in the 1940s, commissioned by an anonymous collector who demanded that she “leave out the poetry” of sex. Thankfully Nin ignored him, and her stories contain a strong sense of the poetic mixed with the sensual, especially highlighted by her emphasis on the exotic, both in character and locale. This enabled Nin to present a sexual freedom which was incredibly forward-looking for her time, and especially revolutionary from a female perspective. While the characters and their situations are fun and enjoyable, the high points of Delta of Venus are Nin’s moments of pathos; the final episode, which deals with war breaking out and the dream coming to an end, has a Fitzgeraldian quality which outshines the rest.

 
But when I ask if there is any way to write well about sex, what I really want to ask is: specifically, is there any way to write about sex using words that won’t be a complete turn-off? There seems to be a feeling in much erotica that the use of anatomic terms – infuriatingly, even the everyday ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ – is unconscionably clinical. Instead, writers verge towards flowery, purple prose, and clunky metaphor. Delta of Venus, which elsewhere masters a confident literary tone, succumbs to this, with Nin’s overwrought descriptions of “her sex opening” and “his desire springing up” sounding not dissimilar to a Mills & Boon novel. Because of this, these moments become completely unerotic and incredibly distracting.

 
I also found Delta of Venus problematic from a feminist perspective. There’s no doubt that it is a feminist book; there is a preoccupation throughout with the feminine mind and her approach to sex, emphasising the woman’s voice and attempting to unlock “the mysteries of woman’s sensuality, so different from man’s and for which man’s language was inadequate”. This is rare even in modern erotica, which often emphasises patriarchal values even when written by women (50 Shades of Grey, I’m looking at you). However, the feminism here is First-wave, and the scenes of incest, paedophilia, and rape pervading Delta of Venus are at times tricky to reconcile with a modern feminist reading. While the overt violence of many of the male figures is implicitly condemned, the ease with which others subjugate women is not.

 
Nin seems to be presenting two different types of eroticism; the broadly masculine, and the broadly feminine, and there is an emphasis on these needing to be balanced, even in homosexual relationships. Moments of imbalance lead to sexual dysfunction, and hence the violence. However, while Nin is concerned at the frequency of the feminine will being subjugated to the masculine, she also acknowledges that this is the state of affairs in her world, which is emphasised by the somewhat jarring fetishism of rape and incest.

 
Do try Delta of Venus; it’s mostly very well-written, incredibly atmospheric, with some fascinating characters who have great sex. But it’s not the erotic novel that’s going to bring down the patriarchy in 2013—dammit, we’ll just have to keep reading.

 

Alex Hollis

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