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This week, Salient’s books section is scandalised by two racy texts that dwell on perhaps the biggest taboo of all—sex! Both are available as Popular Penguins; both will make you feel dirty when reading them in public.
Delta of Venus—★★★★★
Author: Anais Nin
If feminist porn (not to be confused with female friendly porn) was created in the 1940s in the form of literature this is what it would look like. My crude attempt at describing Nin’s ability to write sex, however, falls short; it is a subject that even poets like Morrissey cannot master and yet Nin makes it look so easy. This anthology consists of fifteen short stories that were written by Nin for a private collector but were published posthumously in 1977. Each story invites us into the private world of a different woman: think orgies in opium dens, Sapphic encounters, and even some pegging. I had no idea that strap-ons existed in the 1940’s until I read this book.
The current climate of mainstream pornographic film and fiction caters to our tastes for the violent and exploitative. In a time when the Fifty Shades of Grey Trilogy exists, I don’t think it would be far-fetched to say Delta of Venus is still ahead of its time. Not because Fifty Shades is lowbrow erotica, and we can all enjoy gratuitous and indulgent fiction from time to time, but because Nin’s narratives are complex and also sexy without being crude. The stories are believable, in the best sense of the word.
Her female protagonists have not been infantilized—they know what they want and when, and they know how to get it. They are women of all shapes and sizes, and the stories focus on their pleasure and sexual exploration as much as the men they are sleeping with.
Nin has written other erotic fiction such as A Spy in The House of Love, and also explored her own sexual experiences and relationships, most notably with Henry Miller and his wife June, in a collection of four memoirs titled A Journal of Love.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover—★★★★
Author: D.H. Lawrence
High-spirited lass marries intellectual sort with a title, who lacks a certain ‘physicality’ being philosophically against it, but also paralysed from the war. She gets sick of him and falls madly in love with a working-class bloke. They bang like gifted rabbits until everything gets complicated.
There is nothing in this novel that will shock any modern reader with a liberal education. Nothing here is as comparatively stimulating as a quick glance over HBO’s line-up, and there are no words surmounting the vulgarity of five minutes eavesdropping in any high school classroom today (notably, the publisher, Penguin Books, was placed on trial in 1960 on charges of obscenity).
Yet, the mastery of this book is in its execution of the taboo beyond easy sensuality or erotica. The adulterous sex is extraordinary because it is divorced from social condemnation by the author. It feels cool and real and okay. No one is punished or shamed or ruined, except that they fear the threat of ruination, but that never really happens. I found this refreshing. Not that I can personally endorse adultery—in fact, the contrary is true—but in a world that judges the sin without justifying its own judgment, finding a little written space where people get theirs and enjoy it is unexpected, and consequently rather nice.
It was written by a man, and guess what? You can tell. Those passages of intoxicated phallic worship are hilariously inane, stretching the limits of imagination beyond what is reasonable. It’s definitely the cynic in me, but surely, no self-respecting lady would be that boldly descriptive? Anyway, underpinning the sex were the intersecting problems of class and wealth. The eponymous Lady Chatterley is repeatedly scolded about not her ‘intrigue’, but the resulting ‘scandal’ that would come from everybody knowing she took it up with a mere groundskeeper. Would that happen today? The funny thing is that the most taboo idea, that a man and a woman could be open about sex, is the least of our contemporary problems. The bigger fears we face are about wealth disparity, and real intimacy, and to be facing a future we aren’t sure we like.
Read this book if those are some things you need to mull on, or if you like the 1920s, but mostly if you like books that are fast and loose with fun words like ‘fuck’ and ‘cunt’.