Though the picture above is so genteel, what with the nice succulent and all, there is going to be some explicit language below because this book is all about sex. I wiggle my eyebrows at you in warning.
I got so excited when I saw Delta of Venus in the Popular Penguins stand that I bought it right away. I remember borrowing this book from the local library, sub rosa of course, when I was fourteen or fifteen. It was a surprising book for the young me, as there’s no Hardian delicacy about female sexuality in Nin’s work, and the things that are typically romantic about the characters (they’re all firm-fleshed, like pumas) are balanced out by, well, oddnesses. In the first story, ‘The Hungarian Adventurer’, the titular adventurer plays a game with two little children of the Spanish ambassador, in which the goal is to ‘catch’ the Hungarian’s erect penis as he waves it around under bedsheets. Those poor girls.
I never finished reading Delta of Venus when I was a teenager. Perhaps I found it weird that the mystery and nobility of sex (how sweet and naive a teenagerly conceit) was here reduced to the paedophilic gamble of a charming but unlikeable man. But I always remembered the passion with which Nin expressed, in the introduction, her endeavour to use ‘a woman’s language’ to describe sexual experience. Even though there are few people who would today subscribe to the view that there is such an absolute, discrete entity as ‘a woman’s language’, the idea that women should be writing about sex was compelling enough for me to want to pick the book up again this year.
Most of the stories take the name of their protagonists: Mathilde, Lilith, Marianne, Pierre, the Basque and Bijou. All have their proclivities and sensitivities — Mathilde is an idealist who rejects unromantic overtures from seemingly suitable aristocratic lovers, and her curiosity leads her to seek out different sexual partners, but the combination of her idealism and curiosity takes her to dangerous ground. Manuel is an exhibitionist who likes to expose himself in public, and searches for a woman who can understand his desires.
Sometimes it’s fun and titillating, sometimes it’s boring and a bit like flipping through a postal order catalogue, but sex is accorded primacy in each story. Delta of Venus‘s characters are all libertines who seem to live and die for sex, artists and aristocrats and prostitutes whose constant openness to sex seems to propose that all human relationships are potentially erotic ones. The extent to which the characters are willing to go past the boundaries set by society and themselves — Bijou progresses from struggle to pleasure in a forced bestiality scene — reveals their slavery to experimentation or sex itself.
But are the characters slaves to sex or to each other? Though Nin was interested in portraying sex from a woman’s point of view, Venus is not necessarily a feminist party. While the characters, bearing only first names like signs of the horoscope, all have their particularities, Nin sometimes writes the sexual act in erotic detail that deidentifies the participants: ‘A hand was opening someone’s buttocks.’ Women in these stories are often humiliated and dominated, as are their male counterparts. One character, Maria, is tricked into having sex by a man pretending to be another woman. Also problematic is Nin’s iteration that emotion, poetry and monogamy are necessarily bound up in her ‘feminine self’, a generalisation which she enthusiastically but somewhat unnecessarily extends to all women.
Some people consider her books as damning an accessory to the owner’s identity as plastic light sabres. But though I am not right behind her in politics, I still admire Nin as a lively, passionate person who couldn’t resist the urge to live and write about sex, which so enthralled her. You can roll your eyes all you like at teenage girls who brandish their copies of her books, but the passion and sensuality she championed is absolutely palpable in Delta of Venus. Just think about that the next time you read a sex scene.
Here’s a really bad one, to take you out. From Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart (which won a Bad Sex Award in 2007)
“You wanna pop me?” she said. This must have been some new-fangled youth term. The verb “to pop.”
“I wanna bust a nut inside you, shorty,” I said. “I wanna make you sweat, boo. Let’s do this thing.”