Summary: Anaïs Nin explores passion in all its forms, from two strangers on a moonlit Normandy beach to a woman’s sudden fulfillment at a public hanging. Evocative, compelling, superbly erotic, Little Birds is a powerful journey into the mysterious world of sex and sensuality.
Little Birds, by Anaïs Nin 8.0
Recently, my local sex shop and book store, Venus Envy (you gotta love that name!) , was holding a book club meeting to read one of Anaïs Nin’s collection of erotic short stories. Since I had already been reading erotica, I figured that I might as well use this opportunity to explore Nin’s oeuvre – I had been wanting to ever since watching ‘Henry and June‘.
Strangely, I had forgotten that I had already read ‘Little Birds’ a few years ago. It’s only as I started through the first couple of stories that a murky recollection came to the surface. Since I was enjoying myself and I couldn’t remember the details, I didn’t mind revisiting it at all. In any case, I thought that it would be very interesting to hear what the book club members thought of it.
Aside for a brief Preface by Nin herself, and which was adapted from an introduction to the short story “Marianne” (which was published in ‘Delta of Venus’), the book is composed of thirteen unrelated short stories of various lengths, which she had been commissioned to write in the 1940s, but which were only published in 1979 after her passing.
1. Little Birds: This story is about an exhibitionist who gets it into his head to buy a bunch of birds to attract the school girls across from his flat. I found it amusing, as it seemed designed to be comical, not sexy. However, it could easily have been creepy, had the man come off as predatory. But if felt like a farce, as though he were a buffoon, so it seemed okay. It’s not at all erotic, but it’s a terrific story. 7.5
2. The Woman on the Dunes: I found this one pretty hot. H-O-T. I was immediately turned on when Louis, our protagonist, wandered about some shacks and watched a couple make out. When the woman took charge, eventually putting herself in her partner’s face, and Louis “watched the melting of his mouth between her legs”, my brain fogged up. And that’s before Louis met a woman of his own, on the beach. 8.0
3. Lina: This one is told from the perspective of the titular character’s friend. We are introduced to Lina, a woman who loves women but is appalled by the notion of Lesbianism, so she will only kiss her friend – no more. It’s a great read from a psychological standpoint as the behaviours are quite fascinating. And it has its erotic touches too. 7.5
4. Two sisters: This tells a story comprised of the overlapping sexual encounters of two sisters. It’s an unusual one because it begins with one character then moves to another and another; the story is told from various perspectives as it develops. I didn’t find it otherwise interesting, as it was merely a series of love affairs, but getting into the various characters’ heads was nice. 7.0
5. Sirocco: This one didn’t do much for me. It was short and merely consists of a woman recounting her love life to a stranger, after offering him refuge from the titular wind/sand storm. There’s a hint of raw passion, but not much. 6.5
6. The Maja: This tells the story of a painter whose spouse, Maria, won’t allow him to see her naked; she only wants to be with him in the dark. At first sneaking glances at her while she sleeps, he eventually becomes obsessed with her naked form, painting many likenesses of her. I kind of liked this one because we got into the characters’ heads and understood what moved them. The climax, however, was absurd. 7.0
7. A Model: This is the story of a girl who gets a gig as a model and how she slowly discovers her sexuality. It’s really just a series of different encounters with painters and how they try to seduce her, usually unsuccessfully. To me, it felt as though Nin was merely trying to string a bunch of sexy bits together. 7.0
8. The Queen: This one isn’t particularly erotic, but it is sensual. It basically describes a wild, earthy prostitute through a man’s eyes. I enjoyed it because we really got a sense of what she was like. Sure, she may be a caricature or some unearthly creature, but at least the picture was painted. 7.5
9. Hilda and Rango: This one is short, describing a love affair that our protagonist has with a Mexican painter. What I liked was how he postponed their pleasure, lingering with kisses and caresses more so than intercourse, per se. It was far sexier that way. 7.5
10. The Chanchiquito: This was interesting because it was a fantasy, with a woman getting her artist friend to paint an image on the ceiling, above their bed. She could see things in it that were only perceptible to her, which was neat. It’s not especially sexy, but I still liked it for its original approach. 7.0
11. Saffron: This one is a mixture of sexiness and inexorable sadness. It’s the story of a young wife whose husband is unable to possess her despite all their passionate caresses. I felt really sorry for her because she was isolated emotionally – and was also separated from her husband physically, as he sought relief elsewhere. It’s a good short story, though. 7.5
12. Mandra: This one tells of the encounters that Mandra, our protagonist and narrator, has with Mary, her voluptuous friend, and later Miriam, her married friend, while they get ready to go out. I found these sapphic encounters delectable, frankly. Especially the first one (although the second one is nice too). 8.0
13. Runaway: I really enjoyed the way that Nin described Jean’s seduction of this runaway girl. It’s all in the details. She also did a terrific job of portraying her as well as the dynamics with Jean and Pierre; you clearly understood why the story played out the way it did. And its ending was a nice way to finish the collection. 7.5
One of the reasons that Nin delayed the publication of these stories is because she felt that she had adapted her writing style to her clients’ demands, one of whom wanted her to cut out all “poetry”; she felt as though he demanded all the soul to be stripped from it. Later, she reconsidered, feeling that they weren’t entirely irredeemable and decided to publish them.
Personally, I found her work a breath of fresh air, after having read the ghastly ‘Illicit‘ by Opal Carew. What’s great was how she painted the portrait of what’s in the characters’ minds and environments. She described the characters in simple yet detailed ways, so that you really get to understand what they’re about, how they feel. It worked for me, anyway.
The erotic stuff is also captured very well, in that it’s not just a collection of sexual acts: it’s also moods, feelings, desires. By being so attentive to the protagonists’ inner lives, we could better understand what turned them on, why they reacted the way that they did and felt the strength of their passion. Plus which she was excellent at describing the finer details.
If there was one thing that I found tedious in this collection it was the repetitious context of artists and models. I know very little of Nin’s history, but it seemed rather narrow to so frequently make the characters one or the other. Couldn’t she have imagined something other than the kinds of people that she knew intimately, being an artist herself? A little fantasy, a bit more imagination would have been nice.
Otherwise, I rather enjoyed ‘Little Birds’. At first I thought that my opinion was influenced by ungodly poor writing in that other book. However, when I subsequently unearthed the rating I had given it the first time around, I realized that it was no fluke. Although I don’t find the individual stories entirely engrossing, as a collection I feel that it’s a very strong effort.
I know that I will read it again.
Post scriptum: In the end, I had made a mistake: the collection that the book club had chosen to read was actually ‘Delta of Venus’. I promptly got my copy off the shelf (I purchased second-hand copies of the original editions of both books many years ago) and got started, in a mad dash to finish it in time for the book club’s discussion. Oops. More about that at a later date.