Summary: In Delta of Venus, Anais Nin pens a lush, magical world where the characters of her imagination possess the most universal of desires and exceptional of talents. Among these provocative stories, a Hungarian adventurer seduces wealthy women then vanishes with their money; a veiled woman selects strangers from a chic restaurant for private trysts; and a Parisian hatmaker named Mathilde leaves her husband for the opium dens of Peru.
Delta of Venus, by Anaïs Nin 7.25
“Sex loses all its power and magic when it becomes explicit, mechanical, overdone, when it becomes a mechanistic obsession. It becomes a bore.” – Anaïs Nin, December 1941
When I discovered that, in revisiting ‘Little Birds‘, I was reading the wrong book for the Venus Envy book club, I immediately tossed it aside to barrel through the month’s actual selection, ‘Delta of Venus’. Luckily, I had both of them in my personal library, so it was an effortless transition. It just meant leaving ‘Little Birds’ temporarily unfinished.
I loved the Preface, which is partly composed of excerpts from Anaïs’ own diaries, circa 1940-41, along with a brief Postscript by the author herself, dated September 1976. She explains how she had very much dismissed her work at the time because she felt that she had compromised her literary voice to accommodate her client’s whims.
She and her peers started writing “erotica” for this wealthy man but his demand for less flourishes led to them losing interest and vilifying him. I understand: he was having them strip all emotion, sensuality, poetry, anything that made the material feel real. He wanted cold, clinical descriptions, which was understandably disliked by these authors.
But they needed money, and he paid one dollar a page – which, at the time, was a cushy gig to say the least. Interestingly, some of the stories are not even Nin’s own: they were recounted to her by some of her friends and peers and she adapted them. Naturally she added her own touches, but between them and the client, I wonder where she fit in.
Still, it made for an intriguing collection:
1. The Hungarian Adventurer: This one felt like a pastiche of encounters more than a story: The man met this woman, this is what happened, and then he met this person, and this is what happened. Add to it the touchy subjects and it really wasn’t my bag. 6.5
2. Mathilde: I liked the character of Mathilde, but I found the story a bit seedy, especially towards the end, when it involved poverty and drug use. And its ending, awkward as the story was already, ended all too abruptly for my taste. 6.75
3. The Boarding School: This was merely a description of what took place at the Jesuit school. It was devoid of feeling and mood. It was okay, no more. 6.0
4. The Ring: Very brief and not very interesting. It merely describes in broad strokes the relationship between and Indian man and a Peruvian woman and the family discord this created. Meh. 6.0
5. Mallorca: Although it’s quite brief, I enjoyed the sensuousness and playfulness of this one. I was skeptical about the girl’s inability to distinguish between male and female under water – especially having passed through the person’s legs. But it was still hot. 7.5
6. Artists and Models: I wasn’t too keen on this story because it’s merely a string of sequences loosely tied together by a model posing for some artists. It felt contrived to me, as though Nin had a bunch of short scenes that she wanted to weave together and decided to use her protagonist in each one – or have the artists recount stories to her. Meh. 6.0
7. Lilith: I really enjoyed this one because it took us right into Lilith’s fever as she focuses intently on her own desire, thinking that she’s been given Spanish fly. The way she observed her surroundings, added hints and shades of sexuality to everything, was quite arousing, actually. 8.0
8. Marianne: Yet another story of artists and their models, but this one had its moments. While I hate the way Nin takes into a story within a story all the time (in this occasion through a story that a secretary typed and left for her boss to read), the secretary’s story was exciting because it was all about the character’s inability to satisfy her growing arousal – it was very psychological. 7.5
9. The Veiled Woman: This one is about a man who is accosted in a pub and hired to service a unknown woman only the one time. I enjoyed the mystery surrounding this affair and the relatively slow build-up, along with its culmination; the twist to the tale is quite clever. 7.5
10. Elena: I have mixed feelings about this one. On the one hand, I’d say it’s the strongest of all of the short stories I’ve read by Nin: it takes its time to describe characters, motivations, situations, moods, the fever of desire, …etc.; it’s the most fully-fleshed of them all. On the other hand, I got bored with reading one tryst after another: there was pretty much no plot and I didn’t get the impression that there was any growth for the main character; in many ways, she is the same at the end as she was in the beginning. I had to plod through all 60 pages of it to get to the end – a veritable challenge. But anyone who doesn’t mind the lack of plot would likely relish this one. It truly is technically superior to most of the others. 8.0
11. The Basque and Bijou: This one was interesting because it reintroduces the leads from ‘Elena’ as secondary, background characters. However, I disliked that there’s little plot, that it’s mostly a series of sexy scenes tenuously tied together. It started off really nice, though, because it explored the Basque and a couple of other characters more in depth, thereby rooting the sexy stuff more (Nin’s description of the madam were superb). But it devolved as the stories carried on, leaving me with the impression that Nin was just trying to push boundaries or cover as many fetishes/taboos as possible. Oh well. 7.5
12. Pierre: I held very little hope for this short when I first got started: not unlike many of Nin’s other short stories, it seemed to be a series of sex scenes more so than an actual story; it felt more pornographic than erotic. But then the story kicked in good and proper and I realized that what had likely been happening was that Nin was catering to her client, cutting out all atmosphere to titillate him. Then she told us the most recent adventures of Pierre, a character from ‘Elena’. While much of its content would disturb some, Nin got into the characters’ psychology and set the stage quite well. I found myself rather aroused by the way she built up the sexual tension. 8.0
13. Manuel: This one is but a few pages long and describes the exhibitionistic fervour of a male model. It’s not super exciting, but I did enjoy the ending. 6.0
14. Linda: Strangely, I found this one directionless, as though Nin carried Linda from one story to the next without much interest in contextualizing it. I mean, we know she’s married, but most of this short suggests so many adventures that she doesn’t appear tethered in any way. It was okay. 6.5
15. Marcel: This one describes an offbeat character by the name of Marcel through the eyes of our narrator, who is also his lover. It has a few sizzling moments, but it’s mostly interesting for the way it describes its subject. 7.0
It was a challenge getting through this collection: I wasn’t taken with any of the earlier stories, but I plodded through anyway because I wanted to be able to discuss it in full at the book club. I’m glad I did because there were a number of pretty good ones about halfway through – and I would have missed out had I quit.
But I found that there were way too many painters and models (also one of my grievances with ‘Little Birds’); I wish that Nin had a broader perspective – there are plenty of other settings and types of people. Also, the stories frequently end in an abrupt fashion, as though she had no idea how to bring them to a close; instead of easing out, she just put the brakes on suddenly. Weird.
Still, when it works, it really works, and it makes me want to explore the rest of her oeuvre, maybe even her life story (I have a massive biography of her in my collection). She’s quite an interesting author. Would I recommend this book? It’s a mixed bag. I have no doubt that’s because of her client’s demands but, thankfully, there is some substance here. And when it’s sexy, it’s veritably feverish.
Post scriptum: In the end, for all my efforts, I missed the book club: somehow I had the date wrong and was a day late. After all of this, you just gotta laugh. I still shake my head when I think of it.