“It is one thing to include eroticism in a novel or story and quite another to focus one’s whole attention on it.” — Anaïs Nin
Romance novels are the guilty pleasures of many women and, the Bookish Miss suspects, a few men. In fact, according to one report, the number of those novels being read is going up thanks to e-readers like Kindle and Nook.
Not that there’s anything wrong with this, mind you. Several scholars and writers, Eloisa James in particular, have made excellent arguments as to why romance novels remain not only popular but important — and those points are excellently made. However, it is one thing to read stories that encompass the erotic in and of itself (whether or not actual sexual acts are involved), and another to read something where the entire plot hinges on, or is designed to facilitate, erotic acts.
Anaïs Nin knew this. Much of her erotica reflects her subtle manipulation of what the reader expects, giving pieces of the story but not the whole, because her purpose was to create an atmosphere in which any character could operate. This is what titillates the reader of erotica — the peek into the life of a character who, in some respects, could be anyone. Thus the reader becomes the voyeur, subsumed in a maze conflicting feelings that ends with a certain vicarious form of emotional release.
Nin specialized in stories that deal in some way with the sexual awakening of a woman. Men do appear in these stories, even as the narrator in a few cases, but ultimately the limelight rests on a female character. In The Woman on the Dunes, for example, a sexually frustrated man finds release with a nameless stranger — but her recollection of an erotic experience in the past dwarfs the immediate encounter. Time and again, it is the story of women and their relationships with other women and men that predominate; the atmosphere and point of view are usually so well developed that few readers miss the lack of a well-defined male character.
Nin’s characters also run the gamut of female sexuality and experience. From the violently confused Lina in Lina, to the frigid Dorothy in Two Sisters, who finds pleasure only when it does not harm her sister, to the careless and promiscuous whore Bijou in The Queen, Nin’s female characters embody their sexuality even when trying to reject it. And perhaps that is one of Nin’s messages — even more important than the implied belief that only women can truly know women, Nin shows that these women can never dismiss their sexuality because it is rooted in their bodies.
Some academics and feminists find the idea of female sexuality being rooted in physicality troubling; others, liberating. So what does that mean for the reader?
For some, nothing, they enjoy the story and go on with life without contemplating why it resonates. Others take away the idea that sexuality is natural no matter who your partner may be, that problems happen and innocence irrevocably passes away to become a bittersweet memory.
On the other hand, because Nin’s characters are often shown as being mired in their bodies, as objects of sexual attraction, some take away the idea that she objectifies women. That said, the very depth granted to her female characters, and denied the male characters, would in a sense appear to objectify the men. Because it is usually a man who awakens a woman’s sexual and erotic feelings in Nin’s stories, readers could walk away assuming that men are ones with the power to do so.
However, turning this idea on its head is the way Nin’s female characters relate to men later on. The heroine of A Model, who first experiences erotic pleasure with a girlfriend while still in early adolescence, is sexually awakened by three men she later regards as “children” — which would oppose the idea that men have some sort of (unspoken) power. Men may awaken women, and may be considered adequate lovers, but a constant undercurrent throughout Nin’s stories is that men never fully understand a woman’s sexual and erotic needs once she becomes aware of her own desire.
Perhaps Nin meant to reaffirm the mystique of woman, while at the same time giving women a sense of personal superiority — that they are something that men can never really know.
For me personally, none of these things really come to mind. As I read the tales she wove, I’m struck by the depth of emotion and feeling that she conveys in so little space. Her work is sensuous in the full meaning of the word; she is not only erotic but tactile, you feel as if you are present in the story. Nin’s stories do more than tell the tale, they make the reader feel the sand beneath a character’s feet, smell the incense, see the wind blowing through the trees, taste the sweet wine and hear the sounds of an ecstatic lover.
This, then, is what makes Nin’s erotica singularly erotic. Despite her brevity she does not skimp on the details — and her stories are all the more intense for it.