Tonight at my book group (this is the all male one) we turn our collective attention to erotica. (Welcome everyone who found this entry via a google search.) A number of us had heard of Anaïs Nin, so we decided to go with a couple of her books, though there was an invitation to bring along a passage to read aloud from anywhere else. I’m posting this before the meeting.
Of A Spy in the House of Love, the less said by me the better: not so much erotica as neurotica. The long, ecstatic paragraph near the start that ended ‘but only that one ritual, a joyous, joyous, joyous impaling of woman on a man’s sensual mast’ had me thinking that if that was erotica I’d happily do without it. Thankfully there were no recurrences.
Maybe I’m showing my age, but I can’t say I warmed to Delta of Venus, either, which had lots of impaling. The most interesting thing about the book is probably the introductory pages, excerpts from Anaïs Nin’s 1940 diaries describing the way she and a swathe of her literary friends churned out erotica for a mysterious ‘Collector’ for a dollar a page.
Back in 1970 or so, there was a lot of anti-censorship activity in Sydney, including the publication of pornographic editions of student newspapers and “Porn Fests”, at which distinguished academics and undistinguished enthusiasts read rude bits from Henry Miller, Sam Shepard, John Wilmot second earl of Rochester, the Marquis de Sade and so on to crowded lecture theatres. It was all in a good cause – blows struck in the struggle for free speech – and some of it was funny, but overall it was squirm-making. Delta of Venus seems to me to belong in that context: it does contain some characters and narrative, but the ‘dirty bits’ are its raison d’être. Already dated in 1976 when Anaïs Nin decided to publish it, it reads as totally quaint now, quaint and vicious in its playing with paedophilia, incest, rape and so on. However, I did read it from cover to cover, so it clearly has titillation value. What I’ve realised is that if writing is to work as erotica for me, it needs to arise from a complex, recognisably human reality. Maybe we should have agreed to read Anaïs Nin’s diaries, where presumably she talks about more than who is doing what to whom with what.
I went to the theatre on Sunday with another group member, who was similarly unenthused by the Anaïs Nin books. Someone had recommended Silk to him, and he lent it to me with his recommendation. It’s a very short book, something of a fable about love and passion. Most of it is taken up with a slow-building sexual charge. Then there are a couple of explicit, erotic pages – which work because they’ve had 80 pages of build-up. Then the tale ends with a bitter-sweet twist that makes one want to re-read the erotic pages again …
At the moment I’m tossing up what read-aloud to take tonight: A D Hope’s ‘The Countess of Pembroke’s Dream’ perhaps, or Kathryn Lomer’s ‘Tentative love poem’, which begins:
Snow comes late; only the air
between our mouths is warm,
a microclimate in which whispered words
are storms building. Our skins catch
what little light is cast – mine reflects,