Ah, the public library circa 1982. The workhorse institution of the community, a perpetually underfunded repository of stuffy reference books, underpaid librarians, used book sales, tax forms, broken microfiche readers — and pornography.
Lurking right there in the open stacks of my suburban public library was enough smut to blow my impressionable 13-year-old mind. My life changed the day I spied Anaïs Nin’s “Delta of Venus” on a shelf in the fiction section. I quizzically studied the photograph on the cover. It showed a girl in strange clothing contorted on an old armchair, her dress hiked up to her hips, revealing a stocking attached to a lacy undergarment. “Erotica” the cover said. I cracked open the book to see what was inside.
Down the rabbit hole I fell into Nin’s world of courtesans, artists, showgirls, lecherous old men, voyeurs, prostitutes and cheeky schoolgirls, all cavorting in a European world of shabby gentility. I felt a twinge of excitement wash over me. I’d found a dirty book, but not like those my mother hid in the cubbyhole of her headboard, like “Forever Amber” or “Princess Daisy.” My literature radar began to whir. I sensed that there was something more to this book than cheap thrills.
Beautiful smut in hand, I glanced around to see if I was about to get caught by a disapproving librarian. As an adolescent I was unaware that most librarians abhor censorship, and one of them had probably put that book in the general collection for a reason. I felt like a secret agent finding clues to my next assignment in the middle of a public space. I put “Delta of Venus” in my “keep” pile and glanced back up at the shelf.
Sandwiched between V.S. Naipaul and Larry Niven was a companion volume by the same author, “Little Birds.” That cover photograph was even more interesting: a girl (woman?) of indeterminate age poised as if sitting in a chair — only there was no chair there. She had a big bow in her hair and wore a short baby-doll dress that was magically suspended straight out to her sides. She rested her chin on her hands and exhibited an unmistakable “come hither” stare. I placed the book face down on my pile should my mother come to see what I was up to.
I was full of questions. I was drawn to the compelling cover photographs as much as to the words inside. Instinctively, I knew Nin’s stories belonged to another era, but I didn’t know which. The books’ copyrights were recent. I felt as if I were gazing through a keyhole into another world. I longed to throw open the door, cross the threshold and don one of those unusual outfits myself.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow describes what he calls a “peak experience,” a seemingly mundane moment in which a sudden insight takes you to a higher plane of understanding about the world and your presence in it. Discovering Anaïs Nin in my public library at the tender age of 13 was my peak experience. Not only had I found words to sate the extraordinary appetite of my raging hormones, but also awakened in me was a thirst for knowledge about the world, a way to put all the disparate elements of this literary mystery in front of me — these strange images, this European miasma — into their proper context. This chance encounter at my local library did what no teacher in eight years of public education could do: It made me care about art, literature and history.
Suddenly, I knew there was more to life than the strip malls and subdivisions that were popping up overnight in my Midwestern suburb. There was more to life than school, movies, television, records and shopping. “Delta of Venus” and “Little Birds” were about sex, but not the kind of sex the high school kids had in the backs of cars or at home while their parents were in Florida. Nin’s tales of sex were woven into a shimmering blanket of unfamiliar cultural mores. Sex for her characters came naturally, in the way one would visit the baker, or stroll along the Seine, or clip a stocking to a garter.
Sex was not crass or defiant; it was part of life. Sure, sometimes it was risky or forbidden, like in her story “The Woman on the Dunes,” which describes a woman who allows herself to be taken from behind by a stranger at a public execution, but above all it was pleasurable. If you kept your eyes open for eroticism, Nin implied, soon enough it would scamper out of the bushes and start nibbling from your hand. Having been steeped in American culture too long, I found this idea revelatory and could barely wait to pursue it.
Reagan-era conservatism had yet to gain a stranglehold on public institutions, and I checked out the books with my library card, no questions asked. The next day I took them to the beach, where I and my friends — both male and female — sat on the sand and read passages aloud to each other. We laughed and blushed. We were being naughty. We ate soggy French fries and splashed in the water, spewing sexual innuendoes just as fast as they came to mind. Nin’s stories fueled our imagination and made us feel less like sex-starved teenagers and more like the inheritors of a literary legacy.
Or at least that’s how I felt. In the back of my mind, I found my friends’ incredulity at the salty passages a bit coarse, not quite reverent enough of Nin’s obvious talent. Though we all had great fun at the beach, I soon bought my own copies of Nin’s books and locked them away in a suitcase along with my diary and my own ludicrous first attempts at fiction writing.
I kept Nin’s world to myself, and thereafter our sexual vocabulary advanced primarily by listening to Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s radio show. Our dirty thoughts continued to slip through the school hallways in folded-up notes about bondage and S/M. Within a couple of years, Madonna’s video for “Like a Virgin” permeated our living rooms, and sex was no longer the cloistered secret it had been before. In retrospect, I imagine that coming of age before sex was thrust into our faces at every pop-culture turn was more exciting than it is now. We had to discover sex rather than shield ourselves from the specter of too much information.
Nin’s books were more than a sexual awakening for me; they were also the beginning of my love of literature. The stepping stones of my self-education went something like this: Nin to Henry Miller. Miller to Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg to Tom Wolfe and Ken Kesey, and finally back to Paris with the Lost Generation expatriates: Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I crossed paths with many other writers in my meandering, notably Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and respected their writing, but mainly I saw them as supporting cast members to the original group (Nin, Miller, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Wolfe and Kesey) that really interested me. Somehow, James Michener, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer got mixed in the fray, too.
The discovery of these authors was sweeter for being my own. I dug into their novels during summer vacations when I had a break from the standard public school fare of “Oliver Twist,” “Romeo and Juliet” and “Gulliver’s Travels.” In time, I began to sense the evolution of 20th century American literature. I began to understand how a place — Paris — could beget a literary trend. I studied maps of the city’s layout. I searched the library — to no avail — to find more photographs like those on the Nin books’ covers. Along the way I stumbled onto Man Ray and Lee Miller. Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali were not far behind. I developed an eye for Art Nouveau. I slowly began to understand the interconnectedness of all art as each path of research I took eventually collided into a name or an idea I’d run into before.
It all started with those throwaway stories of Nin’s. They were — and are — such fun. Louis, from “The Woman on the Dunes,” takes a midnight walk along a beach in a French coastal town. He peeks into the window of a cottage and witnesses a couple having oral sex. Later, he sees a woman in a billowing cape run to the edge of the water, strip and jump in. He jumps in after her and soon enough they’re frolicking like lovers. Back on the sand, Louis proves impotent. The remainder of the story is a very explicit how-to guide in regaining sexual functioning in a pre-Viagra era.
The feeling imparted by Nin’s stories is more flowery than her actual words. The dreamlike language of her opaque novels is gone, and she is reduced to the bare descriptions of love and sex and how people get it: “Mathilde was a hat maker in Paris and barely twenty when she was seduced by the Baron. Although the affair did not last more than two weeks, somehow in that short time she became, by contagion, imbued with his philosophy of life and his seven-leagued way of solving problems.”
This matter-of-fact tone serves nicely to bring out the more erotic undertones in otherwise bizarre situations. The story “Artists and Models” includes the character of Mafouka, “the man-woman of Montparnasse,” a hermaphrodite who manages to be mysterious and beguiling, rather than freakish, as such a character might be in the hands of a less talented pornographer: “‘Mafouka,’ I said, ‘what are you? Are you a man or a woman? Why do you live with these two girls? If you are a man, why don’t you have a girl of your own? If you are a woman, why don’t you have a man occasionally?’ Mafouka smiled at me. ‘Everybody wants to know.’”
At a time when my own body was neither a girl’s nor a woman’s, this portrayal of physical ambiguity went a long way in soothing my angst over my meager A-cup bra size.
Nin’s reverence for sexuality in all its guises helped lay the groundwork for my healthy view of sexuality. Her female characters frequently have as much or more power than the men in her stories, and most of them approach sex with a sense of awe, or at least a bit of mischievousness. Her characters enjoy sex, fall in love, have affairs, wear great clothes and talk about it all to other people. Nin was the original Carrie Bradshaw. Through osmosis I came to think the same way. I came to expect that I would have sex to fulfill my own sensual needs, and not the needs of someone else. I could entice men, but I would never submit to them unless I was in control of my own submission.
Sex could be mysterious and sensual, but it was to be a dance of equals. Partners were to be appreciated on their own terms and never forced into roles they didn’t want to assume, in the bedroom or otherwise. My notions may have been somewhat romantic, but they were tempered by realism, and they worked. I had precious few sexual encounters during my teenage years, but they were all good.
In Nin I found a literary complement to the Stevie Nicks music wafting from my stereo. The female figure in “The Woman on the Dunes” could be Rhiannon herself, who “rings like a bell through the night” tempting men and being taken by the wind. Both Nin and Nicks had carved out their own niche of feminine sensibility smack dab in the middle of a man’s realm. Neither has ever received the respect from the male establishment they are entitled to, and feminists have derided both women as superfluous figures in the quest toward gender equality simply, it appears, for their dogged devotion to flouncy clothes.
Since the 1970s, Nin’s reputation has ebbed and flowed. Her admirers have been saddled with the tacky sobriquet “ninnies,” but Maria de Medeiros’ portrayal of Nin in Philip Kaufman’s 1990 film “Henry and June” artfully captured the sensuality of her early career. New configurations of her work continue to be published, notably the unexpurgated version of her diary, which hints that she may have had an incestuous affair with her father when she was a young woman.
Two biographies have appeared in recent years by respected writers, Noel Riley Fitch’s “Anaïs: The Erotic Life of Anaïs Nin (Little, Brown, 1993) and Deirdre Bair’s “Anaïs Nin: A Biography” (Putnam, 1995). Both works treat Nin respectfully and help smother the negative criticism she received for years from the likes of Gore Vidal and others.
“Delta of Venus” and “Little Birds” are widely available and at my last check ranked around 6,000 and 14,000 respectively on Amazon’s sales chart. More than 20 years after her death, the life and works of this “major minor” writer, as she is often called, still have the power to attract new fans.
Nin dismissed her erotica as nothing but cheap stories churned out for the amusement of a wealthy patron. But to me they were much more. They lured an unsuspecting adolescent into the smoky den of literature. They used sex to ensnare me in the larger trap of the liberal arts. It was a sneaky bait and switch. I still regard my discovery of Nin’s erotica as a defining moment in my sexual and cultural awakening. It was the right discovery at the right time to fuel my imagination.
That said, I will need to find a place to stash my Nin books, along with the rest of my hefty collection of libertine paraphernalia, away from my young son. I believe that a curious mind should be rewarded with an illicit treasure now and then, but the hunt should stem from one’s internal quest for knowledge. Those books will return to the locked suitcase in my closet, and I’ll leave it to those standard-bearers of free speech, the librarians, to lure the next generation of adolescents into the open stacks with the promise of forbidden fruit.