EACH ERA GETS the erotica it deserves. Ours is Fifty Shades of Grey, with its pornified capitalism, BDSM lite, and Fifty Shades of Grey sex toy line stocked by Target. Despite widespread dismissal of the E. L. James phenomenon as unfeminist and poorly written, edgy sex has been turning up in critically acclaimed culture as well. Viewers of this season’s Transparent, for example, are treated to a story line with Sarah and her hot dom, Pony. And Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts — Nelson won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism and was a 2016 MacArthur Fellow — opens with this tantalizing scene: “the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad. You had Molloy by your bedside and a stack of cocks in a shadowy unused shower stall. Does it get any better?” While aficionadas of erotica know that Pat Califia, Anne Rice, and many others have long been turning readers on to all shades of kink, it’s now reaching larger audiences than ever.
We are also in a moment of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and #NotOkay. Colleges and workplaces are scrambling to put their sexual assault and harassment procedures in order. This presidential election cycle was a sad lesson in retrograde sexual politics, and how some people are still tone deaf when it comes to the difference between seduction and a pussy grab. Unsurprisingly, contemporary women’s erotica is preoccupied with agency and consent, boundaries and limits, and the entanglements of power, sex, and pleasure. Sure, fantasy is the realm of escape, and yes, conflating erotica with reality is an error, but fantasy fiction can reveal what we are drawn to, anxious about, trying to overcome or disavow, not to mention what gets us off, both in the real world and in the private, no-holds-barred realm of the erotic imagination. News flash: These two do not always coincide for women.
One erotica writer who recognized all these discrepancies well ahead of the curve was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Anaïs Nin — the same Nin of the sepia-tinted Left Bank cafés and absinthe-fueled affairs. Nin’s recently discovered Auletris is third-rail erotica for our time, raising charged issues about women’s sexuality both on and off the page. Amazon initially insisted on marking Auletris as “adult,” rather than literary fiction, reportedly because of the nipples exposed in its cover art. When the publisher and media outlets protested, the company reversed course.
In fact, the nipples are the least provocative element of Auletris. Sky Blue Press bills Auletris as a work that “breaks many taboos.” Fans of Nin know that she has covered plenty of salacious territory before: tubercular nymphomaniacs, exhibitionists, voyeurs, orgies, gender bending, bondage, bestiality, incest, hermaphroditism, etc. Nin was a pioneer of women’s sex writing in English, and all contemporary erotica authors are indebted to her, whether they realize it or not. In the 1940s, she wrote risqué stories for an anonymous private collector at the rate of a dollar a page. Despite how Nin downplayed her bespoke smut as “literary prostitution,” compared to other explicit writing of her time in English, hers was revolutionary. The two steamy volumes, Delta of Venus and Little Birds, were not published for the public until the ’70s, just after her death, but they were best sellers and set a new standard for erotica.
While she has always had a loyal following, Nin tends to be regarded by critics and scholars as a not-quite-serious author. Her major work, her hefty 12-volume diary, is often dismissed as lightweight and self-indulgent; Katha Pollitt once remarked, “My idea of hell is to be stranded on a desert island with nothing to read but Anais Nin’s diaries.” Never mind that the diary is a monumental study of not just one woman’s development but also a century of modernist and avant-garde culture. Susan Sontag mocked Nin — “Her theory of art was preciously intangible (discovery of the unconscious, automatic writing, revolt against our mechanistic civilization)” — yet Sontag admired the very same ambitions in male writers from the period, such as Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, and Antonin Artaud.
Nin’s erotica has somehow earned a reputation as softcore or flowery, as compared to the macho “rigor” of her male contemporaries, like her lover Henry Miller or Georges Bataille, with his sophisticated philosoporn in Story of The Eye. Perhaps the marketing of Nin’s Delta of Venus and Little Birds, whose covers sport twee vintage photographs of flappers in Mary Janes, are to blame for her pigeon-holing; inside, in contrast, one finds a treasure trove of polymorphous perversity.
Although Nin’s anonymous benefactor told her to jettison the poetry and turn up the raunch, she delivered an intensely atmospheric and elegantly lyrical mix of “PIV” (penis in vagina) and imaginative sex. Set in artists’ ateliers; on houseboats; and in bohemian bars in Greenwich Village, Montparnasse, and other libidinous locales, the vignettes are not just a narrative delivery system for sucking and fucking (although there is plenty of both). Nin describes bodies and techniques with tender precision, and she renders her characters’ hang-ups with the patience of a shrink. These stories show signs of Nin’s highbrow influences, such as Djuna Barnes’s decadent 1936 novel Nightwood and D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, from which Nin learned how to imbue sex writing with sensuality and psychological depth.
The background of Auletris is a bit of a mystery. According to its editor, Paul Herron, a Carmel, California, outfit called Press of the Sunken Eye (I could find no trace of it) created an edition of five copies credited to “A. Nin” in 1950. Two copies of Auletris are accounted for, two are missing, and one languished in Nin’s UCLA archives until now. The volume contains two stories. One, “Marcel,” is a restoration of an original manuscript that was pulled apart by legendary editor John Ferrone in order to create several of the stories in Delta of Venus. The other, “Life in Provincetown,” is brand spanking new.
If Delta of Venus is Nin 101, Auletris is Advanced Nin, with more extreme material. Both “Marcel” and “Life in Provincetown” are episodic, as pornography and erotica inevitably are (fuck, rest, repeat), but they are told by multiple narrators and structured as interlinked stories within stories. Like Scheherazade — the female storyteller of A Thousand and One Nights, whose bedtime tales for a bloodthirsty king keep her alive — Nin is the doyenne of the slow tease, the verbal bump and grind, building suspense to the full reveal. Auletris boasts a notable number of timid men and carnally commanding dames. The scenes between women are especially juicy.
The star of the volume is “Life in Provincetown.” Sandy and sexy, with artists inhabiting dilapidated former fishing shacks along the ocean, Nin’s Provincetown is LGBTQ-friendly avant la lettre. It is a town for cruising and pansexual hookups. The local siren is an artist’s model “whose mouth was so big, so full, so prominent, that one could see nothing else.” As she struts around town in a “flaming red bathing suit from morning till evening,” everyone thinks of what Nin calls the woman’s “other mouth”: “Somehow or other one imagined the other mouth to be equally luxuriant, equally prominent.” Living like a performance artist with her shades up, bedding whomever she wants, “the mouth” is a forceful and lusty lady.
The only man “the mouth” is not able to seduce is her shy Portuguese neighbor next door, “the handsomest boy in all the town.” The story shifts to his perspective, and from visual to auditory stimuli, as he listens through the thin wall to “the mouth” frolicking with her conquests. She laughs when she is caressed: “There was a different kind of laughter for each part of the body. Lying in the dark, on the other side of the wall, he could almost divine where she was being touched.” Nin invites the reader to insert him/herself into the scene and imagine the pulsing body behind the wall, just as the aroused Portuguese boy does.
Nin often holds something back or puts an obstruction in scenes — a physical separation such as the wall or a mediating narrative layer — that generates an active, complex aphrodisiac reading. When another shy man, Pietro, secretly watches “the mouth” sunbathe nude, we see her from his perspective and experience his sense impressions. She undresses and masturbates, bringing forth a
marvelous odor; the fingers had opened a perfume bottle in the center of the woman’s body. […] The fingers remained quietly working, hypnotically, but the legs trembled now and then, as under a secret electric current, and now and then she raised the middle of her body as if the fingers were teasing her.
Meanwhile, Pietro buries his throbbing cock in the warm sand.
While these episodes are sticky with eros, others never quite reach lift-off. A twice-removed story of a teenage boy’s deadly erotic asphyxiation never (thankfully) comes alive as an anecdote. Ditto a sequence about a bisexual male trapeze artist courted by an elderly lord who lives in an Eyes Wide Shut mansion and whose fetish is slashing the trapeze artist’s perfect ass with a razor. Nin narrates these scenes as if she is working her way through case studies in Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis. She does not phone it in exactly, but let’s just say that sometimes she fakes it.
Some scenes are sure to unsettle readers. A strange man gropes a woman in a crowded subway — every woman’s favorite place for a tryst — and she swoons in delight. An 11-ear-old girl plants herself on Pietro-the-shy’s lap and fellates him; the scene becomes still more disturbing as she tells him that it’s quite all right, because she does the same for her father. Pedophilia is a strictly no-fly zone for commercial erotica — Nabokov’s Lolita, with its 12-year-old “nymphet” on a road trip with the 37-year-old Humbert Humbert, was originally published by Olympia Press in Paris because of its scandalous story line — but Nin wrote about incest in her diaries and her fiction. In Delta of Venus, for example, a story called “The Hungarian Adventurer” features an aristocrat who sleeps with his daughters and makes a pass at his young son.
Even given the range of Auletris’s material, the conclusion of “Life in Provincetown” is disturbing. A Jewish “Viennese mime dancer” arrives in Provincetown following her imprisonment in a concentration camp, where, she tells her friends and townspeople, she was forced to service “the entire division of German soldiers,” an experience she recounts in horrifyingly bloody and spermy detail. She was so physically damaged by the rapes that she had to recover in a hospital. This abrupt appearance of the Holocaust, and of brutal, large-scale sexual violence, in Nin’s pornotopia is more than a little jarring.
Erotica and pornography often incorporate overt political issues and historical figures —especially literature in the French libertine tradition — and the most explicit historical reference Nin makes in her published erotica is a mention of the outbreak of World War II, an occasion for fuck-now-for-tomorrow-you-die excitement. Others wrote provocatively about sex and fascism in this period: Bataille (Blue of Noon), Jean Genet (Funeral Rites), and Salvador Dalí, for example. Scenes of Germans committing atrocities, including sexual assaults, are not at all unusual in French and British literature of the period. But Auletris’s German rape scene is rendered unnerving by the narrator’s commentary. The woman’s tale is said to be “a wonderful story to make men concentrate” on her “sexual parts and cease to see her face, which was not particularly beautiful.” Like “the mouth,” the Jewish woman is reduced to her vulva. More chillingly, the narrator comments, “Men had a peculiar feeling about women whom they know to have been frequently sexually used. […] It was a kind of invitation. One was certain of not being rebuked. […] It was truly a form of encouragement she dealt each time she told her story.” The perspective here is unclear — is it the men’s or the narrator’s? The predatory lack of compassion and the obliteration of a woman’s subjectivity seems quite incongruous for Nin’s erotica.
What follows is an awkward attempt to transform the rape episode through a sort of sexual exorcism. Pietro takes the woman to the beach, hoping to get lucky, and she tells him how she recovered from her traumatic experience in the concentration camp. She was picked up by an aristocrat in New York who used a series of brutal sex instruments on her, from a spiked and studded strap-on tongue to a series of abrasive dildos, each one of which is more painful than the next. All of this is narrated in detail, with the woman’s agony shifting to arousal and back.
Force fantasies are a mainstay of women’s erotica. Heroines are “overtaken” only to find that they are attracted to their assailant. Margaret Atwood’s short story “Rape Fantasies” is a brilliant (and improbably funny) response to this enduring theme. The scene in Auletris is consensual, but Nin does not usually eroticize physical pain, and especially not to this extent. This S&M is very far indeed along the S axis: more the stuff of Sade or a number of pulp porn writers of the day (or, dare I say, Henry Miller). The fact that there is no paper trail for “Provincetown,” no surviving manuscript or draft, which is also aberrant for Nin, leaves open the possibility that someone else had a hand in this episode.
The last turn of the screw in “Provincetown,” however, is more Nin-like. As the Jewish woman concludes her story, the perspective shifts. “Pietro was aghast. Such a woman he could not hope to satisfy. He remained silent. She began to laugh in the dark. She understood what had happened to him. […]” The story trails off in ellipses, with the laughter of the survivor, transformed through erotic extremity, and Pietro’s detumescent anxiety that he will not be able to “satisfy” her. The woman understands what has happened to Pietro, but he is unable to grasp what has happened to her. By deriding his appetite for sexual extremity and forcing him to confront his limits, the author herself “tops” her demanding patron. The publication of Auletris now may have a similar effect in revealing our cultural boundaries of what is acceptable and what is deemed offensive, obscene, or dangerous.
Auletris appears at a moment of heightened anxiety about sexual politics — not just for women, but for men as well. In “Marcel,” a story in Delta of Venus that features the same characters in the Auletris version, the earthy, polyamorous female narrator (a Nin stand-in) tells the apprehensive, neurotic Marcel exactly what she likes about his sexual technique. Relieved and grateful, he asks, “Why do women never tell men this? Why do women make such a secret and mystery of it all?” She replies, “I believe in saying it. There are enough mysteries, and these do not help our enjoyment of each other.” As we continue to sort out the politics of fantasy against a background of high-stakes scandals of sex and power, what Nin can offer us, along with her encyclopedic command of lust, is the insight that the sexiest act of all is empathy.