When I was in college I read two short erotic novels by Anaïs Nin. I did not know anything about Nin really other than she was a woman who wrote naughty books. Delta of Venus and Little Birds struck me at the time as rather poetic but not animalistic enough, though the sensual passion in each work was striking at times, and I truly enjoyed Nin's style. She has a wonderful literary voice.
But Nin was not someone who particularly interested me the way other writers did. I did not purchase any of her novels (or her infamous diaries) and so I gradually became blind to her in my life. In 2015 I decided to reacquaint myself with her through the purchase of The Portable Anaïs Nin and Nin's five short, loosely related novels published together under the overarching title Cities of the Interior.
Reading Anaïs Nin gives me insight into articulation of the feminine experience of pleasure, desire, need, fear, chaos, sadness, love and artistic expression. Nin churns these emotions to form basic drives in her characters, who are most often sensual in nature. This sets up a multitude of erotic situations throughout Nin's work. But, generally speaking, these situations are often of different characters all behaving the same as characters in her other stories. There is a specific feel to Nin's leading woman and man, and often another woman included.
Nin writes intense, erotically charged prose and yet she is not harsh and graphic with her writing style, or her narratives. In this respect there may be readers of hardcore erotica who feel Nin is too quaint and poetic to be considered truly hot sex writing as exists commonly today. D. H. Lawrence, of whom the young Nin was an early biographer, was more graphic with Lady Chatterley's Lover than Nin is in anything I have read by her in 2015.
Cities of the Interior is five stories which switch and swap the same characters in unconnected variations of sexual experience. The most common one, as mentioned above, is a woman with a husband (or dominant lover) who is unfulfilled (same premise as Lady Chatterley) and finds greater passion with another woman, or less often another man. Characters shift from sexual interaction to sexual interaction with the perspective that it is more special to love and desire many people rather than one special person because each person is special and none diminishes special incarnation of any other, you merely experience a more complex specialty. But, for Nin, there is ironically always one most special person in here narratives. And that is where much of her erotic power comes from in her writing.
Her characters in the five novels inhabit an artistic world. Nin's characters are dancers and writers and painters, actors both employed and unemployed. Cafes and hotels and clubs and the night life of the city street is the standard environment the characters interact within. There is only a little of the natural world here, and even then it emphasizes the sensual experience of nature. There are no attorneys or accountants or insurance salesmen or scientists (other than physicians) or people of the military, academia, or customer service assistants. This world is a different world from the consumerist materialism most of us inhabit. Our pop world was not how Nin related to anything.
Classical music is featured throughout Cities of the Interior. Nin has a particular affinity for Cesar Franck's Symphony in D minor as well as various works by Claude Debussy, among others. The Debussy passages are particularly interesting to me because the selections of background music for her characters to act out their various passions are usually very (musically) sensual in and of themselves. It is obvious that all forms of art, and especially impressionistic classical music were an influence on Nin's intimate life and experiences.
Jay and Lillian are only two of the several major interchangeable characters Nin creates. In one short novel they are involved in different relationships with other major characters. In the short novel Children of the Albatross, they are lovers and she, as usual, is missing something in their obvious passion.
“At dawn Jay turned towards Lillian beside him and his first kiss reached her through the net of her hair.
“Her eyes were closed, her nerves asleep, but under his hand her body slipped down a dune into warm waves lapping over each other, rippling her skin.
“Jay’s sensual thrusts wakened to dormant walls of flesh, and tongues of fire flicked towards his hard lashings piercing the kernel of mercury, disrupting a current of fire through the veins. The burning fluid of ecstasy eddying madly and breaking, loosening a river of pulsations.
“The core of ecstasy bursting to the rhythmic pounding, until his hard thrusts spurted burning fluid against the walls of flesh, impulsion within the womb like a thunderbolt.
“Lillian’s panting decrease, and her body reverberated in the silence, filled with echoes…antennae which had drunk like the stems of plants.
“He awakened free, and she did not.
“His desire had reached a finality, like a clean saber cut which dealt pleasure, not death.
“She felt impregnated.
“She had greater difficulty in shifting, in separating, in turning away.
“Her body was filled with retentions, residues, sediments.
“He awakened and passed into other realms. The longer his stay in the enfolding whirls, the greater his energy to enter activity again. He awakened and he talked of painting, he awakened laughing, eyes closed with laughter, laughing on the edges of his cheeks, laughter in the corner of his mouth, the laughter of great separateness.
“She awakened unfree, as is laden with the seeds of his being, wondering as what moment he would pull his whole self away as one tears a plant out by the roots, leaving a crevice in the earth. Dreading the break because she felt him a master of this act, free to enter and free to emerge, whereas she felt dispossessed of her identity and freedom because Jay upon waking did not turn about and contemplate her even for a moment as Lillian, a particular woman, but that when he took her, or looked at her he did so gaily, anonymously, as if any woman lying there would have been equally pleasant, natural, and not Lillian among all women.” (pp. 204-205)
The Portable Anaïs Nin combines selections of fiction with the now famous diaries of Nin. The diary selections are rather forceful. They represent the fact that Nin's poetic prose began with the way she tinkered with words and descriptions in her diaries. Her affairs with her father and with Henry Miller are among the plethora of juicy, naughty details given.
Sensuality is the highest form of love to Nin. Her characters love each other. They love in random couplings, they love in threesomes, they have various lovers simultaneously. This is as Nin lived her own life and they give us a window into polygamous relationships. She was bi-sexual, attracted almost equally to men and women. But Nin's sensuality comes from a rich sense of fulfillment to be found with multiple personalities and bodies. Nin's characters are rarely driven by sexual need alone. Rather, they are highly sexual people attracted to each other for tangible but non-sexual (yet often aesthetic or nurturing) reasons.
“'Let me kiss your mouth.’ He put his arms around me. I hesitated. I was tortured by a complexity of feelings, wanting his mouth, yet afraid, feeling I was to kiss a brother, yet tempted – terrified and desirous. I was taut. He smiled and opened his mouth. We kissed, and that kiss unleashed a wave of desire. I was lying across his body and with my breast I felt his desire, hard, palpitating. Another kiss. More terror than joy. The joy of something unnamable, obscure. He so beautiful – godlike and womanly, seductive and chiseled, hard and soft. A hard passion.
“'We must avoid possession,’ he said, ‘but, oh, let me kiss you.’ He caressed my breasts and tips hardened. I was resisting, saying no, but my nipples hardened. And when his hand caressed me – oh, the knowingness of those caresses – I melted. But all the while some part of me was hard and terrified. My body yielded to the penetration of his hand, but I resisted, I resisted enjoyment. I resisted showing my body. I only uncovered my breasts. I was timid and unwilling, yet passionately moved. ‘I want you to enjoy, to enjoy,’ he said. 'Enjoy.' And his caresses were so acute, so subtle; but I couldn’t, and to escape from him I pretended to. Again I lay over him and felt the hardness of his penis. He uncovered himself. I caressed him with my hand. I saw him quiver with desire.
“With a strange violence, I lifted my negligee and I aly over him. ‘Toi, Anaïs! Je n’ai plus de Dieu!’
“Ecstatic, his face, and I now frenzied with the desire to unite with him…undulating, caressing him, clinging to him. His spasm was tremendous, immense, with my whole being, with only that core of fear which arrested the supreme spasm in me.” (From The Portable Anaïs Nin, page 49)
This is Nin's diary entry for the beginning of her incestuous relationship in her twenties with her father. Some readers might find this revolting. But it was Nin's actual experience. She had sex with Henry Miller in Paris. She had sex with Henry Miller's wife in Paris, she had sex men before Miller and with women before his wife. She had sex with men and women afterward. She was totally promiscuous and she did not care. In fact, promiscuity was part of her expansion of desire throughout human intimacy.
That might not seem like a special intimacy to many. It might seem vile and cheating and dishonest. But Nin means it honestly enough. It is cheating, of course, if you count monogamy, but that type of relationship only existed for Nin through short periods of her life. Generally, she had more than one lover. She felt the passion within her clearly and projected it outward into what attracted her in other people. It was coupling, always a coupling in the present moment, that Nin wrote about. Physical, sexual, artistic, and intellectual couplings are the riches her writing yielded. She has a distinctive, emotional voice that rings like a trumpet through the world of erotica.