Back in 1977, as a horny adolescent searching for smut in a Dublin book store, I was lured into the smoky den of erotic literature by Anais Nin. My life changed the day I spied Anaïs Nin’s “Delta of Venus” on a shelf in the fiction section of Hanna's Bookshop in Dublin. These days, I listen to Nin's erotica on my iPod as a way to amuse myself during planey journeys, but my first exerience of Nin was through the wonderful medium of the printed book, the paperback.
Fred Hanna's bookshop was a Dublin institution, a sprawling store located just outside the walls of Trinity College. Over the years it seemed to have expanded by taking over the shops on either side but minimal remodelling - usually the breaking through of an internal doorway. The result was, by 1983, a pleasing literary labyrinth of long narrow rooms with tall ceilings. Built in shelves lined the walls and held books of all imaginable genres.
In each of the narrow rooms that stretched back to the back wall, there was a sense of being "among books". They were all around, above, below, crowding the space. One of the rooms was given almost entirely to university academic books, often weighty and expensive tomes. There were also sections dedicated to sheet music, poetry, arts, the usual but wonderful plethora of all the interests of the world, categorised arbitrarily.
In Hanna's the people - mainly browsers but also the discreet sttore assistants and shelf stackers - fitted in among the books and not vice versa. Most of the floor space in the centre was given to large platforms about 3 feet high that serves as barrows for bargain books or collections of new books by genre. The overall effect was that the store was pleasingly cramped. And that was that wonderful book small that to this day, still excites me when I smell it.
At Hanna's, browsing was encouraged. This was important and was why the place was often crowded. I was something that was not the case at rival bookstore Easons on O'Connell Street. There, if you were a student or youth, and lingered among the shelves, you were perceived as at best just a browser with no intent to purchase, or at worst a potential shoplifter. An impatient store assistant would stand obstrusively by your shoulder, or even more annoying, ask if they could help. This completely broke the spell of being alone among books, the whole point of being in a bookstore. For me, visiting a bookstore is a personal and solitary experience. It is an inner journey taken in the physical world. It must not be interrupted by friends of store assistants.
As an adolescent, my sexual curiosity had first been satisfied by erotic books sold on a street bookstand in O'Connell Street, by the corner of Abbey Street. This was a newspaper and magazine stand that carried a small array of paperbacks, mainly pulp fiction and romance for the bus commuters that crowded the street each evening on their was home. (What better way to escape the mundanity of a damp, warm, crowded Dublin bus on a wet evening than to take a flight of fancy in fiction?)
This bookstand also sold erotic books of a type not found in most of the more respectable bricks and mortar bookshops - most of the books there were written by "Anonymous". It was here that I discovered the collected volumes of The Pearl, originally published between 1879 and 1881 as "A Monthly Journal of Facetiæ and Voluptuous Reading." Written in the strange language of Victorian smut, it was preposterously erotic that yielded many moments of masturbatory pleasure as I imagined myself the butler in a Victorian household full of women of all ages whose only obsession was to have sex.
The street book stall was not a place to browse: it was a place for a quick purchase of smut that was deflty slid into the coat pocket. But here I had also learned the names of some erotic authors, such as Emmanuelle Arsan and Pauline Reage. It seemed somehow appropriate that women should be the predomninant authors of erotics. Another wowoman's name that I saw there was Anais Nin.
Indulging sexual curiosity in Hanna's bookshop was different. It was more surrepitious, more painstaking and more exciting. Erotic books were not in their own section - rather they had to be hunted out among the fiction shelves, where the books were typically arranged alphabeticlly by author.
On one memorable Saturday afternoon in Hannas, remembering the name of Anais Nin, I found Delta of Venus. I still recall my excitement as I held the book in my hand for the first time, quizzically studying 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. The cover was brown sepia that gave an air of stylisation and mystery. With my heart racing, 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 continental European world of shabby gentility. This world seemed so far from repressed catholic Ireland. I felt a twinge of excitement wash over me. I’d found a dirty book, but not like those “Forever Amber” or “Princess Daisy.” My literature radar began to whir. I sensed that there was something more to this book than cheap thrills, but thrills there were too, as the pleasurable congested sensation of a semi-erection in my pants told me.
Beautiful smut in hand, I glanced around to see if I was about to get caught by a disapproving fellow customer. I felt like a secret agent finding clues to my next assignment in the middle of a public space. I held “Delta of Venus” in my slightly sweating palm 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. This was another keeper.
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.
The psychologist 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 Hannas book shop at the tender age of 14 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 continental 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 school, movies, television, records and shopping. “Delta of Venus” and “Little Birds” were about sex, but not the kind of sex high school k**s had in the backs of cars or at home while their parents were on holiday in Majorca. 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.
I kept Nin’s world to myself in schhol. There, 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 spectre 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 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. 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.”
I began to sense the evolution of 20th century 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 erotic 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.’”
Nin’s reverence for sexuality in all its guises helped lay the groundwork for my 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. I came to desire women and men that would have sex to fulfill their own sensual needs, and not the needs of someone else. I wanted girls that could entice a man, never submit sexually unless they were in control of their own submission. To reverse a Thoreau idea, I saw women as slave sovereigns - ostensibly the weaker sex but in reality the mistresses of their men.
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 f***ed into roles they didn’t want to assume, in the bedroom or otherwise. These notions may have been somewhat romantic, but they were tempered by realism, and they worked. I had several sexual encounters during my teenage years, and they were all good.
In Nin I found a literary complement to the Stevie Nicks music wafting from the radio. 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 inces tuous affair with her fa ther when she was a young woman.
There are biographies 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 over 30 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.
A curious mind should be rewarded with an illicit treasure now and then, but in an age where the internet has made porn perhaps too available to adolescents, it would be nice if the hunt could stem from one’s internal quest for knowledge. Anais Nin's books can still enlighten the new generation with the promise of forbidden fruit. After all, it is essential to the allure of sex that it is, despite everything, still mysterious and personal and wonderful.