Annotation by Kat Kambes
Little Birds is a collection of thirteen short stories of what has come to be known as erotic literature. Nin herself writes of this collection as her becoming “the Madame of an unusual house of literary prostitution.” Not because the work itself did not have the literary quality of her other work (for which I note some 40 + books) but that she had gotten to a point and place in her life where she needed money with a certain amount of desperation, so that, in her words, “my real writing was put aside when I set out in search of the erotic.” This was not an easy road to take, especially in the times written and she talks somewhat about this as “…at first difficult. The sexual life is usually enveloped in many layers, for all of us — poets, writers, artists. It is a veiled woman, half-dreamed.” So considering the great difficulty and challenge that a woman had to engage in to write these stories and sell them for making a living, I found them quite remarkable.
The nature of this work can be found to be avant garde for her time, in that, with regard to female sexuality, there still seems to be a hesitation amongst female writers to explore sexuality fully from the point of view of women. This might be due to the deeply internalized taboos that we have been formed by, or the fact that our history has largely been depicted through the imagery of male artists and consequently those are the viewpoints which have formed our ideology about art (what is and what isn’t). The fact that that these stories depict women who have desire is rather revolutionary in the sense that it breaks such a long held silence about women’s sexuality and Nin rather approaches her female characters as women who have command over there own sexuality. In this sense, I think Nin did women, and female writers, a service by expanding the preconceived concepts of what the “feminine” is. In this way, the stories hold a kind of empowering effect for women of her time.
Little Birds, the story, seems to take a non-judgmental view of a pedophile. This story would have received much more criticism in today’s time than it did in her own, just by the shear idea of the dynamic of the fantasy and how her main character, Manuel, ultimately entices young girls into his apartment. So while this particular story resonated an eroticism in her time, it undoubtedly would have been spurned in our time. None-the-less, she did capture the calculating behavior of this person in great detail, and when he finally exposed (literally) his lechery, her ending was full of humor and vindictiveness for the lewdness of his behavior.
The Woman on the Dunes seemed fully male fantasy, but in that respect, Nin was able to achieve a kind of dream like quality for her main male character, which remained unnamed, and as such enveloped a kind of dream-like effect. This seemed, when juxtaposed with the move to move, play by play of the sex scenes, (“…He placed it between her legs. She touched it. His hands searched her…”) to created a kind of tension. So what we get in the lead up is very poetic, then there is a bluntness to the sexual encounter, then the ending is once again poetic. I read where she was told to “take out all the poetry, it has to be nothing but description of sex,” and can see that clearly in the sex scenes of this story in particular. However, she did hold on to a fair amount of her poetry here.
Lina was an exploration of the lesbian experience. As such, it was brief and conflicted. This was much, I suppose, as Nin’s own experience. This brief story seemed almost more one of power than of sex, which is an interesting view on the lesbian experience, considering that her character Lina was the one who was ultimately duped and overpowered, yet portrayed with unresolved lesbian tendencies. I’m struck again by the directness of the sexual encounter, the way she refers to a man’s penis as his sex. But also the way Nin captures the conflicted nature of woman, wanting but unable to express her desire, for fear of being thought of cheaply or as less than.
Nin seems to travel through the gamet of sexual fantasy in this collection. From Lina she moves on to the Two Sisters, where Robert ultimately gets both. To this point, the stories seem to be written with the male fantasy in mind. It seems to me that, although Lina depicts two sexually assertive women, that the females in two sisters seem decidedly more conventional. However, it is in this convention, that she is able to define the ways in which these characters find themselves locked into their roles, and so their ultimate sexual expression is a great leap toward freedom.
My absolute favorite in the collection was The Queen, in which the model gets her body painted as a leopard for the masquerade party, and tells the painter she will meet him there. The imagery she draws, not just of this majestic character getting painted, but the artist who can hardly control himself to its completion is vivid and humorous. When the artist arrives at the party and follows her trail, it is a boldly drawn piece, and as such, the female, Bijou, is quite beautiful. To be able to capture this kind of bold beauty in the time written took great courage. She drew a particularly sharp line to a defining sexuality, and depicted her character fully in touch with that aspect of herself.
She touches upon themes of infidelity in Saffron as well, but interestingly is able to distinguish between physical infidelity and emotional infidelity in a way that is not often so clearly delineated by women. In Mandra she hits infidelity differently, a shared sexual experience between two females under a fur coat in a car on a way to an event with the husband sitting right next to them. Her tension is built as much in the context of the possibility of getting discovered as it is in the hand reaching between Miriam’s legs under the coat, fingering her clitoris until she “grows tense under my fingers.”
These themes are more or less repeated in various incarnations throughout the stories. While their appeal may be limited, they do carry with them a kind of political statement, and while Nin herself may have felt prostilitized by having to go “there” in her writing, she undoubtedly opened the door for many female writers, romance writers, or otherwise, who came up behind her. Her direct approach to the smells, sensations, and physical attributes of both her male and female characters make the work vivid and engaging. Her direct approach to the clitoris and penis and the way they behave, regardless of how their owners (male and female) might think about it, was an interesting exploration.