Re-Reading Erotic Lit Classics: Reviews By Christian Pan

Re-Reading Erotic Lit Classics: Reviews By Christian Pan

. 13 min read
Christian Pan is a writer based in New York City who has published six novellas and nearly one hundred short stories focused on the erotic imagination since 2021. He also hosts the monthly Pulse Session for the podcast All the Filthy Details, and under another name works in the entertainment business.

In this series Christian Pan re-discovers classic erotic literature from a current perspective.

Re-Reading Erotic Lit Classics: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Reviewed By Christian Pan

Lolita - Nabokov, Vladimir
Book linked here

The title of Vladimir Nabokov´s most famous and controversial book is practically synonymous with transgression and taboo: say “Lolita” and most likely images of a precocious young girl sexually involved with a significantly older man will immediately spring to mind. According to Humbert Humbert, the novel´s unreliable narrator, these “nymphets” possess an almost daemonic power to force educated and rational men like himself to become literally insane with lust. In fact, Nabokov's book opens with a crucial Foreword by the fictional Dr. John Ray, who contextualizes the manuscript that follows as being authored by a dangerous and deceptive criminal attempting to justify his actions before an impending trial. Written in a style lush with complex meanderings and eloquent digressions, Humbert´s story is designed to seduce his imaginary jury (and by extension, the reader), to garner sympathy, to somehow prove that Lolita and all of the other nymphets of the world did this TO him. On one level, then, how we react to Nabokov's prose becomes a kind of test. 

Since its original publication in 1955 by a small French publisher of pornography, readers and critics alike have mistakenly concluded that Lolita is an erotic novel, or that it is celebrating pedophilia. While neither is true, the cultural idea of Lolita seems to have surpassed the original source-material, creating a disconnect between the contents of the book and what the titular character has come to symbolize in our collective imagination. Stanley Kubrick´s 1962 film adaptation certainly didn't help matters much in this regard; and while Adrian Lyne´s later adaptation in 1997 is in some ways more faithful to the book, nonetheless it perpetuates a fundamental misreading of Nabokov´s text. This is not a love story between convention-breaking lovers heroically challenging cultural taboos; Lolita is the tale of a predator kidnapping a helpless girl against her will,, and raping her hundreds of times over the course of a year. Just because the narrator describes his feelings for 12-year-old Dolores (Lolita) Haze as “love” does not make it so; Nabokov did not write a dark “age-gap romance”, nor a piece of erotic fiction. Instead, Lolita the book is a disturbing tale of rape, pedophilia, and incest. 

Humbert begins his elliptical tale with a kind of origin story in Europe, explaining that his hebephilia stems from a brief yet intense sexual encounter with a young girl, Annabel, when he himself was also a child. She died shortly thereafter, and thus shifted from being an actual person to an idealized object of his desire (much like Dolores Haze, the real person, later becomes “Lolita”, a nymphet in Humbert´s mind). He details his failed attempts to satisfy his needs throughout his young adulthood, from multiple trips to mental institutions to visiting young prostitutes in Paris, to a short-lived marriage to Valeria, a young-looking wife. Divorced and depressed, Humbert relocates to the United States for an obscure teaching post in the northeast, and secures lodging in the home of Charlotte Haze, a widower close to his own age, who lives alone with her prepubescent daughter, Dolores. 

His need to possess “his Lolita” is immediate and overwhelming, eclipsing even that of his earlier feelings for Annabel. Humbert moves in, revels each time she briefly sits on his knee or presses her shoulder up against his on the couch, because, in Humbert's mind, these are obvious displays of affection from the young girl. Nabokov´s tale, and what Dolores says or does, is filtered exclusively through Humbert´s distorted gaze. While clumsily trying to maintain a facade of cordial interest in his now-fiancé Charlotte, the mother discovers his journal, which describes in detail his sexual yearnings not for her, but for her daughter. Accidentally killed by a motorist on her way to the post office to expose Humbert as a sexual predator, Humbert assumes the role of symbolic stepfather and picks up his daughter from summer camp for a directionless cross-country road-trip where Dolores is essentially Humbert´s prisoner. He forces himself upon her “with heavy exertion” multiple times a day, to the point where she is often in physical pain when they return to the car. Later, conceding the need for some modicum of agency, he trades sexual favors from Dolores for coins, essentially turning his stepdaughter into his own prostitute (and later, he steals the money back from her). When he notices Dolores getting older (i.e. turning 13), he fantasizes about fleeing to Mexico to impregnate her, wait ten years or so for her to have their child, and then begin a relationship with her.

Again, the book Lolita is not an erotic novel. And while Vladimir Nabokov abhorred moralistic art of any kind, contemporary readers may be unsettled spending so much time in the presence of such an amoral narrator. Depiction is not endorsement, and Lolita the book portrays some of the most disturbing elements of the (male) psyche, particularly when violence, sexuality, and irrationality become interchangeable. In addition, this book is a critique of the failures of Freudian psychoanalysis, an indictment of the kitschy consumerism which pervaded American culture after the Second World War, an inquiry into the prevalance of pedophilia throughout Western culture, and more. But erotica? A love story? A steamy romance?

Take me back to Crush Letter 159

Re-Reading Erotic Lit Classics: Delta of Venus

by Anais Nin. Reviewed By Christian Pan

Delta of Venus - Nin, Anaïs

The French-Cuban-American writer Anais Nin is one of the more complicated literary figures from the previous century, especially in relation to her contributions to the history of modern erotic fiction. In nearly all of the critical praise of her work as being “feminist” or writing “erotica from a female gaze”, there seems to be a collapsing between what is on the page and key episodes from her exotic biography, as if the two were one and the same. Perhaps this is partly due to the fact that a significant portion of her total literary output was as a diarist, publishing and revising the journals she began as a child and which she continued to write and rewrite throughout her life. Add to this Nin´s exceptionally bohemian lifestyle, living in Paris and New York with numerous lovers including writers Henry Miller and Gore Vidal and psychoanalyst Otto Rank. She also was a bigamist (she married her second husband before divorcing her first), was rumored to be bisexual, and had an incestuous affair with her estranged father when she was 30 years old. Traces of all of these and more can be found in her writings. 

Perhaps no volume captures the complexity and contradictions of her persona, and how these appear in her fiction, than Delta of Venus. Written in the 1940s but only published posthumously in 1977 after her death, these fifteen stories were commissioned by the then-anonymous “collector”--later revealed to be wealthy oil tycoon Roy M. Johnson of Oklahoma–to be erotic, with as much explicit sex as possible. Influenced by the surrealist movement in visual art as well as novelists like DH Lawrence and Marcel Proust, Nin wanted her bespoke pornography to be more literary, and readers today can sense such aspirations within her prose. In her journals, Nin describes some of her process in approaching the creation of these tales. In addition to her own artistic imagination, Nin listened to stories shared by her friends, read the Kama Sutra, and more. And while the prose of Delta of Venus is frequently sensual, overall these stories tend to haunt more than they arouse.

However, calling Delta of Venus “feminist” or even “erotic” can be difficult. True, the collector´s purported commission rate of $1 per page (adjusted for inflation, that would be about $21.50 per page today) is pretty excellent for Nin from a financial standpoint, though it´s far from liberatory. Further, calling Delta of Venus as being “written from the female gaze” implies agency, as if Nin had just decided to embark on a new literary project, to upend the traditional conventions permeating erotic literature up to that point. The truth is that Nin was broke, and was being paid to write short erotic stories for a specific and singular (male) readership of one. 

Amongst her sources of inspiration, Nin cites Psychopathia Sexualis (1868), Dr. Krafft-Ebing´s landmark text in European psychiatry during the early part of the 20th century, as a significant influence on her approach to the stories contained in this volume. She seems to approach the description of sex with an almost clinical level detachment, but also seems intrigued by sexual expressions which are taboo and transgressive. Nin sets her stories in Greenwich Village or exotic locales across Europe, and populates Delta of Venus with bohemian artists and their models, erotic dancers and wealthy barons, and more. Like Krafft-Ebing, Nin explores a number of fetishes or “paraphilias” here, but within fictional instead of medical frameworks; the artist is more engaged with depicting some of the darker sides of human sexuality than explaining them. Delta of Venus includes voyeurism and exhibitionism, the fetishization of chastity belts and cock rings, explorations of hermaphroditism and transvestism, and more. Homosexual and bisexual characters also appear here, but Nin portrays them in even darker hues. While often called “erotic,” contemporary readers may be baffled to discover Nin seeming not to care whether these tales turn you on or not. If Nin´s characters enjoy anything like a happy ending in Delta of Venus, it is short-lived: remember that her source material by the 19th century German psychiatrist is about mental illness. 

Finally, it must also be noted that Delta of Venus is filled with stories depicting non-consensual sex and other forms of sexual violence. Throughout these stories, men frequently rape women, and sometimes, they assault young girls and young boys, as well. One story features a group of boys taking turns raping a young boy in their group who “looked like a woman”; in another story, an adult man commits incest with his teenage daughters and son. Described by Nin with a rich prose style and simultaneously not commenting

on its morality, these stories can be disarming at the very least, and may prove confusing if one is expecting “erotica” (especially “feminist erotica” or “erotica for women”, as Nin´s writings in general and this volume of short stories in particular tend to be described). Like many of her contemporaries of the time, Nin refuses to comment on these characters or on what they do; she depicts, but whether she advocates such acts or such behavior is unlikely. Perhaps this is what makes Delta of Venus a charged book politically, and maybe why this work could be seen as “feminist” on some level. But while Nin´s writing here is frequently sensual, and while every story contains multiple descriptions of various people having all sorts of sex, calling these stories “erotic” is misleading. 

Re-Reading Erotic Lit Classics: Venus in Furs by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch. Reviewed By Christian Pan 

Venus in furs - Von Sacher-Masoch, Leopold

The word “masochism” originated in the late 19th century, coined by German neurologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing to describe a psychosexual disorder wherein an individual derives pleasure and sexual gratification from pain or humiliation. His inspiration came from the surname of Austrian nobleman and writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, best known for his novella Venus in Furs. 

Blending philosophy with erotica, Sacher-Masoch´s book explores a complex psychology of desire, one where arousal and pleasure are almost indistinguishable from punishment, slavery, and loss of control. Framed as a story within a story, Venus in Furs opens with an unnamed narrator experiencing a confusing dream of the goddess of love. Upon awakening, he seeks out his friend and fellow nobleman Severin to discuss it, perhaps to uncover its symbolic meanings. The main narrative of the book thus begins, as Severin shares the history of an unusual painting he possesses: in it lies Wanda, a noblewoman who lies naked on an ottoman save for a fur coat and a whip in her hand, with Severin kneeling at her feet in complete devotion. 

Like our unnamed narrator (and, presumably, the author), Severin feels constrained by the etiquettes and rules of 19th century Vienna, longing for a romanticized pagan past versus the strict Christian edicts of his present. In particular, he feels that the sexes are inherently imbalanced, and that men and women each are using different forms of power over the other, to fulfill their innermost needs. When Severin meets Wanda, he finds a kindred spirit through the sharing of these dialogues, inspiring a profound level of love and passion within him: so much so that Severin frequently describes his feelings for her as being a form of madness. 

The two embark on creating their own unique relationship, one which fulfills and eventually surpasses their unbound desires and impulses. The central bond in Venus in Furs is explicitly sadomasochistic, even though such words would not be invented for another twenty years or so. Severin's adoration for Wanda grows with every rejection, with each humiliating slight, until finally he needs regular physical as well as psychological pain from her. And she, while initially skeptical about assuming this exceptionally cruel role, finds herself reaching for the whip with relish as their affair moves forward. Their affair escalates to them relocating to Italy for a time, where Severin must attend to her as a slave. Wanda completely removes his agency and even his identity (she calls him Gregor), and yet with every loss of agency, every violent lash of her whip, his love for her remains as unwavering as a pagan in the temple of Aphrodite. 

Sacher-Masoch's prose may be challenging for some contemporary readers, due to its time of creation as well as it being in translation. And yet, there is an unmistakable power in reading this tale unfold with an almost frenetic urgency towards its conclusion. Within all of the pain and violence, a significant portion of which is non-consensual, Severin retains an almost utopian vision of human relations. For him, the way to freedom is through bondage, and the path to supreme pleasure is through pain. Even if erotica with such a heavy dose of sadomasochism is not your kink, Venus In Furs remains an important and fascinating piece of literature, a provocative invitation to examine the complicated nature of our own sexual desires, needs, and relationships to power.

Re-Reading Erotic Lit Classics: Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. Reviewed By Christian Pan

What is freedom? Not just in terms of determining what sorts of intimate and sexual relationships one wishes to enjoy, but how can we meaningfully articulate a vision for living a thriving, full, contented life, in all of its complexity and with all of our foibles? How does one balance personal pursuits with spending time with one's lover? How can we successfully negotiate the time and energy necessary to nurture a marriage while simultaneously building a career (particularly if one is an artist)? How do the answers to these timeless and universal questions change when asked by a woman? 

Upon its release in 1973, Erica Jong´s debut novel Fear of Flying garnered praise from respected literary figures John Updike and Henry Miller as well as became a popular bestseller in the culture. Many readers identified with the book´s semi-autobiographical heroine, a 29-year-old woman possessing intellect, wit, and an indefatigable passion to understand the nature of her desires. Isadora Wing is married, a Jewish New Yorker, a writer–but which of these is the most important? How do women balance them all together, and how can one wrest satisfaction from both one´s career and one´s relationships? 

The book begins in Vienna. Isadora is attending a conference on psychoanalysis with her husband Bennet, ostensibly to write an article for a media outlet in New York. The choice of setting combined with her spouse´s profession is intentional by Jong, as Isadora´s narration will jump back and forth through time, and some chapters will be so confessional that they will almost feel like we are her therapist, listening to her on the couch. Shortly after her arrival to the event, Isadora meets Adrian, a British analyst who is the opposite in temperament to her husband: where Bennet is meek or submissive, this new man is confident, direct in articulating what he wants, an existentialist who invites Isadora to run away with him for a temporary affair. She joins him in the hopes of having a highly-charged sexual adventure, an act of rebellion which will shock her into realizing what is most important to her, what role her husband plays in her life, and more. But instead, Isadora finds that she and Adrian are simply driving around France and Germany, and that their lovemaking is infrequent or brief, if at all (Adrian is frequently impotent). When the Brit announces that he is going to return to his wife and children in England, Isadora storms off to a ramshackle room in a fleabag hotel in Paris, where she finally begins to fall in love with the one person she has been seeking all along: herself. 

Fear of Flying originated the term the “zipless fuck,” and a significant portion of Jong´s book explores Isadora´s craving for anonymous, no strings attached sex with a man. But the book understands that sex is never without context, and that Isadora is really searching for a different level of experience, and is seeking a greater level of connection and personal understanding. In both temperament and subject matter, readers of Fear of Flying will quickly see how Jong blazed the trail for a number of subsequent books and writers that have followed in the generations that followed, from Candace Bushnell´s “Sex and the City” column and Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones Diary, to Phoebe Waller-Bridge´s Fleabag.

Christian Pan is a writer based in New York City who has published six novellas and nearly one hundred short stories focused on the erotic imagination since 2021. He also hosts the monthly Pulse Session for the podcast All the Filthy Details, and under another name works in the entertainment business.

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