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Impressions of Desire

Updated: Sep 5, 2021

Translated from the French by Laura Francis

2019 (Granta)

Along the streets of Paris, Jeanne meets strangers. She has a system: lean up against a wall of a building, pretend to need help, and wait for whatever man to approach and ask if she needs help. She then accompanies them to whatever hotel is nearby, and has sex.

Jeanne is uninterested in the names of these men, much less their professions. In fact, the physical appearance of each of them is ghostly, at best. She is solely fixated on their penises and of their variety of shape and color, their sensation between her hands and between her lips. She commits the details of each cock to the recesses of her mind, adding them to a growing collection within her ever-expanding memory palace.

In the fascinating novel The Collection, winner of the 2017 Prix Anais Nin, the elusive nature of Nina Leger´s protagonist is a key element to understanding the book´s conversation on eroticism. Is Jeanne is a young woman, or is she middle-aged? Maybe she is married, or divorced, or is she single? Does she have children? What does she do for a living? Leger teases the reader at various points of the narrative, including a scene where Jeanne lies to her friends who are both titillated as judgmental over her anonymous sexual intrigues. Later, Leger confronts the reader directly, announcing that such details about Jeanne will never be revealed, because such information is not philosophically necessary to not only the story the author is telling, but the distinct manner in which she wishes to tell it.

The Collection reads less as a realistic novel, and more of a series of surreal or abstract episodes. If Leger´s novel were a painting, perhaps the neo-impressionism of George Seurat´s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte would be the best analogy. Rather than following the conventions of realistic logic, Leger provides a narrative mosaic of impressions, feelings, senses. Just as Seurat´s precise placement of colorful dots plunges the viewer of his paintings into a more emotional state of viewing, Leger´s narrative vocabulary corners the reader into a series of present moments. The chapters in The Collection are often brief, and sometimes its passages are a list of objects, allowing the reader to fill the gaps with connections and meanings. Unlike other erotic literary writers, Leger resists placing her heroine in the familiar tropes of the genre: we do not see Jeanne sleepless or smoking cigarettes, nor leaving half-eaten pain au chocolats before encountering her next sexual tryst. Jeanne emerges seemingly out of nowhere, in action, and in desire. For Leger, it seems, that is all that counts.

Despite its brief number of pages, The Collection is an intriguing and dense book of erotic literature. After a series of episodes with actual living cocks found at random on the streets of Paris, Jeanne eventually shifts into accumulating a collection of artificial dildos to enjoy both in private and occasionally in public. While in a couple of instances she meets with her male objects more than once (by accident or by choice), Jeanne´s gratification of her desires and her contemplation of her pleasures remains confidently and calmly in the book´s center. Like a rich and expansive tapestry, The Collection´s beguilingly simple narrative belies deeper layers, and there are numerous treasures to re-reading the book. Highly recommend.

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