Ana Hein // Blog Writer
Paris at night. A woman – any woman you prefer to imagine, it does not matter who – walks down the street, or gets off the Metro, or exits from a cafe. However she does it, she enters the scene. She does not have a discernible expression on her face. She betrays nothing of her personality, her history, or her life. She tilts her head back, leans against the side of a building, puts up her hands, and buckles her knees. Any second she will fall due to a dizzy spell. A man comes up behind her and asks her if she is okay. She guides him to a hotel. They have sex. They part ways, never to meet the other again. The women will remember but a single aspect of this man, as all else is superfluous information to her. All she will be able to conjure in her mind of her lover is his penis. She puts it on display in her mind in a palace with a room all to itself. It joins the veritable menagerie of penises she has collected up to this point.
The woman’s name is Jeanne, and she is the heroine of Nina Leger’s novella, The Collection, originally published in French in 2017 and just translated into English this year by Laura Francis. If you aren’t interested in this book based on the set up of woman has lots of sex in Paris hotels, you are not going to have a fun time reading this. There is no other plot to speak of. The entire novella is a series vignettes of Jeanne either having sex, doing sexual activities like visiting sex shops, watching porn, or masturbating.
The thing that sets this book apart from the other woman-has-lots-of-sex books in the world is that Jeanne’s behavior is never explained. This is a direct statement from the narrator: there will be no “whys, and […] becauses” (30). There is no past trauma she is working through, no void she is trying to fill. That’s the revolution of this book. There are no judgments within the pages, no calls made by the author to moralize, stigmatize, or even uplift Jeanne for her actions. The book purposefully puts itself opposite the idea that women having lots of sex is “the consequence of extreme weakness” (79). She is not made to be an object of male desire, a literary symbol, or someone to be fixed with the right lover. She is a woman that likes to have sex, so she has a lot of sex.
This is all the reader really knows about Jeanne for the majority of the novel. There is a deliberate withholding of her personality, her inner thoughts, or even a character description. That is not important for us to know. This lack of information keeps Jeanne at a distance, a mystery, much like how she appears to the men she picks up off the street. It leaves her with a rich private life that will remain private, even from the reader. We are an observer, not a confidant.
All this serves to create a noticeable detachment, not eroticism, in the novella as a whole. The writing is luxurious, decadent even, with long, winding sentences with detail upon detail, comma upon comma upon semicolon added in for variety. But never is the act of sex treated with reverence in the text. It is described frankly, and all the eroticism comes from what the reader brings to the text, not from the writing itself, lovely though it is. By presenting so much sex to the reader at all times, it not only demystifies it, but somehow also de-sexualizes it, presenting the act of sex more as a hobby or pastime and a basic fact of life. All in all, the book reads like something a more detached, erotically charged, French Virginia Woolf would come up with.
I think this is a book to be read and pondered – preferably at length – but perhaps not necessarily enjoyed. It is hard to find investment in a meandering, pointless plot where there is no character progression of any kind. Jeanne is the exact same person that we still know nothing about at the end of the book as she is at the beginning. In fact, the opening scene in which she gives a man a blow job is repeated word for word as the closing scene to heighten this fact.
But still, I couldn’t stop reading The Collection, even if I wasn’t exactly having a pleasant time in doing so. Something about the writing, the taboo setup, and the seemingly unknowable Jeanne kept me enthralled against all logic. I had to keep turning the pages and see what she got up to next, admiring her boldness. I never really connected with the book or its heroine, but I still found both completely intriguing.
Some people are going to find this book distasteful. Some are going to find it boring. It can be a bit boring. But it’s also a book that needs to exist, even with its imperfections. We need more sexually active women in media who aren’t stigmatized for their actions or choices. We need to see women who go after what they want and not feel ashamed of who they are. The Collection delivers this in spades. It’s definitely not a book for everyone – not even a book for most I would say – but if it’s something that intrigues you, even if it’s only out of fascination with the taboo, you should read it. It may not be an experience you savor, but it’ll be one that makes your life a little fuller.