Published in The Observer July 29, 2019
Nina Leger’s novella begins with a description of a woman taking a penis into her mouth: “She lets it grow heavy, take on warmth, breadth and shape… She moves away, and contemplates the erect penis.”
She is Jeanne, and Jeanne will spend the book contemplating the penises of the many men she takes to anonymous Paris hotel rooms to sleep with. She is a collector of these penises, preserving each one in her “memory palace”. And she continues to contemplate them until the last page – which is, in fact, a complete repeat of the first.
This is apt: Jeanne doesn’t appear to have changed much. Leger refuses the narrative journey towards self-discovery that usually follows compulsive sex with strangers. The young French writer, who won the Anaïs Nin prize for this book, wryly mocks our desire for explanations as to why Jeanne is like this, and the expectation that she will be shamed or cured of it.
True, we’re told it all began when Jeanne stared at a man’s flies on the metro, and realised he became “petrified… divested of his rights over his own penis”. There is potent power in her female gaze. But Leger will also tease us about the origins of this story, pointing out it is missing the psychological explanations, “the whys, and the becauses”.
She goes on to offer droll, spiralling speculations as to who Jeanne might really be: a 36-year-old whose husband neglects her, a 22-year-old recovering bulimic, a victim of childhood molestation, a nymphomaniac. The competing stories escalate until sentences and even words begin to fragment. Jeanne remains unknowable.
She has no interest in talking to the men she seduces, and gives nothing of herself away (to them, or to the reader). Instead, Jeanne trains her full attention on memorising the exact qualities of their penises: “She examines it… follows the curve of the head with her thumb”; “The skin is ochre, heavy, exaggeratedly lined”; “fragile and translucent, veined with subterranean circulation”
There’s little hot-headed passion here; The Collection offers unflustered accounts of sex, precisely detailed rather than steamy or clammy-handed. But given that male genitals are still all too often portrayed as simply grotesque or comic, having such care lavished on them feels genuinely fresh. The translator, Laura Francis, does a fine job of capturing Leger’s poise and poetry.
There will no doubt be readers – probably uneasy male readers – who’ll suggest such objectification is a step back for gender equality. Really, it’s a reminder of how rare it still is to have a female gaze on the aesthetic aspects of sex. From Cat Person to Fleabag, female narrative perspectives are finding huge and hungry audiences – but Leger’s writing is doing something different. It isn’t “relatable”: it’s cool, detached, specific.
However, Leger’s refusal to offer any specifics, context, or inner emotional life for Jeanne inevitably becomes rather limiting. The Collection is more an exercise in style than imaginative empathy. Like Jeanne herself, the book is easy to be impressed by, but hard to fall in love with.