Thursday, March 12, 2015

Book Review: Venus In Furs

I apologize for not having a new review out this time last week as I had originally intended; you would think that being on "spring" break would give me more time to write, but alas, it was not to be.

I think this review will be a slight deviation from what has started to become the "norm" for my blog, largely because it's the first book I've reviewed in a while that is not Fifty Shades and also because... well, I'm not sure if my usual snarky style is well suited for it. I am still polishing my reviewing technique, though, so we'll see where my ramblings end up by the end of this.

(Note: Spoilers ahead, and uh, that's about it, I guess...)
 
Venus in Furs- Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

Perhaps you may be thinking that this is an odd choice of book for someone like me, to which I reply, "you obviously don't know me very well". It's an old book, a somewhat tedious book, and certainly an odd sort of book, but sometimes I like that. Did I like Venus in Furs? Well... not exactly. Was it interesting? Erm... sort of? It's hard to know exactly what to say about it. 


I suppose I should get one thing out of the way before I get into the review proper: to say that this review has nothing to do with FSOG isn't strictly the truth. You should all know by now how often I've joked about being a masochist because of the horrible books and movies I force myself to endure, so I figured, why not go back to the roots of masochism itself? For the uninitiated, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was a 19th century Austrian writer from whose name the word "masochism" is derived, in the same way that "sadism" comes from the Marquis de Sade. Sacher-Masoch was relatively prolific, but Venus is without a doubt his most famous work (and one of the few translated into English), and contains a lot of ideas about fetishism and sexuality that were shocking for 1870.

But it's hard to know even exactly how to categorize this book. I have this review labeled as "BDSM erotica", but I don't know how much of an accurate description that is. There isn't actually any sex in this book, but then again that's not to say that a work with no explicit fucking can't be erotic. Maybe it's because I'm a woman and therefore not Sacher-Masoch's intended audience--at least I'm pretty sure I'm not--but reading this was not an erotic experience at all for me. It's really hard for me to say for sure if Venus was truly written for titillation purposes or more intended as a platform for the author's personal philosophy. Or maybe it's neither, and is merely just a dude's wet dream that he published as a bold F-you to contemporary society for having such prudish standards.

Regardless of whatever it's meant to be, I still can't make heads or tails of Venus in Furs. What I originally thought was going to be an intriguing yet straightforward journey into the realm of masochism and submission ended up being mostly boring, only occasionally insightful, and irritating throughout. It was quite a frustrating read. For most of the story we follow Masoch's self-insert character Severin (and I mean that literally, but more on that later), a directionless, wealthy young man with a fetish for being dominated by cruel women dressed in furs. He is obsessed with a statue of the goddess Venus and centers his fantasies around her image; this obsession is later transferred to his beautiful and mysterious neighbor, Wanda.

As Wanda and Severin get to know each other, he reveals his secret desires to her, and she reveals to him that she also is not a big fan of the sexual mores of their contemporary society; she calls herself a "pagan", freely admitting that she doesn't believe she could love any one man longer than a few months and doesn't see why she should be restricted from having as many lovers as she pleases. She's hedonistic and flighty when it comes to love, but she repeatedly reminds Severin of this fact and completely owns up to it, which is why her later treatment in the book seems so unfair. True, she does treat him pretty nastily at the very end, but in all fairness Severin wasn't kind to her, and despite his insistence that he wished nothing more than to be her devoted slave, he never once seemed to actually give a shit about what she wanted. The vast majority of the book is taken up by Severin repeatedly trying to force Wanda into a Master/slave relationship that she clearly does not want, and then when he finds himself dissatisfied with the reality of the lifestyle once she finally gives in to his demands, he calls her cruel and blames her for all his misery.


If only this book weren't so frustrating the disastrous end of their relationship could be poignantly tragicomic. I'm pretty sure Severin was meant to be a sympathetic protagonist, but ultimately I found him to be mostly just an annoying whiner and felt more sympathy for Wanda, the supposed cruel mistress. This story that I originally thought was just going to be some elaborate sexual fantasy ended up ironically making a point about how some things are better off remaining fantasies, and that in reality aren't exactly what you thought you wanted. I'm pretty sure there was a song about that in Into the Woods or something. To put it in modern terms, Severin seems like the kind of person who is a total noob to all things BDSM and has the complete wrong idea about how power exchange relationships work, so he declares himself to be a "true submissive" who "has no limits". Next thing you know he's being that annoying guy on FetLife messaging every Domme he finds begging to be able to lick their boots, and then starts topping from the bottom and getting whiny when they won't dominate him to his exact specifications. The thing is, though, Severin himself never seems to realize that he fucked up by diving straight into the deep end with his fantasies and being so pushy with Wanda, never takes responsibility. And if Wanda wasn't the one to blame for his misery it was the fantasy itself, for being "deviant" and in opposition to the existing gender hierarchy in society.

The commentary on gender politics itself is another huge part of what makes this book so frustrating and confusing to read. There's a running thread through the narrative of Severin's and Wanda's "unnatural" power imbalance being the downfall of their relationship, which of course to me reads more like a bullshit excuse absolving Severin of any blame. But it's there and it keeps popping up and sticks out to me, because in a way it seems very forced, and yet at the same time is necessary to the tone of the overall story. The end result is that what most people think is a progressive tale about female dominance over men is actually quite sexist on the surface. It appears to deliver a twisted moral confirming the time period's view of male dominance as the natural order by presenting an example of a female-lead relationship gone wrong.

Maybe I've been spending too much time on Reddit, but the adversarial nature of male/female sexual relationships in Venus in Furs reads bizarrely a lot like the misogynist pseudo-philosophy of the Red Pill/manosphere. Actually, it's probably even more red pill than the Red Pill: the woman admits to being flighty, hypergamous, and incapable of fidelity; the "weak beta" man acts like a doormat, gets walked all over, and eventually loses her to an aloof, sexy, abusive "alpha" man; the woman admits that she could only ever truly love and commit herself to a dominant "alpha" who will put her in her place; the "beta" eventually swallows the red pill, realizes that giving the woman power is wrong, and becomes an abusive, dominant "alpha" to his next partner, then passes on this advice to his "beta" friend.

There are so many layers of cringe and so many layers of irony here, it's hard to dissect them all. I think a book like this is really important to read with some knowledge about it's author, because otherwise it will most definitely come across a little more than outdated and outrageously sexist bullshit. It is outdated, true, but it's interesting to note that this was written by a man who was actually quite progressive in his social views for his day. Sacher-Masoch was known to be an outspoken advocate for women's rights, a proto-feminist, if you will. The line towards the end about how femdom/male sub relationships could only be fully realized if women were considered equals to men reads completely differently in this context. It leads one to wonder, was Severin trying to say that the idea of women being equal to men is absurd, or is Masoch sneaking in his own beliefs that women really should be considered equal to men? So just why are all of these sexist overtones in this book if they aren't actually in line with Masoch's beliefs? I don't know, really. My best guess is that perhaps the main story would be more socially acceptable and gain wider popularity if it was put in the context of commonly accepted sexual values. So... Sacher-Masoch bucked the system by conforming to it.

Oh, and it gets even richer than that. Remember how I said that Severin was a literal self-insert? Yeah, apparently Venus is largely based on a relationship Masoch had with a woman before he met his first wife. Just how closely it follows their relationship I can't say; I don't know enough about the guy and I'm not even sure how much is known about his private life in general. But what is known for sure is that Masoch genuinely lived up to the term that bears his name. Perhaps Sacher-Masoch was a bit more like his character than he cared to admit, however; I haven't read it yet, but apparently there is a memoir written by his wife after his death entitled Confessions of Wanda, in which she writes about how her husband tried to force to role of the cruel Mistress on her, yet still called all the shots. At least, that's what I've heard. Perhaps I'll have to put Confessions on my to-read list.

But besides all of that frustrating business, Venus in Furs is extremely slow and plodding. Every time you think Wanda and Severin are making progress in their relationship and are on the verge of committing to the slave contract, they never end up following through and are back at square one. At first it was pretty interesting to learn about Severin's obsessions and Wanda's free-lovin' ways, but then the characters waste so much time reiterating the same points, endlessly proselytizing about the psychology and philosophy behind their feelings and actions. It's boring as fuck. The first half of the book is stuck in a repetitive cycle: Wanda and Severin are happy together; Severin dramatically declares his love and his desire to be her slave; Wanda hesitates then agrees to try; she acts cruelly like he requested and they both get upset; she feels bad and asks that they forget about it and have a regular relationship; they're happy again until Severin gets all worked up about losing her love, he dramatically declares his feelings... etc. It takes until 55% of the way through this 115-ish page novella for them to actually get serious about this slavery thing, and even after that it's slow going and spends too much time rehashing what we already learned in the first part. And then by the end of it, after getting everything he claimed he wanted, Severin is resentful, depressed, and finally shows his true asshole colors. And then it's over.

Would I recommend this? Eh, probably not, but I wouldn't judge anyone who did find it legitimately fascinating. There are interesting parts and a few moments where the writing is amazingly well-crafted, but overall it's a very lackluster read. But unlike Severin, I can at least admit that my disappointment was partially due to me going into this with the wrong set of expectations. I wanted to like it, but I spent far too long waiting for the plot to actually go somewhere, I was irritated with the protagonist most of the time, and by the end even most of my sympathy for Wanda was dried up. I don't regret reading it, but I can't give this any more than two stars.


Well now, I think I need a break from kinky erotica for a while. Hopefully my next review will be of a fantasy of the.. uh, fantasy variety. Tune in tomorrow for the next exciting installment of FLASH FICTION FRIDAY! Goodnight!

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