Building a Memory Palace of Penises: The Collection Is Part Literary Experiment, Part Feminist Revenge Plot

Jeanne is a collector of penises. She systematically feigns dizzy spells on busy Parisian streets, which invariably bring to her side a concerned man, whom she then invites back to a hotel room. There, she has sex with him, but the sex is somewhat beside the point. The point is the penis, which she observes with a matter-of-fact eye. Some penises sit at a “perpendicular angle as though the testicles—skin pulled taut, ready to tear—acted as counterweights.” Others are “semi-erect, drawing towards repose.” One is “very long, perfectly tubular,” while another has “a multitude of beauty spots.”

Jeanne takes great care to remember each and every one of them, constructing a “memory palace,” an imagined physical space through which she can mentally walk, like a museum. In each room of the memory palace lives a disembodied dick. In each case, the man to whom it belongs is long forgotten, if ever even meaningfully observed in the first place.

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This is the electrifyingly bizarre setup of Nina Leger’s The Collection, a novella that follows protagonist Jeanne as she populates her memory palace, building “corridors, annexes and outbuildings” to mentally house the memories of all the penises she encounters. It is a literal, and yet fantastical, exploration of the female gaze: Jeanne’s dick-collecting journey begins one day when she sets her eyes upon a man’s fly on the metro and her subject is “petrified by her gaze” as she “seems to draw down the teeth of the zip one by one.” Soon after, she is so overwhelmed by the sudden realization that she uncontrollably “stared at a man’s crotch for four stations” that she nearly faints, a man comes to her aid, and, well, there she finds her routine.

The book—part conceptual literary exercise, part feminist revenge plot—was first released a year ago in French, and was recently translated and published in English. Upon its earlier release in France, it courted plenty of praise, winning the Anaïs Nin Prize, but also notably unsettled some vocal male critics. The writer Yann Moix—who once infamously announced as a 50-year-old man that he preferred the “extraordinary” bodies of 20-year-olds to those of women his same age—went head-to-head with Leger on a popular TV show to lambast the book as “old-fashioned” and “catastrophic.” These men were not only disinterested in this exploration of the female gaze, but also seemingly outraged by it. 

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It’s true that Jeanne’s memory palace is, quite literally, objectifying: She reduces men to their penises and places the remembered members within its rooms like pedestaled artifacts. During her encounters, she narrows her vision to the dick, ignoring or else willfully forgetting these men’s voices and personalities, and even the body beyond the genitals. Her myopia is such that she finds herself realizing after a sexual encounter with an unremembered man that she had met his penis before; it already had its own room in the memory palace. It dawns on her that she could encounter the same man yet again and not know him until she saw his dick, because it’s still, even after this second encounter, all that she remembers of him.

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Despite this seeming ruthlessness, though, Jeanne takes great care in sensually exploring and detailing and remembering each and every penis, without any judgment. “She accumulates, but looks for nothing; she is not searching for a penis that would surpass all others and give meaning to her explorations, imposing their limit,” writes Leger. “She collects without comparison, adds without judgment, showing neither preference nor disdain.” She seems to have an appreciation of all of them, no matter size or quirks in coloration or shape. All penises are equal and belong in the memory palace, whose layout is intentionally constructed without any kind of hierarchy.

The occupants of the memory palace are described in luxuriating detail, but we never see anything of Jeanne—her hair color, age, marital status, or profession. Nor do we learn what Leger dubs the “whys” and “becauses” of Jeanne’s behavior; there is no knowing what motivates her. As Leger tells it, she wanted to withhold these details to challenge the impulse to pathologize women’s sexuality. Of course, any person who steps outside the bounds of heterosexual, marital, procreative sexual behavior can become a target of critique and diagnosis. But the popular vision of the essential nature of straight men’s desire is something akin to a mental encyclopedia of boobs. An obsessive and objectifying relationship to sex is seen as normative; a man making notches on his bedpost is considered unremarkable. The inverse, however, is treated as fundamentally suspect.

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To protect Jeanne from judgment, Leger felt she had to conceal most aspects of her protagonist—from readers, and even from herself as the author. In this way, The Collection drives home the limitations of the female gaze both within the current culture and as a straightforward inverse of the male gaze. In order to effectively entertain this literary experiment, Jeanne had to be reduced to her actions and sight. This might prevent her from becoming an object and secure her as a subject, but Jeanne’s interiority is largely scrubbed blank. In her emphatic looking, her own body is rendered invisible, and so is any of her pleasure beyond the experience of seeing and remembering. She is ruthless in her mental cataloguing of disembodied penises, but not, as far as the reader is allowed to see, in her pursuit of, say, orgasm. Her encounters are highly controlled and systematic, as opposed to spontaneous, wild, or free.

But The Collection isn’t a manifesto of women’s sexual liberation, it’s a surrealistic literary exploration, and maybe a bit of a Rorschach test for readers. Jezebel spoke with Leger, whose first language is French, about confrontations with male critics and the art of painting literary peen.

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JEZEBEL: How did you first arrive at this idea of a woman who creates a “memory palace” filled with penises?

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NINA LEGER: I had this idea of the memory palace, which comes from a mnémotechnique that was invented during antiquity. I used this technique that is described by many Roman philosophers, where you build a literal architecture and place in different rooms the thing that you want to remember. I just had to take what already existed and apply it to sexuality, which was kind of a shock of two different cultures: rhetoric, on the one hand, and this very contemporary sexuality on the other. I liked the contrast. I wanted to create a kind of tension between the sexuality that we think we all know, this modern sexuality of knowing many people and going from person to person while forgetting, and to confront it with this idea of a memory.

How did you go about describing all of these penises and bringing them to life so... vividly?

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[Laughs] Slowly, I guess. I really wanted to have some scenes that were only descriptions, almost like paintings. I had this idea that the novel would be all about sight and description. It’s a painting more than it’s a story. It plays on what you see in space more than it is temporal. To me, it was very important to have very specific descriptions. What I noticed in different arts is that penises are never seen. It’s everywhere; it’s the core of, for example, psychoanalysis, but it’s a symbol. You see penises all the time in pornography but they are all the same. I wanted to describe this part of the male body, I wanted to give them a kind of poetry to invent ways to talk about penises, to look at them very closely, to talk about differences in shape, in touch, in color. It was the main purpose of the book, maybe: finding ways to look at, and finding ways to talk about, [penises].

Were you just conjuring these images in your mind? 

It’s like inventing a character, maybe. You know people in your life and from these people you can invent others. You remember the eyes of somebody, the hair of another, and then you create a character. It wasn’t a description like I was looking at an image and getting down the words to describe it. It was more of an invention to have all these different penises existing in the book.

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An elaborate memory palace of penises is surreal, but so is Jeanne’s lack of self-consciousness about her own body during these encounters. She seems relatively unconcerned with the possibility of a reciprocal and similarly objectifying gaze. 

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I just said that the novel is about looking and describing, but to be more specific, I should say that it was about reversing the usual sight. Which is usually a sight that we put on women. They are the object of our sights, their body is always visible, it’s what art has been describing for centuries. I wanted to reverse sight so that only male bodies would be visible. That is why we don’t know anything about Jeanne’s body.

Since we don’t know anything about her body, we cannot know anything about reciprocity in pleasure, for example. Some people have the feeling that she doesn’t—I don’t know how to say it in English—she doesn’t come, let’s say? She doesn’t have pleasure in the sexual encounter? This is maybe not true, it’s just that we cannot know it as readers, and as a writer. I decided that Jeanne’s body would escape me, it would escape any grasp. 

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So, maybe there is reciprocity, but we don’t know. What is sure is that in the novel itself there is no reciprocity possible. Our sight, as readers and as a writer, is focused on male bodies and these bodies are, indeed, objectified by Jeanne, by this writing.

Given the objectifying gaze, I’m curious: how have men reacted to your book?

Mmm. [Laughs] The only negative critics were men. It was always the same scheme of critic. I was on a popular show [in France] and there was a really violent confrontation with a male critic. He had this idea that, well, it was boring. It’s something that many male critics said. To them, when we talk about sexuality, that is not what you show. They want to see female bodies satisfied by men. You never see that in the book.

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Most of them also said, oh, once again a woman is talking about sexuality. They don’t say, oh, once again a man is writing about war. They don’t say, oh, once again a woman is writing about family. You don’t put every book about family or war in the same category, because you understand they have different points of view. But for women talking about sexuality, it was as if it was always the same thing and it had already been done, so I didn’t have to speak.

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When the book was released in France it was a year before #BalanceTonPorc and the #MeToo movement. The relationship to women speaking about their sexuality wasn’t the same. I wonder what the reception would have been if it had published later, maybe it would have been different. Maybe less violent or maybe they would have been accustomed to realize the structures in their own discourses.

The reception going on today with the release of the translation in English is much more engaged and thoughtful, maybe because gender theory and cultural studies are more embedded in Britain and the U.S. than in France. But maybe it is also because we are past the #MeToo movement. When I talk about reversing the male gaze, creating a female gaze, which is the point of the collection, people understand. It was much trickier to formulate these things two years ago in France.

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The book entertains several different scenarios that could explain why Jeanne does what she does. But in entertaining these different scenarios, it undoes the possibility of the reader landing on any one concrete explanation of her motivations. Why did you make that choice?

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I realized that as soon as I would give one element about Jeanne—if I gave her age, her profession, how she looked—it would become for the reader an interpretive key to understand her sexual attitude. I wanted her to remain free. It’s incredible, when it comes to sexuality, and mainly female sexuality, we all inherit [ideas] from 19th century psychoanalysis and concepts of nymphomania, and I wanted to destruct these interpretations.

That’s why I created a character that remains blank to us. I wanted her to be nothing so that she could be everything. I wanted her to escape an explanation. I also I discovered that in the history of [attitudes toward] female sexuality, explanation is very often a tool for judgment and condemnation. I wanted her to be free. I wanted her to be able to act without having to justify anything. In a way, Jeanne escapes the novel itself. Often, the novel wants to know everything about its character and here Jeanne resists the voyeuristic impulse of the novel. She escapes our will to know.

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Jeanne meets each of these men by staging a dizzy spell on the street. How did you arrive at that particular mechanism for getting men to come back to a hotel room with her?

I had the idea that she has a routine because she’s not interested in meeting people. She couldn’t meet these men by entering into conversation with them, it had to be more immediate. I had this idea that she fainted. I liked that she would mimic the frailty often associated with women being the prey, but that it would only be mimicry. She ends up being the bird of prey.

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In the end of the book, Jeanne ends up where she began. Were you resisting a typical narrative arc of redemption or destruction?

Exactly. This is the alternative. To get a narrative arc, I’d have to give Jeanne a psychology and give her a life more definite than the one I wanted to. So, I had to renounce a narrative altogether. Like most writers, I had this temporal vision of the novel: it’s a story, it starts somewhere, and then it develops in time. Here I had to renounce time and maybe space replaced time in the novel. Space is the most important dimension. It’s more like a painting. This [circular structure] was the best way to indicate that it dealt with space more than time. Some people read it as a kind of imprisonment, as if she was imprisoned in her routine, but I think that’s a bit too excessive of an interpretation. I don’t think repetition is always imprisonment. Instead, she goes on unperturbed.

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The French title is Mise en Pièces and we decided not to translate it, because it has a kind of double entendre, because it means putting into rooms, which had something to do with the memory palace and the hotel rooms where she goes. But it is also, I think the equivalent in English is to tear apart, it’s when you tear to pieces. This is in a way what she does with her sight to the bodies of the men she encounters. She reduces them to their penises.

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