World Literature

Anais Nin

 

BORN: 1903, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France

DIED: 1977, Los Angeles, California

NATIONALITY: French, American

GENRE: Nonfiction, fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

The Diary of Anais Nin (1966-1977)

D. H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study (1932)

Cities of the Interior (1946-1961)

Delta of Venus (1977)

 

 

Anais Nin. Nin, Anais, photograph. The Library of Congress.

 

Overview

Anais Nin gained international fame with the publication of seven volumes of unabashedly introspective and candid diaries laced with fiction. In addition to her diaries, Nin also wrote novels, short stories, and erotica, all of which reflect her attention to physical details along with the effects of sensuality on her characters. Bold, innovative, and determined, Nin’s work transcends conventional standards and calls for an expanded definition of literary art. By challenging the impediments of literary form and genre, Nin was able to explore methods of expression that allowed some understanding of the individual’s hidden psyche.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

A Cosmopolitan Childhood. Anais Nin was born on February 21, 1903, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris, to Joaquin and Rosa Culmell de Nin. As a result of her father’s travels as a concert pianist and composer, Nin lived a cosmopolitan childhood, visiting various

European capital cities, until her father deserted the family in 1914. Nin’s mother relocated from Barcelona to New York City that summer, a move that prompted Nin to begin a diary as a letter to her father. Begun when she was eleven, this ‘‘letter’’ would continue throughout the rest of her life and become an important record not only of the development of a feminine tradition in literature, but also of the creative process.

Independent Adolescence and Romantic Affairs. Precocious and energetic, Nin largely educated herself during adolescence, reading in public libraries and writing in her journal, in which she carried on an imaginative relationship with her absent father. In her late teens, she studied art and often worked as a model for artists and photographers. When she was eighteen, Nin fell in love with Hugh Guiler, a banker she married in Havana, Cuba, two years later. Despite Nin’s numerous affairs and her bigamous marriage to Rupert Cole, her union with Guiler lasted more than fifty years.

 

Art and Entanglement

Nin’s ambition to be a writer was supported by Guiler: Under the name Ian Hugo, he illustrated Nin’s books. When she was twenty-two, Nin and Guiler settled in Paris, and Nin briefly reunited with her father. The artistic atmosphere of Paris provided Nin the opportunity to free herself from social convention in order to develop as a writer, and she worked on an assortment of projects during the 1920s and 1930s that never reached fruition as novels, but appeared piecemeal as prose poems, novellas, and short stories. Despite her attempts at fiction, Nin’s first significant literary contribution was D. H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study, a work that reveals Nin’s struggle for aesthetic realization on her own terms. In fact, in responding to the fiction of Lawrence, Nin describes what she herself would do as a novelist instead of what Lawrence had done, in essence preparing for the emergence of her own fiction.

Work Banned as Pornographic. Nevertheless, it was almost five years after her study of Lawrence that Nin found her voice in fiction. During these years, Nin became intimately involved with American writer Henry Miller, whose works were banned in England and the United States as pornographic. Authors like Miller and Nin played a key role in advancing what later became known as the sexual revolution of the Western world. In 1961 Miller challenged existing obscenity laws in the United States with publication of Tropic of Cancer, a legal battle ensued and, ultimately, Miller’s work was labeled a work of literature and freed subsequent novels from similar legal constraints. Nin became involved with Miller’s wife, June, and psychotherapist Otto Rank. With suggestions from Henry Miller and Rank, Nin produced The House of Incest (1936) and The Winter of Artifice (1939), both intense, original, and poetic, but neither of them novels. While The House of Incest is clearly influenced by surrealism, and explores the human psyche through dreams, The Winter of Artifice thinly disguises real people and situations from Nin’s diary. ‘‘Lilith,’’ for example, is the story of a disappointing reunion between a woman and the father who had deserted her in her childhood, while ‘‘Djuna’’ tells of a love triangle that parallels the relationship between Nin and Henry and June Miller depicted in Nin’s diary.

Artistic Freedom. In the early 1940s, Nin moved to New York, where commercial publishers were unresponsive to her writing. Dedicated to her art, she sought readership by establishing the Gemor Press and printing her work at her own expense. Her first Gemor publication, a shortened version of The Winter of Artifice, captured the attention of poet William Carlos Williams, who praised Nin’s quest for a female approach to writing that showed art, not activism. As Nin continued to explore how she could unify narrative fragments without restricting them to a central plot as did traditional novels, Gemor Press issued This Hunger, a work that helped land her a contract with the E. P. Dutton publishing company.

Tired of life in New York, Nin moved to California in 1946, settling into an environment of artistic freedom that was less frantic and confining than New York or Paris. Between 1946 and 1961, Nin published Cities of the Interior, which she described as a ‘‘continuous novel.’’ The work is composed of five parts: Ladders to Fire (1946), Children of the Albatross (1947), The Four-Chambered Heart (1950), A Spy in the House of Love (1954), and Seduction of the Minotaur (1961). Early in the Cities of the Interior series, Nin became more sure of herself as a writer who could not be bound by convention.

 

Life in a Collage

Published in 1964, Collages was Nin’s self-proclaimed last novel. Most of the stories in the work involve a single character who is the common thread in a series of vignettes that reinforce Nin’s view of creative freedom. Collages is the most autobiographical of her fiction, as characters’ real-life counterparts are not concealed, and the factual events recorded in Nin’s diaries are embellished with fictional elements. As such, Collages paved the way for the publication of Nin’s diary volumes, beginning in 1966. The last volumes of her diaries appeared posthumously in the 1980s, after Nin’s death from cancer on January 14, 1977, as did two collections of erotic pieces, Delta of Venus (1977) and Little Birds (1979).

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Nin's famous contemporaries include:

Tennessee Williams (1911-1983): American playwright who based many of his works, including A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), on his family experiences.

Jackson Pollock (1912-1956): A key figure in Abstract Expressionism and avant-garde art in America after World War II.

Doris Lessing (1919-): In The Golden Notebook (1962), Lessing compartmentalizes life by approaching experience from different fictional perspectives, including parody and political documentation.

W. H. Auden (1907-1973): British-born poet who, like Nin, spent much of his later professional life in the United States.

Lazaro Cardenas (1895-1970): President of Mexico from 1934 to 1940, Cardenas is known for his attempts to carry out the social and economic goals of the Mexican Revolution.

Irving Berlin (1888-1989): American composer who wrote the lyrics to countless classic songs, including ''God Bless America.''

 

Works in Literary Context

Nin’s work, particularly her novels and short stories, are significantly influenced by surrealism, a movement founded

in Paris in the 1920s by artists devoted to exploring irrationality and the unconscious. In addition, the textual experiments of such modernists as Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence, whose narrative techniques included expressionistic and stream-of-consciousness narration, helped shape Nin’s writing. Perhaps the most powerful influence on Nin was the literary partnership she had with Henry Miller. Despite their differences in both personal and professional matters—Nin was elegant and sensual, Miller crude and sexual; Nin’s writing was implicit, Miller’s explicit—the two inspired and provided valuable feedback for each other for more than three decades. In addition to Miller, Woolf, and Lawrence, Nin enjoyed the influence of other authors including Marcel Proust, Andre Gide, Jean Cocteau, Paul Valery, and Arthur Rimbaud.

Transformation. Although Nin’s diaries have led to her being criticized as a narcissist, such charges seem unsubstantiated in light of her psychological insight, the feminist perspective of her works, and her quest for self-knowledge. More than a recurring theme, Nin’s preoccupation with personal creation—specifically, that of the female psyche—marks her diaries and novels alike. An optimist in a world of psychological desolation, Nin contended that individuals are obligated to pursue completeness, even though the journey is difficult and one’s success not guaranteed.

Nin used the word ‘‘transformation’’ to describe the conversion of a negative situation into a positive experience, an act she believed every individual has the power to do by changing external circumstances to suit one’s personal needs. In all of Nin’s fiction, characters have opportunities to solve their problems by being resourceful and creative. Her work explores the psychological barriers women face and the importance of overcoming those obstacles in order to reach a state of inner peace in their personal lives. In Cities of the Interior, for example, the female faces a basic duality: the compulsion to please and nurture others as opposed to her own self-fulfillment. Unlike women in her erotica, however, the female characters in Cities of the Interior are rendered psychologically powerless by this situation.

Eroticism. Although Nin believed that eroticism had its place in literature, she opposed completely focusing on sexuality at the expense of literary merit. At risk of not being taken seriously as a writer, Nin, aware that American literature was lacking female sexual expression, intended for her work to describe sexual experience from a woman’s point of view as an avenue of learning about the nature of the true self and transcending ordinary life. Whereas all five parts of Cities of the Interior accentuate the sexual experiences of her main characters, their eroticism is not gratuitous; instead, like all other worthwhile experiences, sexuality leads to self-knowledge. Although far from popular Nin was influential in that she tested the social norms of sexuality in the context of literature, challenging previous definitions of acceptability.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Even as all seven volumes of Ana'i's Nin's diaries record a woman's journey of self-discovery, they also reveal her emphasis on the importance of creativity in an individual's life. Throughout the years, Nin has been a source of inspiration for those who are willing to take professional or personal risks for the sake of art, including the authors of the works below:

Atlas Shrugged (1957), a novel by Ayn Rand. In this lengthy work, Rand explores a variety of themes that, ultimately, she would develop into a philosophy of life, which she later termed "objectivism."

Our Lady (2001), a painting by Alma Lopez. Mexican-born Lopez outraged many Catholics with her representation of the Virgin Mary wearing a bikini of flowers.

Satanic Verses (1988), a novel by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie earned a fatwa (an edict calling for his death) from the spiritual leader of Iran for this comic allegorical story that continues to earn praise for its satiric artistry as well as its psychological truths and self-consciousness.

Tender Buttons (1933), a poetry collection by Gertrude Stein. Though some considered Stein's linguistic techniques vulgar distortions of the English language, she persisted in developing her own poetic methods.

 

Works in Critical Context

With the exception of Edmund Wilson’s favorable review of Under a Glass Bell in the New Yorker, response to Nin’s work was generally hostile or indifferent. Certainly for many years she was neglected as a serious writer by critics as well as readers, garnering only a few books of criticism through the years. With the publication of the first volume of her diary in 1966, combined with the women’s movement of the 1970s, Nin’s readership grew; however, focus was almost solely on the diaries, not her fiction.

Criticism of Novels. When her first three novels were reissued in 1974, the few positive reviews Nin received for her poetic style and psychological insights were overshadowed by voices of disapproval. Called tedious, abstract, and obscure, Nin’s writing was further attacked as intrusive and editorial in its narrative. Her characters, according to some critics, were unattractively self-absorbed.

In Anai's Nin and the Discovery of Inner Space (1962), scholar Oliver Evans refutes arguments presented by Frank Baldanza in Anais Nin (1962) that Nin’s writing is merely ‘‘pointless, rambling explorations of erotic entanglements and neurotic fears.’’ Evans, in turn, praises Nin’s rhythmic language and psychoanalytic insight. However, Evans evaluates only Nin’s fiction. Criticism in the years that have followed is centered on her multivolume diary.

Criticism of Erotica. To a great extent, Nin’s more recent fame rests on her reputation as a writer of erotica. Much of this attention is the result of the short erotic pieces that were collected and published in the late 1970s as Delta of Venus and Little Birds. Of great interest in 1986 was the appearance of Henry and June: From the Unexpurgated Diary of Anais Nin, which revealed the love triangle involving Nin, Henry Miller, and June Miller. Philip Kaufman adapted this particular section of Nin’s diary for his 1990 film Henry and June.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Nin’s diaries were not originally written with the intention of being published. In this sense, like all diaries, they were not meant to be read in the way her other, crafted work was. In your opinion, is it possible for such work to have literary or artistic merit? If a writer reworks his or her own diaries with an eye toward publication—dramatizing certain elements, improving descriptions, or expanding upon certain insights—does the work lose some of its authenticity as a true living record?

2. Much of Nin’s writing is considered erotic. The same is true of author Henry Miller, with whom Nin had a passionate affair. However, Miller’s novel Tropic of Cancer (1934) was widely praised by critics even as it was banned for its obscene content. Nin’s work remained largely obscure, with her most explicit writing remaining unpublished for several decades. Do you think this represents a fundamental difference in how male and female writers are perceived by readers, or do you think the difference between the two is based mostly on the difference in literary quality of their work? Could the truth lie somewhere in between? Explain your opinion.

3. Nin said, ‘‘Love never dies a natural death.’’ What do you think this quote means? How do you think this reflects Nin’s own experiences with love in her life?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Bair, Deirdre, Anais Nin: A Biography. New York: Putnam, 1995.

Franklin, Benjamin V. and Duane Schneider, Anais Nin: An Introduction. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979.

Hinz, Evelyn J., The Mirror and the Garden: Realism and Reality in the Writings of Anais Nin. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

Jason, Philip K., Anais Nin and Her Critics. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993.

Scholar, Nancy, Anais Nin. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Periodicals

Baldanza, Frank, “Anais Nin.’’ Minnesota Review 2 (Winter 1962): 263-71.

Web sites

LitWeb. Anais Nin Biography and List of Works. Retrieved April 1, 2008, from http://www.litweb.net/biography/445/Anais_Nin.html.