Oh, the Burden, the Anxiety, the Sacrifices

Jenny Diski

  • Anaïs Nin by Deirdre Bair
    Bloomsbury, 654 pp, £20.00, April 1995, ISBN 0 7475 2135 2
  • Conversations with Anaïs Nin edited by Wendy Dubow
    Mississippi, 254 pp, $37.95, December 1994, ISBN 0 87805 719 6

Although it’s counter-intuitive, neither sex nor the pursuit of self were inventions of the 20th century. In his snatch of vérité during the film Reds, Henry Miller hazarded the view that people have always done a lot of fucking. Montaigne settled to his solitary task of reflective self-examination in the mid-16th century. Sex and the self as subjects for investigation share the characteristic of always making their examiners feel like pioneers in uncharted territory. Either because of this, or because what there is to know is naturally limited, the data don’t so much accrete over time as repeat themselves.

It could be said that in this century the invention of psychoanalysis has changed the study of sex and of self by providing a structure in which the two can combine (in the manner of DNA, as it were) to produce a boundless variety of understandings. Or it may be that psychoanalysis has merely provided us with an excuse to remain stuck in the revolving door of self-absorption. According to Deirdre Bair, ‘sex, the self and psychoanalysis’ are three of the concepts that have brought ‘sweeping societal change’ to our century. She doesn’t say whether we should rejoice over this, or wonder in dismay if solipsism hasn’t become the plughole down which this century will gurgle. It is, however, her reason for choosing Anaïs Nin as her third biographical subject, after Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett.

Bair is not making a case for re-evaluating Nin’s fiction. Her claim is that although Nin was ‘not an original thinker’ and a ‘minor writer whose novels are seldom read these days’, she nonetheless merits a substantial biography because a life as ‘rich and full’ as hers enables ‘the rest of us to understand the chaotic century that is now winding down’. This argument might apply to any number of individuals whether disregarded novelists or not, but very few were so compulsive in their anatomising of self as to leave, as Nin did, 250,000 handwritten pages of diary for a biographer to trawl through.

What does the notion of a rich and full life spanning the years from 1903 to 1977 conjure up? Being at the centre of great political and economic movements? Witnessing two of the most cataclysmic wars in history? Synthesising the experience of these into illuminating work? This isn’t Nin’s way. Wars, economic collapse, holocaust and revolution barely rate a mention in the quarter-million pages of her diary. The world is outside her remit. Nin’s universe, like her fiction, terminates at the boundaries of her own skin, like nerve-endings; the outside environment exists only where it stimulates or articulates her private sense of identity. The rich and full life that merits our study is the daily emotional and sexual life-story of an ego, self-consciously honing itself to represent inferiority as the discovery of the age. As an adolescent, Nin was writing in her diary that school was a waste of time: ‘I learn things that I don’t want to learn, and sometimes I am afraid of losing entirely the delicate and exquisite mental picture that I have of the beauty of things around me.’ Which is as it should be at such an age. The problem is that the tone of the diary doesn’t alter over the decades. The world never develops beyond its function as a mirror for her own exquisite and distorted mental processes.

Nin’s vivid life consisted largely of having affairs, in Paris and New York, with notable people and of recounting them in exhaustive detail in her diaries; or as a student put it to Deirdre Bair, ‘Nin had a lot of sex and lied a lot.’ If Henry Miller was her most famous paramour, there were also encounters with Otto Rank, Antonin Artaud, Norman Bel Geddes (‘the P.T. Barnum of design’), George Barker and innumerable sub-luminaries of the literary world. Like Miller, many of them were supported financially by Nin, or more accurately, by her besotted husband Hugo, who on marrying Anaïs had the great good sense to become a banker rather than the poet he had hoped to be. Even with a substantial salary, Hugo was unable to keep up his wife’s payouts without eventually falling into massive debt. This translates at the height of Nin’s popularity in 1969 to the following description in the Boston Globe: ‘Although poor herself, and living on a pittance, she supported materially and emotionally a whole extended family of down-and-out artists, musicians, writers and revolutionaries, some geniuses, others sponging wastrels.’ Nin had a somewhat unreconstructed notion (considering that she became a heroine of the early feminists) that it was a woman’s role to provide support for creative men, but at the same time understood very well the power of the purse strings. When Miller briefly found himself earning money as an analyst in New York he resisted returning to Paris as Nin wanted him to; but according to Bair, ‘Henry’s fear of losing Anaïs’s steady stipend proved stronger than his confidence about supporting himself,’ and he sailed back to Europe.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in