By Deirdre Bair.
Illustrated. 654 pp.
G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $39.95.
HER mother was a wealthy Cuban of Danish and French extraction who pampered her throughout her childhood in France, Belgium, Spain and Queens, and into adulthood. Her father was a Spanish pianist whose abandonment of the family impelled her to write him a letter. That letter took the form of a diary, begun in 1914 when she was 11, that would eventually run to a quarter-million pages and remain the center of Anais Nin’s existence until her death in 1977.
In this engaging new biography, Deirdre Bair draws not only on the expurgated Diary of Anais Nin, which appeared between 1966 and 1985, but also on Nin’s original diary manuscripts, as well as on letters and interviews. These sources indicate that the published Diary is in many ways fictional, that the supposedly “unexpurgated” diary volumes published as Henry and June (1986) and Incest (1992) were heavily edited, and that Nin’s self-portrait in the Diary represented a serious distortion.
Nin was, for example, even more self-absorbed than the Diary might suggest — a trait encouraged, Ms. Bair shows, by the uncritical devotion of Nin’s mother and of Hugh (Hugo) Guiler, the adoring young American banker whom Nin married in 1923. Hugo, who thoroughly indulged her desire, in Ms. Bair’s words, “to be insulated from life’s harsh realities” and to live what Nin called “a dream made real,” also tolerated his wife’s obsession with her diary, agreeing early on to spend his evenings listening as she read old entries aloud. Nin, who found Guiler sexually unsatisfactory, did not return his loyalty; after their 1924 removal from New York to Paris, she began a lifelong series of sexual derelictions, flirting shamelessly at Hugo’s business parties (in response, he “apologized for forcing her to subject her artistic soul to an evening with the Philistines of Mammon”), coupling with her father (who lamented, after sleeping with his 30-year-old daughter, “What a tragedy…. I have finally met the woman of my life and it is my daughter”), sleeping (or so she claimed) with her brother Thorvald, putting the moves on her brother Joaquin’s spiritual counselor and seducing most of her psychoanalysts (including an infatuated Otto Rank, who sent patients to her for treatment). Did Nin feel guilty about any of this? If so, she had a ready excuse: she was an artist, and artists didn’t follow rules. Hugo agreed, writing in his own journal that Anais was “not merely an artist. She is the definition of art. Therefore, she cannot make mistakes. Whatever she does with that instinct burning in her, and it burns unceasingly, an immortal flame, is right, becomes right, for it is she who does it.”
It was in 1931 that Nin met Henry Miller and, drawn by his salacious fiction and starving-artist persona, became, for him, a combination disciple, publicist and cash machine. Impregnated by either Henry or Hugo, she took medication to induce an abortion, had a stillborn girl and made diary entries that reveal a chilling inhumanity. (“Here,” she said when Miller visited her in the hospital and announced his forthcoming book, “is a birth which is of greater interest to me.”) Equally chilling is her indifference to fascism’s rise. War presented a decision: live in England with Hugo or escape to America with Henry? “She persuaded herself that she was racked with conflict,” Ms. Bair says, “when in truth it was a choice she made easily.”
In New York, where Hugo presently joined her, Nin churned out pornography (some of which became her posthumous best seller Delta of Venus) and mixed with young gay men, who, Ms. Bair reports, later said she had “tried to seduce them in exchange for a few bucks”; from 1945 to 1947 she dallied with adolescents, urging one 18-year-old “to leave Yale and break with his parents so that he too could live in the dream.” (This liaison abruptly ended when the boy’s father threatened to have her deported.) Nin saw no alternative to this cradle-robbing; as she viewed it, her husband was aging and she wasn’t.
In these years Nin’s published output consisted mainly of autobiographical novels issued by small presses, including her own Gemor Press in New York. Though a 1944 New Yorker review by Edmund Wilson (who would soon become another Nin bedmate) won her serious attention, she remained essentially a marginal literary figure; meanwhile, Hugo’s part-time efforts as an engraver and filmmaker began to earn him more critical acclaim than she had ever received. His wife worried: would he become their marriage’s “creative center”?
Perhaps partly to escape this fate, Nin took infidelity to new imaginative heights. From 1948 onward, she played an astonishing game, spending part of each year in New York with Hugo and part in Los Angeles with a young man named Rupert Pole (whom she illegally wed in 1955), and telling each man he was her only spouse. This bicoastal charade required countless falsehoods, which she kept straight in a secret “Lie Box.” Unable to stop living the lie — which, Ms. Bair notes, “would mean the ultimate failure of her entire life, an admission that it was impossible to ‘live the dream’ ” — she kept it up until her death, of cancer, in 1977. In her obituary in The New York Times, Hugh Guiler was listed as her husband; The Los Angeles Times listed Rupert Pole. By then, the published Diary had made her a feminist heroine — an odd fate for someone who felt that learning to flirt had “helped me to become a woman,” who maintained that “women see themselves as in a mirror, in the eyes of the men who love them,” and who responded to the intellectuality of Virginia Woolf’s writing by saying that Woolf wrote “like a man.”
Silly? Yes. Offensive? Indubitably. Yet it’s hard to be too tough on Nin, whose supposed “dream life” was in fact one of fear, guilt, loneliness, insecurity and
fragmentation. In the end, one feels for this aging flirt who was so stressed out by her double-dealing that she took sleeping pills nightly, who bought multiple copies of every magazine containing an article about her, and whose typical reaction to people “happy and fully integrated into their lives” was, as Ms. Bair writes, “to devalue them.” Though Nin claimed her goal was to offer the world “one perfect life,” the only “perfect” thing in that life would seem to have been the love of two remarkable men, Hugo Guiler and Rupert Pole (who, after her death, established a civilized relationship with each other and served as joint keepers of the flame). Yet she rewarded them by lying, by omitting both marriages from her published Diary and by driving Hugo into debts that wrecked his career. A Freudian might say that Nin sought love everywhere to compensate for paternal abandonment, and that she betrayed and exploited Hugo because she had transferred to him her hostility toward her.father. In any event, Nin achieved little self-understanding. “I gave so much to others!” she boasted in a late diary entry, insisting that she’d been the kindest, most generous of women. (In a rare lapse of judgment, Ms. Bair agrees that this “was certainly true.”)
Anais Nin has little claim to literary immortality. Her Diary, by far her best work, is most impressive when she is describing places or relating encounters with ordinary people like launderers and cabbies. Yet its intellectual vacuity eventually makes the Diary feel arid; she rarely seems capable, moreover, of imagining other people’s feelings, comprehending what makes them tick or (for that matter) seeing very far beyond how they feel about her. The self-absorption that made the Diary possible ultimately crippled her as an artist.
Ms. Bair, who has also written biographies of Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir, doesn’t make excessive claims for Nin’s literary importance, yet she considers her a key figure, a precursor of current trends and controversies. “The 20th century,” she maintains, “will be remembered for many concepts that brought sweeping societal change, and Anais Nin was among the pioneers who explored three of the most important: sex, the self and psychoanalysis. When future generations seek to understand how these evolved in our time, Anais Nin will be the major minor writer whose work they must consult.”
Anais Nin, pioneer of social concepts? On the contrary, few people have been more impervious to the conceptual or less interested in society (except as an
audience). If Nin is remembered at all, it will not be as a pioneer but as a colorful peripheral character who embodied, in an extreme form, some of the more unfortunate distinguishing characteristics of our age: an obsession with fame; a zeal for self-advertisement; a tendency to confuse art and self-expression; a rejection of intellect in favor of feeling; a romantic glorification
of neurosis, selfishness and irresponsibility. This book’s ultimate irony may be that Ms. Bair has captured Anais Nin with a psychological insight and a critical intelligence that Nin herself never possessed.
NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW