Anaïs Nin’s diaries told of an independent, bohemian woman on a sensual and artistic journey – carousing with expats in Paris in the 30s and Greenwich Village’s artistic milieu in the 40s – but was much of it a type of performance art? Secretly financed by her banker husband, committing bigamy, Nin seemed to lead several lives at once…
Carousing with bohemians in Paris and New York, inspiring writers and artists of the avant-garde, writing erotic fiction and having sex, a LOT of sex— Hey, the life of Anaïs Nin doesn’t sound half bad.
But which of her many lives are we talking about here? The life she shared with the world through her published diaries was only one of the many she lived, and these lives were often at odds with each other. From early on, she meticulously crafted a persona of a free-spirited, independent woman on a sensual and artistic journey to self-discovery, battling wits and making a name for herself in a world of writers dominated by men. She shared this idealized persona with the world in her published diaries, the first volume of which appeared in 1966.
Favorably reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review as “a rich, various and fascinating work,” the first printing of 3,000 copies sold out within in weeks, as did a second run of 2,500 copies. In total, the first volume of the diary, according to Nin’s biography, “sold a respectable number of copies in hardcover, around 10,000.” As subsequent volumes (seven in total) were published between 1967 and 1977, Nin was proffered numerous requests for interviews and speaking engagements, keeping her on a busy lecture tour. People were engrossed in Nin’s life, and why wouldn’t they be after getting a glimpse into the personal reflections of a real bohemian artiste?
Ah, but there’s the rub. Diaries are generally considered a private and intimate self-correspondence, often hidden or locked away from the world. Nin, however, took a different approach. That is, she carefully edited her diaries to fashion her now-famous image and freely and openly shared it with anyone and everyone. In some ways, her diaries were just as much fiction as her novels and stories. Even so, her devoted readers took them as gospel. Many women readers, in fact, saw themselves (or who they wished they could be) in the “I” of Nin’s diary pages, which were filled with passionate descriptions of a life fully lived.
Before finding literary success, Anaïs Nin (1903-1977) struggled for years to be taken seriously as a writer. Even her nom de plume was carefully crafted from her birth name: Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmell. Her first publication, D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study (1932), was a small study of the novelist that she felt compelled to write after reading his Lady Chatterley’s Lover. While much of the world was condemning the novel for its explicit portrayals of sex—and, in some place, including the United States, banning it as obscene—Nin praised Lawrence for writing honestly about the true desires within us that needed to be explored. She wrote, “Imprisoned in our flesh lives the body’s own genie, which Lawrence set out to liberate. He found that the body had its own dreams, and that by listening attentively to these dreams, by surrendering to them, the genie can be evoked and made apparent and potent.”
Never before had Nin read an author who had “so wholly and completely expressed woman accurately.” She realized she wanted to do the same thing, by exploring and acting on all of her sexual desires in both her life and her writing and surrounding herself with others who lived by the same credo. This is the life depicted in Nin’s diaries, which are packed with anecdotes to make any aspiring artist swoon. Carousing with expat writers in Paris in the 1930s and Greenwich Village’s artistic milieu in the 1940s, her diaries open with her relationship with, and patronage of, then struggling writer Henry Miller and his seductive and wild wife June.
We follow Nin as she delves into the world of psychoanalysis with Rene Allendy and Otto Rank both in Paris and New York, where we learn about her intense issues related to her father and see her begin to practice as an unlicensed psychoanalyst at Rank’s New York office, her consultations sometimes included having sex with her patients. We follow Nin as she makes her way from the East to the West Coast, hanging out with the Beats, and experimenting with LSD. We are exposed to first-person accounts of some of the most intriguing personalities of the 20th century, as Nin had a penchant for immersing herself, if not anticipating, the zeitgeist.
Anaïs Nin’s ability to write openly and frankly about her desires and experiences, something not thought “acceptable” for a woman of her time, set her apart. Her erotica, much of which was written in the 1940s for a private collector who paid a dollar per word, was re-published just after her death in two collections, Delta of Venus (1977) and Little Birds (1979). They have been praised by critics for bringing a uniquely female voice to the genre and Delta of Venus became Nin’s first bestseller, albeit posthumously. All this makes for a portrait of a fiercely independent spirit, a driven woman, flamboyantly grabbing life by the balls and thriving in male-dominated artistic circles.
It’s not surprising, then, that fans and critics were put off to learn that the source of this “independence” came from not only a man, but a man who Nin had been married to since 1923 and who had been making his money as a banker. Hugh Guiler, known as Hugo, is never mentioned in the edited diaries though Anaïs remained married to him until her death. While Nin claimed that this was at Hugo’s behest, critic Claudia Roth Pierpont asserted in a 1993 New Yorker essay that to be a banker’s wife was an “embarrassing bourgeois condition,” one that didn’t fit with the persona Nin had crafted, and so she simply edited it out.
It can be hard to reconcile the image of a bourgeois wife of an American banker with the flamboyant bohemian seductress we’ve come to know through her diaries. Even Henry Miller was cautious when he first met Nin, thinking her too high class and demure to be approached (obviously, he was mistaken). The extent to which Hugo was involved in her life and privy to her affairs was revealed in the unexpurgated version of Nin’s diaries, published in 1986, almost a decade after her death by Rupert Pole, Nin’s literary executor and husband from 1955 to 1966.
“But wait,” you may be wondering, “how could she have been married to Pole while she was already married to Hugo Guiler?” Well that’s because, among many other things, our dear Anais was also a bigamist.
The unexpurgated diaries cover a similar timeline of events as the edited version but contain a heck of a lot more explicit sex between Nin and other writers, her therapists, patients whom she saw while practicing psychoanalysis, and her father (which, while no doubt troubling, deserves to be looked at in light of Nin’s life-long psychological battle with overcoming his early rejection of the family to pursue his own sexual exploits). Nin’s first work of fiction, House of Incest (1936), reflected this conflict. To complicate matters further, a thoroughly researched biography by Deirdre Bair that appeared in 1995 painted an even more complex portrait of a woman battling the residual demons of childhood abuse and struggling to maintain several lies she crafted in pursuit of artistic acclaim and male admiration.
Suddenly, it seemed to some that Nin wasn’t just engaging in all that sex as a means to self-discovery, but as a tool to ensure she got what she wanted. Her diaries, too, were seen as a means of manipulation. Recording a version of herself in them that did not necessarily match what others saw on the outside—a prim and beautiful but fragile woman—she purposefully showed them to men like Miller, tempting them to peer into what was presumed to be her most intimate thoughts. Roth Pierpont termed this Nin’s “selective journal recital,” explaining that “What appeared to be an impulsive revelation of a young woman’s bursting heart was actually a rather well-practiced strategy.”
The diaries, then, became almost performance art, a tool of seduction.
Here is an excerpt of a long interview of Nin conducted by Studs Terkel, in which she addresses the making of her own “legend”.
And they were an effective tool, as Nin has been romantically linked with, besides Miller, Lawrence Durrell, John Steinbeck, Edmund Wilson, James Agee and even Gore Vidal. But to say that this was their sole function would be a discredit to Nin, and wouldn’t explain the continued interest in her writing (Volume One of the diary is still in publication) or her endurance as an inspiring figure, style icon, and quotable composer.
Though some find the doctoring of diaries to be deceitful and problematic, it can also be taken as a symptom of the inherent conflict that arises when trying to live one’s dreams out in the confines of reality. Throughout the diaries, Nin in no way denies that she leads multiple lives, nor that it’s an easy task. “How difficult it is to be ‘sincere’,” she writes, “when each moment I must choose between five and six souls.” And this truth—the truth that we all have versions of ourselves we choose to reveal at different moments, that what we desire to be doesn’t always align with our current occupation or station in life, that the self you are born as can change, suffer, evolve and take on multitudes of shapes—is perhaps ubiquitous enough to matter more than the biographical details.
“I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live,” Nin explained in an essay on writing. “I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me – the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living. That, I believe, is the reason for every work of art.”
Here’s a clip of Nin explaining her philosophy:
Nin had her own reasons for writing and re-writing her own life into something more palatable, ranging from her troubled relationship with her father to her own narcissism. But the feeling that she needed to be creating something in order to survive is a feeling most artists can identify with, and her total commitment is enviable to those who wish they could make art with the same total abandonment.
If we do think about other art forms, like music, Anaïs Nin’s shtick doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Especially in the second-half of the 20th century when genres like punk, glam, folk, disco, grunge, and rap are as much lifestyle as a specific sound. In the 1970s, there was no shortage of people curating personas in the Bowery, and it’s no wonder that Anaïs Nin is often mentioned in the same breath as other iconic women who made their own way in a male-dominated world, like Patti Smith or Kathy Acker. Interestingly, these are the same women who seemed to first be held up as examples of transgressive females and then torn down by those looking to identify them with a political cause.
Nin, like Smith, never considered herself a feminist. But when we admire someone, we tend to want them to stand for something, to have a creed that we can get behind. If Nin lived by any philosophy, it was to be in constant pursuit of one’s dream and to create a world you wish to see yourself thriving in. She can hardly be faulted for knowing exactly who she wanted to appear as, what kind of life she wanted to lead, and then committing to the portrayal of that persona until her death. I mean, isn’t that what most people are doing on Instagram?
Nin famously wrote, “We don’t see people as they are. We see people as we are.” Whether the life we read about is “true” or not, she made her self into a canvas of sorts and became who we need her to be. Through reading her, we get to be a little bit closer to her wild world of art, passion, and controversy. A life without those things just seems boring.