Anaïs Nin (Magill's Literary Annual 1996)
This work by Deirdre Bair is the second, and probably not the last, of the full-dress biographies of Anaïs Nin. The first, Noël Riley Fitch’s Anaïs: The Erotic Life of Anaïs Nin (1993), was widely and deservedly praised for unveiling the complexities of Nin’s fragmented, duplicitous life. Reading between the lines of Nin’s own writings and gathering insights from dozens of people who had known Nin well, Fitch developed a thesis about the childhood origins of Nin’s erratic behavior and about the functions served by Nin’s diaries and fictions in maintaining her marginal stability. Nothing that Fitch hypothesized is contradicted by Bair’s investigation, though now Nin’s life and its connection to her art are more minutely revealed.
Bair has worked with an advantage unavailable to Fitch and perhaps not likely to be available on the same scale to future biographers (except for Evelyn Hinz, who for two decades has had something like proprietary rights as Nin’s “official” biographer). This advantage is access to Nin’s original manuscript diaries as well as their several layers of revision and excision. A shrewd and patient detective, Bair has detailed the ways in which Nin manipulated the diary materials to suit her changing sense of self and of their importance as literary documents.
Yet that is not all. Bair has given readers an astoundingly rich context within which to view Nin’s complex relationships. First, having gained the confidence of living descendants of the Nin and Culmell families, she has amassed more material on Nin’s family background than had previously seen print. To see the young Anaïs in the light of her mother’s sisters, for example, enriches one’s sense of Nin forming herself against a curious spectrum of female exemplars. Readers learn more about the breakup of Nin’s parents’ marriage, more about the places of Nin’s youth, and more—at every stage of her life—about her important friendships with women. They learn more about her brothers, Joaquin and Thorvald, and more about cousin Eduardo Sanchez, her soulmate. Readers learn more, too, about the specific role of analysis in her life and the contributions of different analysts to her fevered search for security, wholeness, inner strength, and the always-elusive decisiveness.
Bair treats the scandalous 1930’s, when Nin was betraying her husband not only with Henry Miller but also with her analysts—first René Allendy and then Otto Rank—and even with her father, with remarkable constraint. These men, too, readers come to know better than they had been able to do heretofore. Also, readers discover more about Nin’s relationship with Gonzalo Moré, her houseboat lover with whom she later, in New York, founded Gemor Press. Though Fitch handled this series of adul- teries with more dramatic flair, there is a place for Bair’s cooler, more distanced style.
Most important, readers come much closer than ever to knowing Nin’s lifelong silent partner, husband Hugh Guiler. Bair’s portrait still leaves some shadowy mysteries surrounding Guiler, but his own particular mix of strengths and insecurities, kindness and frustration, practicality and whimsy is rendered with vividness and compassion. Knowing him better, readers know Anaïs better. Knowing more about his world, they know more about what she found herself able to accept from it—and what she would always reject. Witnessing his transition from businessman to artist (engraver and filmmaker), readers come to respect Guiler’s capacity for growth and his constant effort to make himself into the kind of perfect husband he had aspired to be from the beginning.
Throughout this study, but particularly in dealing with the marriage of Hugh and Anaïs Nin Guiler, Bair is able to mass a mountain of verifiable facts, including financial facts, the exposure of which would have driven Nin to even further distraction than did the constant threat of exposure during her decades of subterfuge. Driven to fabricate a self, to please everyone, to defy convention in several ways, Nin made an enemy of fact. In her years of fame, Nin denigrated both the popular clamor for details about her life and the critical enterprise than would pin her down. She made a romantic virtue of being above what she would call “mere facts,” but only because she was so haunted by them, her carefully constructed image being vulnerable to the facts that would (she feared) shatter it. Though she accused her detractors, and even her fans, of being obsessed with facts, Nin herself was obsessed with the labyrinth of lies she spun to conceal those facts. As Bair makes clear, those facts were often unattractive—and Nin sought an image of alluring perfection.
Nin’s career-long argument with literary realism must be seen in the light of her life problems with fact. Her pursuit, in her fictions, of...
(The entire section is 1999 words.)
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Anaïs Nin (Magill Book Reviews)
Bair has worked with an advantage unavailable to previous biographers. This advantage is access to Nin’s original manuscript diaries as well as their several layers of revision and excision. A shrewd and patient detective, Bair has detailed the ways in which Nin manipulated the diary materials to suit her changing sense of self and of their importance as literary documents.
Bair has also provided an astoundingly rich context within which to view Nin’s complex relationships. having gained the confidence of living descendants of the Nin Culmell families, she has amassed more material on Nin’s family background than has previously seen print. To view the young Anais in the light of her mother’s sisters, for example, enriches readers’ sense of Nin forming herself against a curious spectrum of female exemplars. Readers learn more about the break-up of Nin’s parents’ marriage, more about the places of Nin’s youth, and more—at every stage of her life— about her important friendships with women. There is more information about her brothers, Joaquin and Thorvald, and more about cousin Eduardo Sanchez, her soulmate. Bair reveals more, too, about the specific role of analysis in her life and of the contributions of different analysts to Nin’s fevered search for security, wholeness, inner strength, and the always elusive decisiveness.
Nin’s simultaneous affairs with Henry Miller, Otto Rank, and her own father are recorded with remarkable detachment, as are Nin’s later years on her bicoastal “trapeze” between Hugh Guiler and Rupert Pole. Bair has managed to find the tortured human heart beneath the monstrous self-absorption beneath the many alluring masks of this intriguing and perplexing artist.
Sources for Further Study
Library Journal. CXX, February 1, 1995, p. 75.
London Review of Books. XVII, April 20, 1995, p. 22.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 21, 1995, p. 2.
New Statesman and Society. VIII, June 23, 1995, p. 43.
The New York Times Book Review. C, March 5, 1995, p. 10.
Newsweek. CXXV, March 20, 1995, p. 65.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, February 6, 1995, p. 71.
The Times Literary Supplement. June 30, 1995, p. 4.
The Washington Post Book World. XXV, April 16, 1995, p. 3.
Women’s Review of Books. XII, July, 1995, p. 21.