Nin’s life and writings span and reflect a good part of the twentieth century. Her work as a whole is less broad in terms of style and technique than it is deep; she was very concerned with certain themes and issues and explored them with imagination and rigor through her writing.
A central question for Nin was the role of women in modern society and their relationships to men and to one another. Nin wrote from an insistently feminine perspective—not out of a precious or meek femininity but rather from a keen awareness of women’s psychic and social dependence on and involvement in a male-dominated culture and their continual struggle for identity and independence as women. Through the heroines appearing and reappearing in her stories and novels—Stella, Djuna, Lillian, and Sabina—Nin applied careful and sensitive introspection to women and their modes of artistic, spiritual, emotional, and sensual expression and their roles as daughters, lovers, and autonomous individuals. These explorations mirrored and expanded upon specific issues in Nin’s own life, as an abandoned daughter, an ambivalent wife, and a woman writer putting forth a unique, and uniquely feminine, voice into an overwhelmingly male literary tradition.
She did, however, know that tradition well. Through her personal studies, she had read and appreciated many of its greatest writers, both in French—François Rabelais, Gustave Flaubert, and Victor Hugo—and in English—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Her true literary mentors were Marcel Proust and D. H. Lawrence. Though French was Nin’s first language, she used it only in her early diaries; upon her arrival in New York, she vigorously applied herself to mastering English and never left it once she had succeeded. Her narrative voice remains truly international; her stories, like her life, are set primarily in New York and Paris milieus of artists, polyglots, and expatriates, where national identities fade and universal human qualities come into focus.
Unlike many writers in the European literary tradition, Nin eschewed conventional notions of plot, language, characterization, and style and responded rather to development in other artistic disciplines. Whereas she basically distrusted words because of their ability to obfuscate or lie, she loved and had an inherent faith in music and art. Her musical family certainly influenced her, and her experiences with commercial art, professional dance, and artists and sculptors such as André Breton, Salvador Dali, and Yanko Varda acquainted her with the principles of surrealism and reinforced her faith in the power of sensually evocative images. Her writing is infused with such images, as well as with the rhythms and suggestions of both jazz and classical music.
An equally strong influence was Nin’s involvement with the practice of psychoanalysis. As both a subject and an analyst working with articulate and strong-minded theoreticians in the growing discipline, Nin developed a keen and untiring sensitivity to the details and dynamics of human behavior. The careful scrutiny she attained through introspection applied equally well to observation of others. In terms of her writing, “character” is not a static or fixed entity but a reflection of the constant flux of life. Her characters, while being distinct individuals, exhibit a multiplicity of personality: They are mutable, they embody contradictions, and they are capable of dramatic transformations which nevertheless sustain their inherent integrity. Nin knew the theater and had performed in both films and dances; she recognized the potential in any individual to act, to become, and to wear costumes and masks, intentionally or not, that create unique patterns of behavior. The sequencing and spontaneous alteration of such patterns ultimately determine personality and character.
In a corresponding manner, Nin was never concerned with linear plot, logical ordering, or precise chronology. Rather than painstakingly structure her stories and novels, she would determine the starting premises of a work—the possibilities of characterization, the themes, the recurring motifs or images—and then improvise, determining many of the plot specifics as she progressed. As a result, readers expecting a conventionally composed story will be disappointed, for the movement that Nin achieves is less from a beginning to an end than from a surface to a center, or from an interior seed to an expansive truth. One of her favorite dicta, taken from the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, was “proceed from the dream outward.”
As both analyst and writer, Nin was fascinated with dreams. She often used her own dreams as a source of ideas and images for her writing. Dreams seemed to her a tunnel into the inner world of emotion, which is the world that she sought to portray. Adapting the principles of Emersonian Transcendentalism as well as the stream-of-consciousness and interior monologue techniques of novelists James Joyce and Virginia Woolf to her own sensibility and vision, Nin focused on a psychological reality only tangentially related to appearances and surfaces. In her works, the phenomenological world is little more than dressing on the true reality of emotion and soul. Fact is subjugated to feeling, and sensory experience is less important in itself than for the images and perceptions it suggests in the complex labyrinth of personality.
Nin ultimately left the practice of psychoanalysis to devote her full energies to writing. As the volume of her work attests, writing was a deeply felt need. It helped her to articulate and capture the fleeting past as well as to formulate decisions and attitudes for the future. Through the steady practice of writing, at first spontaneously and intuitively, she naturally arrived at the elements of craft—the criteria by which artistic decisions are made. Her journey as a writer was from first-to third-person narrative, from introspection to outward vision, from obscurity to fame, and from innocence and insecurity to wisdom and courage.
For years, even after her literary stature and widespread recognition were established, Nin’s writing was often criticized as murky, meaningless, solipsistic, neurotic, and inaccessible. Readers often lack the patience and imagination—that is, the ability to formulate and respond to images—that her writing requires. Yet millions of readers, especially women and adolescents, have found a personal truth in the psychological reality that Nin depicts. People and relationships were crucial to her, and she strove to create a unique connection with every individual she encountered; “I would like to meet the whole world at once,” she wrote. The same individual connection is the goal of her writing.
House of Incest
First published: 1936
Type of work: Novel
In a dreamlike and mutable landscape of haunting images, a struggle occurs to liberate the self from the tyranny of neurosis and narcissism.
House of Incest was Nin’s first published work of fiction. Though she was thirty-three years old when it was published and had been writing continuously for two decades, it exhibits the youthfulness of a first work in both its indulgence and its freedom. Nin called House of Incest a “prose poem” rather than a novel and, referring to a work by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, “a woman’s Season in Hell.” She also took inspiration from Octave Mirbeau’s 1898 painting Le Jardin des supplices (The Garden of Tortures). The seven sections of House of Incest, each headed with a figure or glyph of distantly suggested astrological or mythological significance, can be seen as the seven days of creation, seven heavens, or seven hells. Rather than a story, this prose poem is a series of images and parables united by thematic patterns.
Written in the first-person voice in a highly poetic and imagistic idiom, House of Incest relates the inner experiences and sensations of a woman, or perhaps several women, in the House of Incest. Given Nin’s views of the multiplicity of personality, resolving the single or multiple nature of the protagonist is less relevant than the nature of the various interactions described. The narrative begins with the protagonist’s description of her birth, experienced as an emergence from a primordial sea.
It goes on to depict two dramatic situations: an obsessive lesbian relationship involving the dependent narrator, Jeanne, and her dismissive lover, named Sabina, and Jeanne’s guilt-ridden incestuous pursuit of and flight from her brother. The narrator then encounters cryptic figures and herself becomes a dancer deprived of her arms even as she achieves, in the closing paragraphs, harmony with her world and hope for freedom....
(The entire section is 3629 words.)