(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

After the seven volumes of The Diary of Anaïs Nin (1966-1980), the four volumes of The Early Diary of Ana is Nin (1978-1985), Henry and June (1986), and Incest (1992), with more volumes of unexpurgated material to come, why would anyone want to attempt the biography of a woman who spent most of her own life creating an intimate self-portrait? There are many answers to this question. One answer is that such an attractive subject needs to be cut down to a manageable size. Noel Riley Fitch’s 410 pages of biographical text do just that; fortunately, this concentration of interpreted information heightens rather than merely reduces its subject. Another answer is that Nin’s diaries are factually unreliable, and a careful researcher such as Fitch (who provides almost eighty pages of acknowledgments and notes) can fill in and emend the record. Finally, Nin’s sense of herself, as recorded in her own words, is illusory. Fitch is able to attend to these image distortions as well as to their causes and effects.

Fitch’s Nin (there will be others) emerges as a woman of dramatic paradoxes. At once (or in turn) vain and insecure, prudish and nymphomaniacal, willful and yielding, Nin managed the pieces of her fragmented nature like an artist working in mosaic. A control freak often ready to fly into pieces, she found her life’s work and worth in a career of self-making centered in the diary enterprise. The discipline of the diary held her together—or at least kept her from further destruction and dispersion. She took William Wordsworth’s dictum that we half create what we perceive and applied it to her very self as much as to the world around her. Fitch’s careful and compassionate study reveals the psychic and textual machinery of this process.

Nin’s life, as Fitch relates it, can be compared to a psychological game of hide-and-seek, with Nin playing both parts. Playing, that is, as in acting. Addicted to disguises and deceits, Nin is a creature of costume, set design, and cosmetic transformation. For her, the domestic skills of sewing and home decorating become the magic of a theater of illusion in which she was eternally the awakened sleeping princess. A single leading man could not bring out the range of possibilities imagined by this woman, who was always experimenting in search of the core self. She was her perfectionist father’s little girl hiding out as junior socialite wife to bank officer Hugh Guiler; lover, supporter, and literary helpmate to vagabond genius Henry Miller; rival and enamorata of Henry’s wife June; patient, assistant, and seductress to psychoanalyst Otto Rank; and (Briefly) mistress to that father by whom she felt abandoned—and this is merely to rehearse her better-known roles. What is most remarkable about this particular group of parts is that during the 1930’s Nin could play many of them in a single day, sometimes before different sets in the same theater.

Although she could momentarily realize herself in each of these parts (and a succession of others), Nin could not find rest in any of them. Some other need led her to make quick escapes and costume changes. Indeed, she made her life so complicated that it seems as if she wanted to trip herself up and be found out. Maybe if she was discovered (or uncovered), she would find the source of her dissatisfactions. In less obvious ways, she sought discovery as a prelude to punishment. She was a woman of many pleasures, but they may have all been rooted in pain and guilt.

Fitch’s major contribution to the understanding of Nin’s often erratic behavior—indeed, one might call this insight the thesis of her book—is the assertion that as a young girl Nin was sexually abused by her father. Nin’s repression and sublimation of this trauma is a key factor in Fitch’s reading of Nin’s oddly patterned existence. It lies behind The Diary of Anaïs Nin as firm’y as the diary lies behind the fiction.

The strength of Fitch’s argument lies more in how well it explains the patterns of Nin’s life and work than in its evidentiary rigor. Only fragments of evidence for the traumatic scene emerge. Yet Fitch’s extrapolation is skilled and compelling. Wisely, she does not make too much of it, and thus she avoids the risk of an absurdly reductive approach. She knows that this buried trauma. while it adjusts the reader’s vision, does not explain everything. It does not account for Nin’s enormous reservoirs of energy and perseverance. It does not make her an admired writer. It does not make her manufactured self a role model for countless women.

Fitch helps readers understand the shaping forces in Nin’s life with a detailed look at Nin’s parents and their families, especially the maternal branch. Nin’s intimate lifelong relationship with her cousin Eduardo Sanchez, whom she considered a kind of double, helps to explain her literary concern with the...

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