Anaïs Nin was born near Paris on February 21, 1903, into an international, aristocratic, and cultured family. Her parents were Joaquin Nin y Castellano, a Spanish composer and pianist, and Rosa Culmell Nin, a classical singer of French and Danish descent. Their marriage was volatile and ended with Joaquin’s desertion for a younger woman. In 1914, the young Anaïs, with her mother and brothers Thorvald and Joaquin, sailed from Barcelona to a new life in New York.
On this journey, Nin began keeping a diary, first as an ongoing letter to her estranged father and then as a detailed record of her experiences and feelings, a record she would maintain throughout her life. The move to the United States was not a happy one for her; she struggled to learn English and felt unwelcome in the impersonal metropolis. An introspective, sensitive, critical, and imaginative child, she attended Catholic school in New York without enthusiasm. At the age of sixteen, after a teacher criticized her writing, she dropped out and pursued self-education in public libraries. Meanwhile, she worked as a model for artists and illustrators to augment her family’s income.
In the early 1920’s Nin studied briefly at Columbia University and spent time with relatives in Havana, Cuba. She fell in love with a New York banker named Hugh Guiler, and the couple was married in Havana in March, 1923. Though the passion of the marriage faded within several years as Nin realized its limitations and developed her identity as a writer, it remained intact and was, in an unconventional way, successful. Guiler, under the name of Ian Hugo, later provided illustrations for his wife’s novels. Nin rarely talked about him, however, and all references to him were edited out of her diary before its first publication in 1966.
Shortly after their marriage, Guiler was transferred to Paris. For Nin it was a return home. In 1924, she saw her father for the first time in a decade and confronted their complex relationship. She continued her self-education and writing, pursued a brief career as a Spanish dancer, and developed many lasting and influential friendships. A teacher named Hélène Boussinescq introduced Nin to modern writers; she and her cousin Eduardo Sánchez shared a fascination with psychological pioneers Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and novelists D. H. Lawrence and Marcel Proust.
Nin’s continuous writing led to her first book, D. H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study, published in Paris in 1932. Financial difficulties she suffered following the stock market crash of 1929 led Nin to relocate to a small house in the Parisian suburb of Louveciennes, where she entertained a steady stream of visiting artists and intellectuals. She became intimate with the emerging American writer Henry Miller and his wife June, and Nin strongly encouraged Miller’s first novel, Tropic of Cancer (1934).
Miller exposed Nin to his underground milieu of gangsters, addicts, and prostitutes. Her interest in the human psyche led her into psychoanalysis, first with the noted French analyst René Allendy and then with Otto Rank, a controversial disciple of Freud. Her other intimates included French theatrical innovator Antonin Artaud, Peruvian musician and revolutionary Gonzalo More, and the young British author Lawrence Durrell. Throughout her life, both in Paris and in the United States, Nin’s social sphere included bright and fascinating figures; these people became like family to her, and she shared their aspirations and struggles.
In 1934, Nin gave birth to a stillborn child, a traumatic experience which led to deeper spiritual and emotional introspection. Later that year, she accepted an invitation to assist Rank in New York and begin a...
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career as a psychoanalyst. She soon became disenchanted with both New York and her promising practice and returned to writing and Paris, where she lived in a houseboat on the Seine and began looking for a publisher for her prose poemHouse of Incest. Finding a publisher proved difficult, however, because her writing was considered too surrealistic and visionary. Nin, Miller, and others in the “Villa Seurat circle” initiated Siana Editions to ensure publication of avant-garde works such as House of Incest (1936). In 1939, she published the novella Winter of Artifice, which focused on a woman’s reunion with her estranged but idolized father.
The imminence of World War II in Europe drove Nin and Guiler back to New York, where publishers were apprehensive about her work, just as European publishers had been. She thus purchased a secondhand, foot-operated printing press and published limited editions of her works from her Greenwich Village apartment. With the publication in 1944 of Under a Glass Bell, a volume of short stories, Nin finally received critical attention. Praise from such noted reviewers as Edmund Wilson validated her literary standing in the eyes of both mainstream readers and established publishers. There followed in succession Ladders to Fire (1946), Children of the Albatross (1947), The Four-Chambered Heart (1950), A Spy in the House of Love (1954), Solar Barque (1958), and Seduction of the Minotaur (1961). With the last two titles considered together, the five novels appeared as a “continuous novel” in 1959 under the title Cities of the Interior.
During this period, Nin traveled across the United States by car, journeyed throughout Mexico, and settled in Los Angeles. Her diary was now a multivolume compilation reflecting a half-century of living, and many of Nin’s friends urged her to publish it. During the 1950’s Nin had become determined to destroy it, but she ultimately sat down to the task of its editing. The first volume appeared in 1966, with publication completed in ten more volumes over two decades. The Diary of Anaïs Nin was an instant literary sensation and made Nin an international celebrity.
Nin received numerous honors and awards, including her 1974 election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She traveled widely—to Asia, North Africa, and the South Pacific—and lectured frequently. She also continued writing, and her publications included Collages (1964), The Novel of the Future (1968), and In Favor of the Sensitive Man, and Other Essays (1976). The threat of cancer led to Nin’s effective retirement in 1974, and the disease finally took her life on January 14, 1977, in her home in Los Angeles. According to her wishes, her ashes were scattered over the Pacific Ocean. The publication of Delta of Venus (1977) and Little Birds (1979), two volumes of short erotic fiction written for a private patron during the 1940’s, placed her for the first time on best-seller lists.
“I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live,” Nin wrote in 1954, responding by letter to a reader’s question. “I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and re-create myself when destroyed by living.” More than most writers, Nin’s work and life were intricately interwoven; through her novels and diary, she created a world ideally suited to her unique sensibility and filled with imagination and insight that speak to generations of readers.
The Nin family broke up in Spain, and in 1914 Rosa Culmell-Nin and her three children, of whom Anaïs was the oldest, left Barcelona for New York City. In 1918 Anaïs, age fifteen, left school, and in 1923 she married Hugh P. Guiler (known as engraver and filmmaker under the name of Ian Hugo). Nin returned to New York City in 1934 from Paris, where she had been living with her husband, to practice psychotherapy briefly under the supervision of Otto Rank. Then, in 1935, she returned to France until 1939, when the approaching war caused yet another removal to the United States. After nearly thirty years of publishing her works without much acclaim, Nin in 1966 began to receive national and international recognition with the publication of The Diary of Anaïs Nin: 1931-1934 (1966). There followed a decade of public appearances and other forms of recognition until her death from cancer in January, 1977.