Anaïs Nin Nin, Anaïs (Vol. 4) - Essay

Nin, Anaïs (Vol. 4)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Nin, Anaïs 1903–

Ms Nin, an American born in Paris, is a novelist, short story writer, literary critic, and diarist. The beautiful, dream-like prose of her novels has long been admired by young people, for whom she is almost a cult figure; but her reputation is most likely to rest on her remarkable diary, five volumes of which have now been published. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14.)

Over the years defenders of Anaïs Nin—myself included—have maintained that whatever the shortcomings of her books, the diaries, their primal source, would one day establish her as a great sensibility. Now here they are, and I am not so certain. Admittedly, she has left out a great deal. Of the two analysts she was going to (1944–47), only one is mentioned. And at least two Meaningful Relationships are entirely omitted. What she has done is shrewdly excerpt those pages which deal with people well known to readers today. The result is not the whole truth but an interesting tour d'horizon of her works and days, loves and hates among the celebrated of lost time, and for me reading her is like a feast of madeleines awash with tea….

At her best, Anaïs Nin can write very beautifully indeed. Suddenly a phrase gleams upon the page: she does notice things, one decides, looking forward to the next line but then the dread flow of adjectives begins and one realizes that she is not seeing but writing. Since she is not a fool, she is aware of her limitations, yet, like the rest of us, she rather treasures them…. Not able to deal with other women, she can only write of herself apostrophized. People exist for her only as pairs of eyes in which to catch her own reflection. No wonder their owners so often disappoint her. They want mirrors, too.

Gore Vidal, "The Fourth Diary of Anaïs Nin," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 26, 1971 (and collected in Homage to Daniel Shays: Collected Essays 1952–1972, by Gore Vidal, Random House, 1972, pp. 403-09).

Cities of the Interior is unmistakably about the characters who are portrayed in its pages. However, in comparison with traditional character presentation and development, Miss Nin's procedures appear perverse. Her characters have no last names. Their faces and their bodies are rarely described, even though their clothing is frequently carefully detailed. The reader often does not know where or with whom they live. Their ages are almost never indicated. These characters possess a fluid quality. One can never be certain when or where they will "turn up," and one never receives any explanation of how or why they have changed one set of life circumstances for another. In short, in Miss Nin's work as in Beckett's, everything that would be carefully explained in a conventional "realistic" novel is ignored or merely summarized. Both authors select for emphasis only those details that pierce the core of any character or situation, and they refuse to acknowledge the claims of any other types of material for expression….

Miss Nin's unorthodox approach to characterization permits her to ignore everything that the reader can easily infer for himself so as to concentrate her energy and skill at making images based upon the exposure of the characters' inner lives, their fears, desires, and conflicts; these areas are exposed by more conventional novelists only by means of the stream-of-consciousness flow or by some variation upon it such as the sous-conversation recently developed by the French novelist Nathalie Sarraute….

Cities of Interior is a collection of distinctly separate but related works of novella length with individual titles: Ladders to Fire, Children of the Albatross, The Four-Chambered Heart, A Spy in the House of Love, and Seduction of the Minotaur. It is described by Miss Nin as a "continuous novel." The various characters, who are often artists, appear and reappear, now one and now another occupying the central position. The order of the component parts of the "continuous novel" does not at all affect one's comprehension of the whole. The individual novellas can, each one, stand quite alone; as parts of a larger entity, they are interchangeable. This is partly because specific chronological references have been avoided and partly because the transitions linking the novellas are so graceful and so fluid that the reader never feels that anything has come to a definitive end.

The structure of Cities of the Interior coincides perfectly with the fluid concept of personality which is reflected in the novel's characters and events. In this dynamic idea of being, the focus is always on the process of becoming, on the Bergsonian notion of personality as constant change. Therefore, the ever-developing and self-modifying structure of the "continuous novel" is the ideal "enclosure," for in effect, it destroys the very idea of enclosure. In such a novel, neither a definite beginning nor an irrevocable ending is implied. New "cities" can always be prefixed, inserted, or added whenever and wherever the author desires. The shape of this novel is never final: it cannot be final within the author's lifetime. The result of the organic quality of Cities of the Interior is a fiction that is at once extremely abstract and intensely personal, for insofar as it reveals, in a depth highly unusual for psychological fiction, the various phases of sexual being, it is theoretical; but insofar as it creates memorable personages, it is descriptive and evocative. Here a balance is maintained between the general and the specific, each enhancing the other, as, indeed, Miss Nin herself claims they ought to do….

Sharon Spencer, in her Space, Time and Structure in the Modern Novel (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1971 by New York University), New York University Press, 1971, pp. 16-19.

Diary IV is a subjective, nonacademic, intuitive attack upon objective, established, scientific critics for their prosaic, political, traditional criticism of poetic, psychological, innovative writing. The work belongs to literary criticism and is a valuable contribution in the iconoclastic, prophetic, and creative way of much of Lawrence's writing….

Much has been written of late about the need for a science of criticism; Diary IV suggests that what is needed even more is a humanistic philosophy of criticism. And it is at bottom in its suggestiveness that the critical value of the work resides. Nin's insights into specific works are frequently inaccurate: Hemingway and Wolfe are grouped with Dreiser; her critical terminology is limited and occasionally confusing—sometimes "reality" is the opposite of "realism"; sometimes it is synonymous. Her conclusions are often over-simplistic. Nor should one "excuse" these failings on the grounds that she never professes to be a professional. But whatever the limitations of her comments of specific texts, her strength is her challenge to the premises of contemporary critical work. One must consider whether the attack she makes on the critical establishment is sufficiently incisive and challenging to be critically stimulating. I believe it is.

Evelyn J. Hinz, in Contemporary Literature (© 1972 by The Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 13, No. 2, Spring, 1972, pp. 256-57.

For five years we have watched unfolding the supreme work of a modern master. Now the fourth installment of Anaïs Nin's Diary has been given to us, another stone in the mosaic, another piece in the puzzle. Who is Anaïs Nin? That is the puzzle she offers us. The only certainty we have is that there is no final answer, no solution to the riddle, no end to the mosaic.

The grand theme of the Diary, as of all Miss Nin's work, is the mystery of personality. It is not a mystery to be solved, but lived. Personality, for Miss Nin, is not a fixed quantum of habits and conditioned reflexes, nor a standard issue of proper values and opinions, a sort of definitive diploma of the soul; and least of all some basic essence, immutable and eternal. It is rather a fluidity to one's own changingness, a sensitive, delicate sculpting of experience, a quality at once attentive and supple: in short, the controlled flow of one's being in the world.

In this, Miss Nin has proved a faithful disciple of her first great master, D. H. Lawrence. But the quality of her approach is utterly different. Lawrence's intuition has often been called feminine; but in the combativeness of his relationships, the proud isolation of his characters, he is almost grimly masculine. Miss Nin herself pinpoints the distinction: "Lawrence wrote against merging. But it is this merging I love and seek." Not merging as Lawrence described it, with his horror of intimacy, but an exchange of equality, an act of freedom. Not clinging, not dependency, but a feminine ideal of true friendship, true loving.

The search for such possibilities of exchange is the particular theme of Volume IV of the Diary. In this book it is a frustrated quest….

[A] bare summary can give little indication of the richness and beauty of Volume IV of the Diary. It will be read as an invaluable document on the New York avant garde, as the source material of Miss Nin's own novels, as an apologia for her own poetics. There are passages of deep sweet clarity on the nature of writing, on the relation of experience to art. But above all it is the odyssey of a great woman's life, a life which presents itself to us now as one of the most serious and important of our time.

Robert Zaller, "The Mystery of Personality," in Prairie Schooner (© 1972 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Summer, 1972, pp. 181-83.

Anaïs Nin. A lady whose diaries are considered her major and brilliant literary work. Not her novels, though we could all make a case for the excellence of those books. But they are not what excites us. And I see her as symbolic of Genet and Artaud when they create the play within the play which makes improvised theater possible. I see her in Mailer when he writes the novel within the commentary or Ronald Sukenick when he writes the novel as a novelist struggling to write the novel. I see her in Olson in his essay on projective verse, where the attempt to explain a new notation and syntax becomes organically that explanation; practically leaves off in mid-sentence to become the voice, the poetry of the voice. I see her in Henry Miller writing a real sociological history of the 20th century in the guise of pornography or his comic sexual fantasies. I see Anaïs Nin a symbol for all of this, her spirit prevailing all this time and helping all the serious experimenters to see their own possibilities. Here is a novelist whose unabashed most serious work is her diary. It is the one thing she has written on almost every day of her life. The one thing which is coherent and brilliantly thematic. One almost feels in retrospect that she wrote her fine little novels and stories to justify continuing to obsessively write her brilliant and exhaustive diaries. Almost, that she lived her life so that her diaries would have the range of content and idea and feeling that they do…. [Here] we have a fine writer whose diaries are her great work of fiction. Whose life becomes an exciting fiction in a way that perhaps none of her invented novels will be. And I don't think it's because the novels and stories are weak but because the diaries are so powerful. And because she allows us to think of the artist as the form-maker rather than the man who trims himself to fit the form….

The delight and surprise of Anaïs Nin's diaries is that they are not indifferent pieces of writing. They [are] full of more innuendo, subtlety, and excitement of character and landscape than we find in most novels. Perhaps we have learned the lesson of the passion of authenticity—that when something actually happens to a writer, he can then use his imagination to reconstruct possibilities for the reader which, unaided by experience, the imagination might not be capable of….

In a powerful novel or story or play or poem, the reader usually gets more of a sense of participation—the formality allowing him to shed his own identity and be a character—than he does reading biographies or letters or histories or diaries. But, for the last few years it has seemed possible only to be involved in literature if we really understood the writer behind it. Sometimes this has created the problem of personality cults. But sometimes it has opened up literature to a wider audience. I think now of Sylvia Plath, a fine poet and indifferent novelist, whose novel became a best-seller because it informed us both about the poet who killed herself, and the magnificent poems which came out of his quirky life. It is ironic to me that the poems, which themselves are/should be the reason we care about Sylvia Plath seem to be poor runners-up for the reader's attention. It's The Bell Jar first and then maybe the poems.

I thought of Anaïs Nin's diaries and how unimportant it is to the reader that she was in important places at important times, that the people she was intimately involved with were famous or exciting in their own right. I thought of how she lived each moment and recorded it as a personal experience. Each story has its own integrity as a story. Each character is Anaïs Nin's character. Each comment is an extension of the life led and intelligently thought out. And you know that it is exciting because it is Anaïs Nin telling you, not because of anything inherent in the places or people or events themselves. And it is not Anaïs Nin's personality we care about, though that personality is an index to the haunting complex perceptions of her work. It is the way that personality becomes itself as the writer of the diaries. It is the writing that is important, not the living. But it is living in such a way that the writing becomes an organic extension of the life that makes the writing so powerful.

Do you realize that Anaïs Nin has made all that possible for some of the best writers?…

In her diaries, she is the most fascinating woman on earth, taking every perception and event and turning them into poems or stories or part of a history so that the reader becomes as obsessed with it as if he were living her life himself. It is the complete fiction of the personal—not personal fiction. Anaïs Nin has given us new possibilities for making life the real work of art. The new poetry, the new fiction, the new journalism, the new theater: they all owe her an enormous debt. Her work is as interesting as she is. And she is the closest thing we have to Venus living among us.

Diane Wakoski, "The Craft of Plumbers, Carpenters & Mechanics: A Tribute to Anaïs Nin," in American Poetry Review, January-February, 1973, pp. 46-7.

With the publication of her "Diary," of which four volumes have appeared since 1966, Anaïs Nin emerged from partial obscurity and took her place among the successful writers of the day who have a fairly wide and faithful public. The publication of the "Anaïs Nin Reader" signals the fact that her work is now extensive enough to warrant an anthology, helpful both to new readers who wish to learn of her work and sample it quickly, and to those older readers who wish to review her work as a whole….

We have come to expect from a major writer a vision of the world that is uniquely his own. On rereading the passages chosen for this anthology from the novels, stories, portraits, essays and the diary, I felt once again that Anaïs Nin has transmitted to us a significant and singularly personal vision. It is a truism to state that novels are a recuperation of the past. Whereas the writing of a novel is an attempt to fill a void in the life of the novelist, the book itself is not about that void. It finds its axis somewhere beyond the void. Miss Nin gives us the impression of writing in order to find herself and in order to recognize and re-create the world that is hers.

The world that holds her is not the physical world that can be described in words and that changes its form with the corrosion of time. Her inner world of the psyche valiantly resists the attacks of time. The part of her writing that might be called narrative is circular and fragile. She testifies on almost every page to something more important for her than storytelling. It is the delineation of a character—especially a female character—caught in a fascinating labyrinthine reality.

The selections of the "reader" confirm the leading characteristic of Miss Nin's art that has often been rehearsed in print by such eminent writers as Edmund Wilson, Lawrence Durrell and William Carlos Williams, namely, the feminine quality of her writing. The long passage from "Seduction of the Minotaur" (1961) is the kind of text revealing the deep subjectivism of woman, the lucidity about herself she manifests in moments of crisis or distress, and her concern with personal relationships. Yet Miss Nin is far from being a psychoanalyst in her writing. The nature of her characters is brought out by their experiences no matter how inconsequential these experiences appear to be….

The appearance of this anthology ["Anaïs Nin Reader"] coincides, appropriately, with a new phase in the courageous career of Miss Nin when critical studies on her themes and style are being undertaken. Her books, iridescent as they are, do not depend on classical construction. They form a counterpoint of confessions and dreams, in which human personality is described more in terms of symbols than of action.

Her first novel, "House of Incest" (1936),… resembles a film-confession of adolescence. All her themes are in it, and many of the major literary influences, which are less visible in later works. Like Rimbaud, she has known seasons in hell. Like Proust, the lover in her novels creates the object of his love. In one of her more recent novels, "Collages" (1964), we find the same fusion of reality and fantasy, of dream and action. Even in the many brilliant portraits of famous people that appear in the "Diary" and in such a work as "Collages," she once more attempts to unite the visible and invisible worlds. In "Collages," the Greek painter Varda's relationship with women is analyzed as a way of speaking of the paintings. Varda's daughter as a child and as a young girl is created out of the writer's imagination. The wonderment of the child figure and the serenity of the adolescent girl are means of making us feel the temperament and the art of the painter….

[A] theme that is central to Anaïs Nin [is] the discovery and preservation of the individual's freedom. It is freedom of the spirit, the ability to turn inwardly and to divest oneself of all counterfeit ideas and sentiments….

Anaïs Nin developed her own language; speaking in terms of a fable, she often ends by exhibiting a truth concealed by the fable. She knows there is a secret reality in each person waiting to be made visible; and, because her unconventional world is not easy to comprehend, she demands the reader's full cooperation. I imagine she would define hell as the absence of authenticity, as concealment. She is the privileged observer, moving from the unformulated intuition to the formulated sentence. The act of writing encourages the birth of awareness in her. Writing is a deliverance from falseness, language the revealer of a particular reality she has sought since age 11 when her diary-writing began.

Wallace Fowlie, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 9, 1973, pp. 26, 28.

The Anaïs Nin Reader is just what is needed now to set the record straight. It demonstrates through its selections that the contributions of Anaïs Nin to the art of fiction are as significant to the literary history of our time as the much heralded diaries….

It is Anaïs Nin herself who makes the most perceptive statement regarding the relation between the two kinds of writing. In her critical book, The Novel of the Future, a selection from which appears in the Reader, Nin writes:

The diary, then, was where I checked my realities and illusions, made my experiments, noted progress or its opposite. It was the laboratory! I could venture into the novel with a sense of psychological authenticity …

The diarist's fiction, however, gives more than psychological authenticity. Rereading the work as it is presented in the Reader—and Phillip K. Jason deserves high praise for his judicious selections—is like taking a journey through a country one has formerly lived in and loved. One realizes one's memory of the first visit was not exact: the reality is more beautiful, richer than one thought. The first selection, for example, is from that early and frequently misunderstood book, House of Incest. Suddenly because Anaïs Nin's work has been, we understand. We know why we had misunderstood. As Nin comments in critical work already mentioned, "The first misunderstanding about my work … was that I was writing dreamlike and unreal stories. My emphasis was on the relation between dream and reality, their interdependence."

Now when we read a passage from House of Incest, how clear it all is. We are used to the interdependence between dream and reality; used to the surrealism, to the irony—and to the myth. Here is the opening paragraph of the novel. We read it today without the shock of the earlier reader. It has taken us decades to grasp this new contemporary sensibility:

The morning I got up to begin this book I coughed. Something was coming out of my throat: it was strangling me. I broke the thread which held it and yanked it out. I went back to bed and said: I have just spat out my heart.

It is this kind of writing, this stunning new awareness of an existential terror that appears time and again in the fiction of Anaïs Nin….

When one reads the excerpts contained in the Reader from the novels Winter of Artifice, Children of the Albatross, Seduction of the Minotaur, or from the important D. H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study, from the reviews of Otto Rank or of Dostoevsky, the early preface to Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, one is impressed with the clarity and essential truth of the writing of Anaïs Nin. It is no small matter that the work that has influenced major writers from the '40s on—in the so-called Underground and along more usual routes—should have emerged with such force from the writer's deep belief in Jung's dictum: "from the dream outward." Anaïs Nin knew the dangers of the closed-in dream. She had written: "Bring me one who knows that the dream without exit, without explosion, without awakening, is the passageway to the world of the dead." But she also knew that the writer who realized the interdependence of the dream and reality would bring "a strong antidote to the incoherence and disintegration of modern man." This is one of the major truths of the poets of our time—American, Latin, European—and it is a major contribution of the novelist-diarist Anaïs Nin, who long ago as a master of the prose poem wrote her "continuous novel" as a City of the Interior. The Anaïs Nin Reader contains enough of that novel for the reader to become familiar with one of the most significant literary modes of our time.

Harriet Zinnes, "Reading Anaïs Nin," in Carleton Miscellany, Fall/Winter, 1973–74, pp. 124-26.

Volume Five, through sensitive editing and a natural development of events in Miss Nin's experience during nine years, is perhaps the most unified and shapely volume of the published diary so far. And it is in some way the most personal fragment, the most mature, the least self-advertising. There is less rambunctious interference with the evangelist's need to save, in the lives of the young, the disturbed and the self-destructive. There assembles before us an increasingly self-defined woman.

William Goyen, "Portrait of the Artist as a Diarist," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 14, 1974, p. 4.

In forty years Anaïs Nin has produced five novels, several short stories, and a prose poem, all arguing the case for the reality, indeed the primacy, of the inner, emotional life. But the writings that most urgently convey her own exultations and illusions are those secreted in the detailed, near-legendary diary she has kept since the age of nine. The [fifth] volume of these intensely feminine, deeply serious revelations … is about the relatively uneventful years 1947–1955….

Throughout, her prose quivers with nervous aliveness as she energetically argues for art and humanity, and displays her unfailing, sometimes unnerving, faith in the Freudian system, emotion, and instinct. Possessed of an acute sensory awareness and a startling intuition, she evidences her vivid writing ability in the quick sketch, the overtone, the nuance. Yet her egoism dominates all, driving her energies inward, until they erupt, transformed into self-idealizations and self-justifications.

Miss Nin withholds nothing, for she is determined to lay bare her own consciousness, tracing the patterns of its deliberate, involuted search for itself. Inevitably, the contours of that private world take on the texture of her own neurosis. Visions of dreams and demons flash through these pages, illuminating her long-suffered strangulation by anxieties, defeats, and sorrows.

In her diary Anaïs Nin has created a retreat—a place, as she says, "to re-create myself when destroyed by living." In the process she has tried to elevate self-contemplation to a high art. But surely only the self-absorbed will be fascinated by this solipsistic quest for healing and wholeness, for they will see themselves in the mirror Miss Nin has held to her soul. And the disenchanted will recognize it as the tiresome work of a querulous bore who cultivates neurosis in hopes of achieving self-realization.

Susan Heath, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), May 4, 1974, p. 52.

Nin is the champion of the feminine inner life—her material, the unconscious mind, the dreamworld and her own evolving identify. The diaries have been presented as bridesmaids' gifts, sell well in college book shops and suburban shopping centers. But for me, Nin's popularity signifies the perpetuation of a female preoccupation with self at the expense of authentic action in the outside world. Discussions of the diaries invariably divide along class lines, with women less privileged or more openly political than Nin finding her demons either inconsequential or boring….

Nin was in the process of mythmaking. In Diary II she spells out fully her notion of the woman artist as the destroyer of "aloneness," whose art is "born in the womb-cells of the mind." She works close to "the life flow," making articulate the subjective and the unconscious. The woman artist is seen as the crucial link between earth elements—both good and demonic—and what Nin calls man's fatal detachment. Diary V, pervaded by nostalgia and a sense of isolation, adds nothing new. The volume reads as through a haze, as if the writer were looking out from inside a glass bell jar…. Diary V is not memorable; I stand with those within the volume who recognize Nin's quality of being not quite there."

Nancy Hoffman, "Serialized Life," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), June 15, 1974, pp. 31-2.