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Nin, Anaïs 1903–1977
Parisian-born American novelist, short story writer, critic, and diarist, Nin is probably best known for her published diary. She became almost a cult figure from her earliest days of publication, and her reflections on the feminine experience made her a leading presence for a faction of the feminist movement. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 69-72.)
Though Colette is a far more comprehensive and satisfying novelist than Anaïs Nin, at least for most tastes, both partake of the consciously 'feminine' tradition in fiction: their work is apt to deal in extended examinations of woman's character and nature, is highly subjective and personal, often autobiographical, is structured in poetic and intuitive ways rather than by any sort of abstract scheme … and has nearly as many ellipses as Céline. As with Anna Kavan or Djuna Barnes, their novels have the particular flavour of internality—the compression which comes from a highly coloured, sensitive personality's producing artistic work almost wholly from the self. And, very strikingly in their work, men are mysterious or contemptible outsiders from true communication. Fathers, lovers, husbands, all are objects of love and jealousy, almost emblematic in their separateness. More to be analysed and dreamt over than understood, men perpetually block the moments of flaring empathy which only women can share. (pp. 477-78)
Winter of Artifice joins three autobiographical novellas which anatomise the destructive dependence of women upon men: the heroines and narrators have been crippled by their fathers—elegant worldly artists, unfeeling and emotionally irresponsible. These daughters revere their fathers, fall in love with them again after long separation, and must eventually see that all of their responses to men have been controlled by the image of the father. Both partners in the fantasy are immured in emotional childhood, and the father wishes for nothing else. These three novellas have strikingly parallel movements. Constructed on almost no incidents or scenes but upon the progression of the heroine's self-analysis, the narratives move toward a recognition that beneath the mask of power and knowledge the godlike male is a weak, selfish parasite.
Then what to do? Since this is Anaïs Nin and not Colette, the point of life is to merge with dream, to stop time in the eternal moment intimated by halting, visionary prose. That is the fiction's import: in life, the solution seemed to be submergence in the famous, unstoppable diary, which is much better reading than any of her novels. (p. 478)
Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 4, 1974.
Anais Nin! This exquisite lady has pursued her solitary path for over forty years, and is only just emerging as a distinguished public figure….
Nin loves living. Warmth, food, scents, company, conversation, the delights of the flesh. But she is no mere hedonist. The inner life is her preoccupation, and her literary and personal hunting-ground: adding a rich dimension to the outer life.
Her constant exploration of heart, body and soul is enhanced by some of the loveliest prose I have ever read. She is a writer's writer, though her insights will reach a broader audience. She is an exquisite person, physically (judging from her photographs) mentally (judging from her work) and she exudes a personal magic which is recognised by, and draws to her other people. (p. 57)
With Anais Nin we get down to the fundamentals of life, instead of railing at it. She never preaches, she shows. She knows better than most what it costs to be a woman and a writer…. [We] will find no bra-burning from Nin, for that is not the way out. The way out, or on, is most diligently to discover yourself and to pursue your chosen road: changing what you can, accepting what you cannot, and learning to tell the difference. (pp. 57-8)
Jean Stubbs, in Books and Bookman (© copyright Jean Stubbs 1975; reprinted with permission), April, 1975.
The diaries of Anais Nin, although revised and intensely compressed, and revised—as Nin has said—by the novelist, are, by their nature, a species of autobiography. Although their excellence has caused them to be ranked with works of imagination, a rank accorded few autobiographies in spite of the current popularity of the genre, they are not novels—one has only to put them next to her novels to feel that—and to ignore that fact is to miss out on the special reading experience which they seem to inspire. Nin's diaries are books of wisdom which have elevated their author to the status of a sage and have had a healing effect on many of her readers, an effect which would be altered if the books were semi-fiction, although, clearly, works of fiction can function as books of wisdom. It is unlikely that anyone has bent to kiss her hem as did one adoring reader of George Eliot, but Nin has evoked in her readers a response similar to the tenacious adulation that surrounded Eliot in her later years, and has joined the company of those great teachers—Eliot, Wordsworth, and the savage but salutary D. H. Lawrence—who had a visionary sense of the healing power of feeling. (pp. 96-7)
Nin's power to stir us and change our lives is not in direct proportion to the quantity of information in the diaries, not a direct function of how much she tells us. Although Nin places her deepest expectations in the personal and private sphere, the diaries are not confessional works. Nin was a practicing Catholic until her teens and therefore familiar with the ritual of confession; she was a student of psychoanalysis and herself an analyst, accustomed to the recuperative monologues of the analysand, but her diaries are not confessional in the most common sense of the word. She does not seek to unburden herself of material as if that material is an impediment to her freedom, nor does she pay guilty attention to the more ignoble details of her life as if to absolve herself by virtue of her typicality or detestability. If anything, she is herself the priest or lay confessor, confessing to herself by means of the diary, but also, by means of the diary, absolving herself from raw experience by transmuting it into form—not just any form, but conscious and lucid writing which expresses control even when she is discussing her weaknesses.
In certain respects the diaries are as elusive as the father they are written to—the absence of Nin's husband in these pages, for instance, necessarily leaves a fissure which would make all other relationships undergo a geological shift—and Nin's omissions have been a focus for criticism of her work, some readers asserting that she appears to have led a life less conditioned by circumstance than the diaries reveal, thus giving us a falsely reassuring picture of human abilities (insofar as she comes to stand for human abilities). This is a criticism that becomes more important as her diaries tend to become more and more models of a life and books of wisdom, for if we look to Peter Pan to teach us to fly but do not see the hook and wire holding him to the ceiling we are in trouble, though he may temporarily increase our optimism.
If Nin does omit crucial elements which would change the tone and nature of the diaries as they now stand she is also persuasive in making us comprehend that these elements are not as crucial as the principles of realism have led us to think. For our idea of what a "life" is, based on only relative tenets of Western perception, economy, and chronology, does not necessarily match the shape or proportion with which Nin lives hers, and it is her great strength that she has resisted the habituating sets that conquer and form most of us, her vision changing our notions of the plausible and possible. Just as certain yogis dispel our assumption that we need continuous breath to stay alive, so Nin persuades us that it is not impractical to be guided by dreams, not impossible to defy gravity for a few minutes longer than we think. It is important to note that the characters in Nin's novels also have lives which are, in ordinary terms, unconditioned, possessing an anonymity and inconsistency at odds with the crystallized characterization handed down from the nineteenth-century novel, lives which are not Nin's own but which she sees in a similar way.
For Nin, realism is a form of defeat. She craves the idyllic, the supreme version, and her drive toward the perfect, the harmonized, the Utopian, and her impulse to make things as intense, prolific, and beautiful as possible, is a central feature of the diaries. Transforming her optimism into an esthetic, she believes that the role of the artist is to transform ugliness into beauty, in life as well as in writing. Taking her father's desire to be thought perfect and generously inverting it, she wants others to think they are perfect. And if she makes myth of herself and writes herself large, it is not as a narcissist but out of a desire to transform her life by means of discipline and optimism into the most lovely and elevated existence possible.
The supreme version can be a fiction, however, and we do not want diaries to be fiction, nor, for that matter, do we want novels to be fairy-tale. Nin's passion for harmony expresses itself in her distaste for harsh contradiction or polemic. She does not hold the belief that exigence and contradiction are necessary for genuine selfhood. For Nin, logic and argument, all the voices of the head as opposed to the heart, are only translations from an original emotional reality. Feeling and intellect are not different ends of a continuum but exist on separate planes, and she rejects the quality of negation in modernist literature which comes from the hegemony of intellect, for it is the intellect that doubts; the body, the feelings, are usually sure…. [In] both diaries and fiction she emphasizes synthesis over antithesis, maintaining a tone that holds everything in the same plane, neutralizing the distinction between figure and ground, muting conflicts in interpretation. Her style determines that people tend to read her either very loyally—moved by faith to relate, unite, and connect rather than to dispute—or not at all.
Nin's occasional neglect of sincerity and candor in the diaries—the lies she tells to others to make improvements or not to hurt, to maintain harmony and dissolve disruption—is directly related to her desire for perfection. She realizes it as a weakness—this tendency to invent or conceal—and she presents her weakness openly, not only in her own person but in figures who reflect and enlarge the problem, living it out to an extreme degree. Lying—her father's, June's—is a deep concern in Diary I, and is a theme that develops richness in Spy in the House of Love, where Nin attempts to find relief from it once and for all, creating a final punctuation in the person of the Lie Detector.
Nin's belief in transmutation and alchemy inspires her to alter the surface and style of things and to take adornment seriously, embracing as a pleasure what many people use only as a strategy of defense. She alters her costume to transform the occasion…. This passion for adornment is intimately linked to the possibilities of impersonation, for though Nin shows us how impersonation may whittle away selfhood she also makes clear that it can be a temporary but releasing expression of unlived life, truer than rigidly held consistency…. Nin (who associates romanticism with neurosis perhaps because of this pretense of divided consciousness to innocent unity) dons masks and costumes in order to celebrate the complexity of identity, the unlimited truths of personality. She has a sane longing to be whole but does not pretend, sentimentally, to a wholeness she hasn't earned or an innocence that would simplify her life without being true to it. (pp. 97-100)
Notable for a grace and certainty of style, Nin's diary is utterly distinct from the current outpourings of confessional journalism, undigested notation encouraged by the general abolition of etiquette and the preeminence of therapies which encourage and value the public revelation of personal material. She does not give herself away in her writings but serves us by remaining intact even after we have devoured her work.
Perfection of, attention to style is suspect in autobiography, for we tend to feel, almost superstitiously—Romantically—that the genuine self—naked, chaotic—cannot be contained by language, and that inadequacy of language or stress of expression pays homage to the large undefinable self. Kerouac's rough work clothes and associative prose seem more authentic at first glance than Henry Adams' balanced and dressed up coat and tie sentences. Yet Adams' prim, if profound, accuracy is as revealing of personality as Kerouac's often evasive casualness. Nin's distilled style is a part of the personality being revealed by it. She has a sense of style—in dress, in personal relations, in her self-discipline—which makes transmutation of the raw into the fine a natural and constant process in her life. Stylization is not only a task of the social self, as it is for most people; it is, for Nin, instinctive and intimate. The diary is edited to make it a manageable length and to prevent injury to the living; it is also highly appropriate to Nin's stance that the diary emerges first as a distilled version of the original, for her life itself is a highly distilled version of what, with less will and vision, it might have been. (pp. 100-01)
Nin's distilled style allows us more space for ourselves than the confessional outpourings which make accomplices of us. Her diary, perfected and sometimes reticent, becomes a mirror into which we can look and, often, find ourselves clearly expressed. Her polished surface reflects the reader.
Nin's relation to the reader is not unlike her relationship to real people in the diaries, where her personal allure is clearly an overpowering factor in her experience. Her diaries are seductive rather than confessional, extending to the reader a subliminal invitation to fall in love—with her, and with the world—and she instinctively knows, having been traditionally feminine in many respects, the importance of concealment to the arousal of desire. Yet she is fascinated by veils actual and symbolic not out of coquetry, or modesty, but out of an appreciation of tact, subtlety, and the more enduring connections these approaches inspire. (p. 101)
The most remarkable thing about Nin is how she revives the wisdom of sympathy in an age which tends to be embarrassed by it.
The spareness and omissions of Nin's diaries result partly from her wanting to ignore—in Virginia Woolf's phrase—the "appalling narrative business of the realist," just as her strategy as a novelist is to wean us from simple curiosity and a hunger for ordinary narrative. But it is more than likely that sympathy and discretion are as responsible as formal considerations for the withholding of information in the diaries. Nin's unwillingness to injure coincides with her doctrine of omission and extends the portrait of her as a women of sympathy. There is in fact a substitution of sympathy for confessional sincerity in the diaries…. The apex of Nin's tact is that she creates an atmosphere of intimacy at the same time that she refrains from a policy of open disclosure. We feel, somehow, that the diaries reach into our lives, that they are intimate about us, intimating to us our own latent potential, the latent life force in us.
Nin's wisdom fits nicely into the American credo of "Make thyself" and many of her readers have saved and changed themselves through the inspiration of her work. There is a certain innocence and pragmatism about this reception of her diaries which should be distinguished from the character of Nin herself. She is sophisticated, European, not an innocent, though some skeptics might see her sympathetic nature as innocent. Her naturalness is real but hard won against the cold artifice of her father and her warmer inclinations to masks and perfections. She is not broad and candid by nature but tactful, oblique, delicate. It is this complexity—this chord—her given nature and her growth out of it—that makes her diaries interesting. Her openness is earned and the self she discovers and enriches is all the more authentic for being complex and struggled for. (pp. 101-02)
[There] are readers who depend on Nin's diaries to be sincere, straightforward exposition and are then disappointed (or elated) to discover a more complex mix of modes and motives. Others relinquish all the claims and expectations we bring to autobiography and call these novels. But the diaries, however, unconfessional, contain a wisdom in their obliquity and omissions. Nin teaches us to get rid of the dross of our lives, to pursue essence and ignore the masses of ordinary detail we have been trained to think of as necessary or authenticating. She compels us to believe that the supreme version is worth having, and she revives without apology and with panache the importance of sympathy and aspiration. (p. 103)
Lynn Sukenick, "The 'Diaries' of Anais Nin," in Shenandoah (copyright by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Spring, 1976, pp. 96-103.
Nin did not achieve the recognition she thought she deserved until she began to publish her diary in 1966. "The Diary of Anaïs Nin: Volume VI, 1955–1966",… brings the work—covering the years 1931 to 1966—to 2000 pages. At least one more volume is expected. It is time to begin to evaluate as a whole this massive output which Nin has come to view as her major work.
One measure of a diary's success is the degree to which it recreates a convincing sense of life as it is really lived. This depends most on whether the author is candid, self-aware, and direct. The first volume of Nin's diary (1931–1934) is the most compelling and coherent…. There is an absence of restraint, a straightforwardness in this volume that probably has to do with the fact that the diary was then only a private document not intended for publication. But far, far too often elsewhere in the scrupulously edited pages of Nin's work she fails both to make her life intimately known and to make that life something that readers can care about deeply and lastingly. Ultimately, to judge the diary is to judge Nin's integrity as well as the scope of her under-standing. It is impossible to separate the writer from her subject, and the diary has only one real subject: Anais Nin. The edited versions of the diary nearly all appear to be concealing more than they reveal. There is nothing, for example, about Nin's long marriage. We are left to guess who exactly were and were not Nin's lovers. There is very little about her daily domestic life or the source of the money on which she lives. The concrete, the practical, the material, the thingishness of life bore Nin. As a result, the Nin persona is often a writer who tries to describe the indescribable, a writer who tries to shine in print with the same "incandescence" she assures us she shines with in life. We just have to take her word for it.
It is not that the diary lacks specificity entirely. There are numerous friends described and analyzed, parties described, trips described, emotions described. The diary does have gossip appeal. Nin had relationships, intimate and otherwise, with scores of famous people in the art, film, and literary worlds. Her portraits of the 21-year-old Gore Vidal and the aging seducer Edmund Wilson are irresistible. So are Nin's very perceptive insights into Henry Miller's personality. But gossip is probably the last thing on which Nin hoped the value of the diary would rest. There is nothing snide or unfeeling in her evaluations, and that is one of the problems with the Nin persona. The diary is unbelievably free of direct expressions of anger, because Nin is unbelievably unaware of the indirect forms her resentments take.
Nin writes often, for example, that politics bores her and that the politically committed have shallow and unlived lives in comparison with her own. But boredom is not what Nin feels; rather, she feels threatened, as she admits elsewhere, by a value system that challenges her own. Nin's response to political morality is the assertion that "what is understood is not judged." But denying political reality does not remove the fact of its existence. Nin is unaware of the degree to which, like it or not, all of her perceptions, tastes, values, and ideas are a function of her social class. Oblivious of the implications of what she is saying, Nin can write passages like this one describing her stay with the Baroness Lambert during the Brussels World's Fair of 1958: "The valises had been emptied, the clothes hung up. The bath was filled with perfumed oil…. [The house] was filled with unostentatious luxury … quite different from the garish American luxury intent on dazzling you all at once with gloss, shine, newness…. One evening, after dinner, we walked up the stairs to the large living room. At each curve of the stairs there was a butler in a red uniform, holding a silver tray with a candle, a box of cigars, and a cigar cutter. It was like court life in the 18th century."
The issue for Nin here is American luxury versus the soft, unobtrusive European brand, not what luxury means. Although I would respect Nin more if she had observed that luxury in any country amounts to the relatively cheap cost of human service, the diary would not necessarily have been a better book. But if anywhere Nin had recognized that her exclusively psychological perspective was partial, and if anywhere Nin had observed her own class bias, had written about it, and tried to understand it, the diary would then have been a considerably more interesting work. In spite of Nin's desire to penetrate the truth of her experience, and in spite of her acute psychoanalytic analyses and confessions, at her frequent worst Anais Nin is superficial, a writing Jean Brodie striking elegant poses which look ridiculous. (p. 43)
It is probably the Jean Brodie syndrome in Nin that provoked women like Diana Trilling, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Frances Keene to pen their reviews in blood. Nin was attacked for being more than a bad novelist. She seems to have stood for a certain kind of woman writer who, in her concern above all with the private, her awareness of clothes, her squeamish refusal to look at the unclean and ugly in life, and her overwhelming narcissism, was a threat to all women who had chosen to be intellectual, concrete, and political as a way of being new and free. In spite of her ambition, and in spite of her understanding of the ways in which women suffer in a male-dominated world, Anais Nin rubs irritatingly against the feminist grain.
That fact notwithstanding—and to some extent because of it—Nin's diary is still a unique and frequently engaging document. Nin was among the first to react to the tightlipped nonemotionalism of writers like Hemingway and to insist that intimacy in fiction is what makes characters real. Although Nin was everywhere limited by her belief in the ideal of the passive, seductive woman, she consciously struggled against these limitations. Publishing her diary was, in many ways, Nin's strongest act of defiance against that ideal. But the ultimate success of that rebellion rests on the worth of the diary…. The full value of the diary will not be measurable until, if ever, we see it in its unexpurgated form. (pp. 43-4)
Laurie Stone, "Anaïs Nin: Is the Bloom off the Pose?" in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), July 26, 1976, pp. 43-4.
Anais Nin is passionately fond of "transmutation," finding "correspondences," "analogies," and "identities" with herself, and herself alone, everywhere. The treacly web she began to spin at age eleven [her diary] has reached by now mammoth proportions, its size matched only by its vacuity. Stupefied by the monotonous voice of the diarist, one reopens a volume once read and does not remember it at all. From the thirties in Paris with Henry Miller to the New York-Los Angeles shuttle of the sixties, from psychiatrists Allendy, Rank, and Bogner to writers Artaud, Durrell, Duras, Young, and James Leo Herlihy, it's all one. It's impossible to discover what progress, in the bildungsroman of the psyche, these volumes—so far the distilled essence of over 160 notebooks—are meant to illustrate….
Ever the aristocrat, [Anais Nin] claims for herself every possible distinction. She is the embattled artist unaccountably placed in an oatmeal world of philistines, Marxists, and realists (synonyms in the Nin lexicon). Equally, she is Woman, a shortcut to the psyche, the child of surrealism, and the heir to the future. For each of these roles she offers herself a crown and then looks in vain for her kingdom.
By consciously mythologizing the self, she does reach cosmic proportions, those of caricature, and what is equally ludicrous, her conception of the Artist, Modern Woman, et al. is altogether banal….
Unlike the rest of us, Anais Nin for all her talk of psychoanalysis, neurosis, and the divided self—doesn't appear to experience, finally, any second thoughts. Not a word about an integrity that comes from inherited money nor, for that matter, any clue to a "spiritual vision" that she often refers to but never delineates….
[Whenever] "woman" comes up, she turns out to be another name for Anais Nin and the cosmology she champions. By nature, woman is too attuned to the depths to settle for the oatmeal world of Marxists and not surprisingly, she is something of a surrealist (only profounder) and Freudian (only profounder). When she is an artist as well, she must naturally save the world….
The astonishing thing about this kind of drivel … is that it has been taken up by the women's movement. Despite Nin's reliance on the worst sort of sexual stereotypes, the fact that she reverses the valances so that intuition, emotion, spontaneity, a childlike acceptance, irrationality, even, are now woman's virtues instead of her limitations has been enough to assure her stature among some feminists. She has achieved, after all, one of the crowns she gave herself. As long as there are those who find the sexes to be an either-or proposition, she'll continue to reign.
When Nin isn't occupied with her royal stature in the vanguard of literature and womanhood, she allows for humbler, less cosmic concerns. Thus, the quotidian tasks are good for a few lines along with recurrent attention to her rejecting father and (less so) friends. But even the simplest of chores is only a step from her overwhelming urge to "transform," "transmute," "alchemize." Hence, Nin can say, "I believe something magical happens when I wipe the furniture," and worse, the juxtapositions that result—the diamond of her art to dusting the house—do not (as they are meant to do) evoke the untidy, multileveled way one lives. The organization or editing of the Diaries is such that the spontaneous, like everything else, is caricatured. (p. 26)
[A] diary that covered the last four decades by a woman who'd been everywhere and known everyone could have been—as some claim this one to be—a remarkable document. Filtering the cultural life of the West through the sensibility of an extraordinary woman, yes, that would tell us about woman, culture, and life itself. Anais Nin, though, isn't that extraordinary woman—a little of her (say one modest volume?) goes a long way. That her values are not those of Jane Austen, Swift, or Edmund Wilson is not the objection. In itself her distrust of the ratiocinative life and her involvement with the "way we experience things deep down" is easy enough to accept. The trouble is that she hasn't anything to say. Either she passionately embraces the inarticulate, involving us with "depths" and a "vast unconscious" as unfathomable now as when her first diary appeared in 1966, or she mines awfully well-covered ground: art-loving Europe versus nasty, materialistic America, a profound revolution in the psyche versus shallow political change, and so on.
Most damaging of all, however, is her complete epistemological confusion. Despite occasional evidence to the contrary, she engages in a lifelong dialogue of the objective versus the subjective, herself aligned (naturally) with the subjective….
Finally, she hasn't quite accepted that the division is a bogus one. Once obsessed by a distinction that is altogether nonexistent, the chances for making one's life script a cornucopia of phantoms is immense….
Anais Nin tilts at windmills because she's put reality on a scorecard: the meat and potatoes world doesn't match the superior reality her deep-sea diving for essences can produce. And 'objective' knowledge isn't as fine as 'subjective' insight. The result is a frightening irony: no one more than surrealism's child needs Nabokov's caution that reality always requires quotation marks. (p. 27)
Susan Manso, in New Boston Review (copyright © 1976 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Fall, 1976.
Anais Nin … through her fiction and her life shared in her diaries, has given us the gift of the transforming beauty and the spiritual communion that we can experience through art. She has given us also the bravery to chose a vision deeply felt and personal, the courage to defend the artist's striving for the largeness which the world will not allow. Herself a giant in passion and in involvement with the labyrinthian underworlds of writing, a heroic voyager into the shadowy unconscious regions from which all visions and all works of art come forth, she is one of this century's great defenders of largeness and innovative risk-taking in others….
Anais' writing is a deliberate quest for beauty and transcendence, not only for new forms of expression but for new ways of penetrating feelings. (p. 27)
Hers is the search for the new art form which will embody change and hope and expansion of consciousness, the exploration of the world through intimate communion with the self, the creation of a personal poetic vision so intense that it "breaks its own shell and its own obsessions and reaches the whole."… Anais [stands] steadfastly against depersonalization and a giving over to despair. She strives in her fiction to fill the dark void left by the existentialists, to rearrange the shards of their shattered reality into new configurations of possibility. (pp. 27-8)
Because the existing literary establishment did not understand her work, she created around herself a whole movement that did, one which has profoundly influenced the place of impassioned writing in America, one which has brought us all into closer touch with symbolism and surrealism….
In an age of smallness, constriction, and fear, at a time when emerging women writers are being encouraged by the male establishment to write small unimportant books that will not seriously alter anyone's vision, male or female, fragmented descriptions of the everyday which threaten no one and do not challenge the existing order, Anais Nin appears before us as a hero of art and aspiration, advocating the largeness of all we may become and all we may create. She offers us the vision of woman, not as biological mother merely, but as the nurturer of the artist, as the great creative force. She offers also a new vision of spiritual friendships based upon deep inner affinities, a role model for working relationships women writers of the past have rarely realized. She offers a challenge to the whole idea of creative isolation, a new view of art as profoundly connected with the most vital forms of communication. (p. 28)
Erika Duncan, in New Boston Review (copyright © 1976 by Boston Critic, Inc.), Fall, 1976.
If you appreciate erotica, Anaïs Nin's work, commissioned by a male client in the 40s may be intriguing. Though she made a valiant effort to lift her made-to-order stories … to something out of the ordinary, to endow them with imagination, fresh language and feeling, the word came back from her customer: "Leave out the poetry." She simply couldn't do it. Beauty of language was too much a part of her. Still, erotica is erotica and however talented the writer, sheer physicality has its limitations. It's quite evident that Nin realized them, for she seems to have found that once the scene was set, the action accomplished, there was little more to say. Thus transitions and endings in these tales are abrupt, often clumsy, the characters pasteboard, the plotting weak. If there is a bit of poetry here, an attempt at a female language for sexuality, it still doesn't save the day. How sad she had to use her talents this way. Redemption comes in that she could never manage to separate sex from feeling. (pp. 73-4)
Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the April 11, 1977, issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1977 by Xerox Corporation), April 11, 1977.
Anais Nin's famous erotica (only brief excerpts of which appeared in Diary III), written in the early 1940's for a private collector, have now become public under the suggestive title of "Delta of Venus." (p. 11)
Begun, as Nin writes in Diary III, "tongue-in-cheek," the stories that Nin then thought were "exaggerated" and "caricaturing sexuality" can be read as original contributions to a slowly emerging American tradition of literary erotic writing. They are, furthermore, the first American stories by a woman to celebrate sexuality with complete and open abandonment.
In a postscript to "Delta of Venus," written in September 1976, a few months before her death, Nin noted that in the erotica she was "intuitively using a woman's language, seeing sexual experience from a woman's point of view." She had already noted in Diary III that the "language of sex has yet to be invented, the language of the senses has yet to be explored." Anaïs Nin became the inventor of such a language: the language in "Delta of Venus" is delicate, sinuous, precise and sensual; it is a language that is astonishing as much for its "purity," its freedom from prurience and from the usual "dirty" language of erotica written by men as for its spirited, unsqueamish sexuality…. [What] she emphasized in her best stories was not exploitative aggression (common to male erotica) but the pleasures of sexual surrender…. Even as Nin therefore, yielded to her collector's demand to leave out the poetry, she was still able to "concentrate on sex," and write the poem!
The characters in these stories, though occasionally caricatures, as Nin realized, are similar to the Parisian artists and Bohemians of the 1940's that appear in her other fiction. But whereas in "House of Incest," for example, she depicts these characters in a language that is elusive and dreamlike, in her erotica she writes more directly, using language that becomes more poetic for its very precision, even for its naturalism. (pp. 11, 26)
"Pleasures," therefore, is a word that occurs frequently in these stories…. The brothel or the opium den, the studio or the Swiss chalet become mythic settings in "Delta of Venus," not only for the fulfillment of love or its failure but for a quest for knowledge through the body. (p. 26)
Harriet Zinnes, "Collector's Item," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 10, 1977, pp. 11, 26.
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