Anaïs Nin 1903–1977
French-born American novelist, diarist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Nin's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 4, 8, 11, 14, and 60.
Nin is best known for her erotica and seven volumes of diaries published from 1966 to 1981. Her other works, which include novels and short stories, are greatly influenced by surrealism. The surrealist movement was initiated in the 1920s by artists who explored irrationality and the subconscious, in addition to formal experiments of modernists such as D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, who used expressionistic and stream-of-consciousness narration. Rather than relying on a chronological ordering of events as in conventional narratives, Nin wrote in a poetic style using repetition, omission, and pastiche as organizing principles. As a result, Nin is credited by some feminist critics with embodying écriture féminine, or "women's" writing. Others, however, dispute this claim and argue that Nin's work—particularly her Diary—is overly self-conscious and written with an audience in mind.
Nin was born in Paris, France, in 1903, and moved to the United States in 1914 with her mother and two brothers. Her father Joaquin Nin, a Spanish pianist and composer, abandoned the family when Nin was eleven. Shortly afterward, Nin began her diary, written as an extended letter to her father. In Europe, Nin's family was included in wealthy artistic circles because of her parents' musical careers. However, in New York City—for which Nin held a lifelong disdain—Nin and her family lived a comparatively poor life, and Nin helped support the family as a part-time model. At sixteen she dropped out of school after a teacher told her she had a stilted writing style. After dropping out of school, Nin educated herself by reading alphabetically through books in the public library. At twenty she married Hugh Guiler, a banker, and moved back to Paris with him. Nin began writing with publication in mind, but felt torn between her duties as a conservative banker's wife and her desire for artistic expression. Nevertheless, it was around this time that Nin published her first work, D. H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study (1932), which was well-received. Around this time, she met Henry Miller, then a struggling writer in Paris, through her lawyer. Miller and his wife June associated with members of Paris's underworld of prostitutes, thieves, and drug addicts. Once introduced to this world, Nin felt her own life even more stifling. To resolve her inner conflicts she entered therapy with the prominent Parisian psychoanalyst Réné Allendy and, later, with Otto Rank. Eventually, Nin studied psychoanalysis under Rank, working in his practice in New York City. In her writing, Nin combined her knowledge of psychoanalysis with vivid depictions of the love triangle she entered with Henry and June Miller, creating her own highly acclaimed style of psychologically incisive erotica. Nin heavily edited her diaries before publication and, at her husband's request, removed all references to him. Nonetheless, the two remained legally married until her death. In the mid-to-late 1930s, Nin, Miller, and other writers in the Villa Seurat circle who experienced difficulty finding publishers founded Siana Editions to publish their own works. Nin in particular could find no one to publish her extended prose poem, House of Incest (1936). House of Incest and Nin's next book, Winter of Artifice (1939), were well-received in Europe. However, when Nin moved back to New York City in 1939 with her husband, she found American publishers even less receptive to her work than those in Europe initially were. Many publishers found Nin's open exploration of female sexuality scandalous and decadent. After several years of trying to place her works with American publishers. Nin bought a second-hand printing press and began to typeset and print her own books. Nin's work eventually caught the attention of critic Edmund Wilson, who praised her writing and helped Nin find an American publisher. It was Nin's Diary, however, that brought her the greatest success and critical acceptance. Nin never intended the two hundred manuscript volumes for publication, and many, including Miller, Rank, and Allendy, discouraged her obsessive diary writing. Others in her circle eventually persuaded her to publish the work, which is considered her magnum opus. Following publication of the multi-volume Diary of Anaïs Nin, the author became a controversial figure in the feminist movement. She was at once praised for her unflinching examination of the female psyche and vilified as someone who upheld archaic feminine stereotypes. Nevertheless, Nin remained in great demand as a lecturer at universities across the United States until she died of cancer in 1977.
Most critics assess the seven published volumes of Nin's Diary as a story delineating the birth of Nin as an artist and the development of her feminine artistic temperament. Nin's diaries relate incidents in the present tense, featuring real people who appear as carefully rendered characters in fully realized settings. The diaries share many concerns expressed in Nin's fiction and are divided according to themes such as the life of the creative individual, the effectiveness of psychoanalysis, the relation between the inner and outer worlds, and the nature of sexuality. The volumes include photographs, conversations presented in dialogue form, and letters from Nin's personal correspondence, completing the impression of a thoughtfully orchestrated work of art rather than a spontaneous outpouring of emotions. Nin's first published work, House of Incest, is often considered a prose poem due to its intensely resonant narrative. Emphasizing psychological states rather than surface reality, House achieves a dream-like quality. Winter of Artifice contains three long stories, the first of which, "Djuna," concerns a love triangle that closely resembles the relationship Nin had with Henry and June Miller. Under a Glass Bell (1944), another collection of short stories, contains "Birth," one of Nin's most celebrated pieces. In this story, a woman undergoes an excruciating labor, bearing a stillborn child in an experience that symbolically frees her of her past. This Hunger … (1945), Nin's next collection of short fiction, extends her exploration of the female unconscious in psychoanalytic terms. Cities of the Interior, which Nin described as a "continuous novel," is often considered her most ambitious and critically successful project. Between 1946 and 1961, Nin published the work in four parts: Ladders to Fire, Children of the Albatross, The Four-Chambered Heart, and Seduction of the Minotaur. Each of the four installments follows a female character through her journey to self-discovery. Much of Nin's notoriety is a result of the short erotic pieces she wrote for a patron while living in Paris in the 1940s. Collected in Delta of Venus (1977) and Little Birds (1979), these works have garnered much commentary regarding their status as literature.
Nin gained wide acceptance among artists and writers when she first began publishing, largely because of the surrealist elements in her work. But publishers and critics were divided over the "decency" of her writing, which often contained psycho-sexual material. Feminist critics since the 1960s have also questioned the relevance of Nin's work to the women's rights movement and whether it represents support of the movement. On the issue of whether feminine nature is essential (in-born) or material (learned behavior), Nin believed the former. However, some critics point out that Nin's diaries were so heavily edited that they seem contrived. Nin's erotica—labeled by some as outright pornography—earned greater regard in the 1990s. Nin also gained a wider reputation as a brilliant recorder of the mind of a female artist in the twentieth century.