Anaïs Nin Nin, Anaïs (Vol. 127) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

D. H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study (criticism) 1932
House of Incest (prose poem) 1936
Winter of Artifice (short stories) 1939
Under a Glass Bell (short stories) 1944
This Hunger … (short stories) 1945
Ladders to Fire (novel) 1946
Realism and Reality (nonfiction) 1946
Children of the Albatross (novel) 1947
On Writing (nonfiction) 1947
The Four-Chambered Heart (novel) 1950
A Spy in the House of Love (novel) 1954
Solar Barque (novel) 1958
Cities of the Interior [contains Ladders to Fire, Children of the Albatross, The Four-Chambered Heart, and Solar Barque; republished under the same title with Seduction of the Minotaur replacing Solar Barque] (novels) 1959
Seduction of the Minotaur (novel) 1961
The Diary of Anaïs Nin. 7 Vols. (diaries) 1966–1981
The Novel of the Future (nonfiction) 1968
In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays (essays) 1976
Delta of Venus (short stories) 1977
Little Birds (short stories) 1979

Wayne McEvilly (essay date Summer 1971)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Bread of Tradition: Reflections on the Diary of Anaïs Nin," in Prairie Schooner, Vol. XLV, No. 2, Summer 1971, pp. 161-67.

[In the following essay, McEvilly interprets Nin's writing in her diary as a poetic examination of the self.]

("I'm the alchemist, not the ego." Nin)

In the world of Proust the sound of the spoon and the taste of the madeleine were able to efface the ego and to allow the mysterious person—"that person," as Proust himself says, as though he were, in his ecstatic illumination, like those ancient Indian seers who when they had reached that level beneath the state of dreamless sleep could designate it only by the...

(The entire section is 2308 words.)

Anaïs Nin with Barbara Freeman (interview date 1972)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Dialogue with Anaïs Nin," in Chicago Review, Vol. 24, No. 2, 1972, pp. 29-35.

[In the following interview, Nin and Freeman discuss the nature of diary writing, in particular the lack of integrity of individual personality over a lifetime and differences between life as lived and as written, as well as criticism of one's own writing and that of others.]

Although her works survived in relative isolation for many years. Anais Nin has now become a resonant voice for many readers, especially women, primarily through her published Diaries. The collage of her life in Louvouciennes and Paris (with Henry Miller, Artaud, and Lawrence Durrell among others), of...

(The entire section is 3391 words.)

Ekbert Jaas (essay date Winter 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'The Barbaric Friendship with Robert': A Biographical Palimpsest," in Mosaic, Vol. 11, No. 2, Winter 1978, pp. 141-52.

[In the following essay, Jaas discusses Nin's influence on the poetic and personal explorations of the poet Robert Duncan, particularly in light of their respective diary-writing.]

His portrait in the Photographic Supplement to The Diary of Anaïs Nin,1 Robert Duncan remarked, shows him "posed with [his] eyes cast down in a revery with heavy eyelids and [his] mouth closed in some secret thought or dream."2 There is an almost identical pose in an Anaïs Nin portrait from the same period—her eyes, again in Duncan's...

(The entire section is 6070 words.)

Duane Schneider (essay date Winter 1978)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anaïs Nin in the Diary: The Creation and Development of a Persona," in Mosaic, Vol. 11, No. 2. Winter 1978, pp. 9-19.

[In the following essay, Schneider traces the evolution of the narrator in the Diary, contrasting the persona therein with Nin herself and maintaining that the Diary's narrator is a literary creation more than an accurate and objective representation of Nin.]

The intriguing and engaging narrator of Anaïs Nin's Diary has surely earned for herself a place among the great literary creations to appear in this century. Purporting to reveal aspects of her life (and the growth of her sensibilities) in selections from an...

(The entire section is 5906 words.)

Nancy Scholar (essay date 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Anaïs Nin's House of Incest and Ingmar Bergman's Persona: Two Variations on a Theme," in Literature and Film, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1979, pp. 47-59.

[In the following essay, Scholar examines the nature of identity as it appears in Nin's House of Incest and Ingmar Bergman's film Persona.]

So now we are inextricably woven …
Our faces are soldered together by soft hair, soldered together,
showing two profiles of the same soul.


There is an intriguing congruence between this poetic description of merged...

(The entire section is 5541 words.)

Smaro Kamboureli (essay date March 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Discourse and Intercourse, Design and Desire in the Erotica of Anaïs Nin," in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 11, No. 1, March 1984, pp. 143-58.

[In the following essay, Kamboureli distinguishes between purveyors of erotica from those of pornography, attempting to establish Nin's Erotica as pornography wherein she focuses as much on poetry as on sexuality.]

In the following excerpt from the "Preface" to Little Birds, Anaïs Nin distinguishes between erotica and pornography:

It is one thing to include eroticism in a novel or a story and quite another to focus one's whole attention to it. The first is like...

(The entire section is 6917 words.)

Judson Klinger (essay date September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Henry and June," in American Film, Vol. XV, No. 12, September 1990, pp. 22-29, 46-48.

[In the following essay, Klinger talks with some major players in the production of the film Henry and June, the screenplay of which was adapted from an excerpt from Nin's Diary.]

How would you react if you found out your wife was having sex with another man? Would it make any difference if she were only doing it for the money? What if the two of you were broke and starving? Or suppose you were an artist, and your wife's belief in your talent was so unrelenting that her adultery was a purely selfless act? Would you try to stop it? Would you look the other way? Or could...

(The entire section is 5248 words.)

Lynette Felber (essay date Fall 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Three Faces of June: Anaïs Nin's Appropriation of Feminine Writing," in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 14, Fall 1995, pp. 309-24.

[In the following essay, Felber examines Nin's assertion that she wrote "as a woman only," particularly in her fictionalized portraits of June.]

As early as the 1930s, Anaïs Nin described her objective as that of writing "as a woman, and as a woman only" in the prose poem House of Incest,1 purportedly composed after Henry Miller stole ideas from her unpublished diary for his own work. The subsequent claims by Nin and her circle throughout her career that she was writing a new feminine prose might...

(The entire section is 7464 words.)