Nin, Anais (1903–1977)
Nin, Anais (1903–1977)
Twentieth-century avant-garde writer and poet, self-mythologized by the publication of her diaries, and famed for her unconventional lifestyle. Name variations: Anaïs Nin. Pronunciation: ANNA-ees Nin. Born on February 21, 1903, in Nuilly (near Paris), France; died of cancer on January 14, 1977, in Los Angeles, California; only daughter and oldest of three children of Rosa Culmel Nin (a singer of French and Danish extraction) and Joaquin Nin (a Spanish composer and concert pianist); attended public grammar schools in New York up to the sixth grade; left school at 15; self-educated; studied psychoanalysis in France under Otto Rank in the 1930s and 40s; married Hugh P. Guiler, also known as Ian Hugo, in Havana, Cuba, in early March 1923; married Rupert Pole (claimed she married him while still married to Guiler).
Parents separated (1914); moved from France to New York and began writing her extensive diary as a letter-collection to her estranged father (1914); returned to France (1930); published first book, D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study in Paris (1932); returned to New York after World War II and settled in Greenwich Village; bought a printing press and released her own books; received first recognition in America (1944) for Under a Glass Bell, illustrated with engravings by husband Hugh Guiler (Ian Hugo); published first volume of her Diary (1966); later practiced psychoanalysis, lectured at Harvard, and taught or tutored writing at the International College in Los Angeles.
D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study (Paris: E.W. Titus, 1932); The House of Incest (Paris: Siana Editions, 1936); The Winter of Artifice (Paris: The Obelisk Press, 1939, and NY: printed by hand on Nin's own press, 1942); The All-Seeing (NY: printed by hand on Nin's press, 1944); Under a Glass Bell (NY: printed by hand on Nin's press, 1944); This Hunger (NY: Gemor Press, 1945); Ladders To Fire (NY: E.P. Dutton, 1946); Children of the Albatross (NY: E.P. Dutton, 1947); The Four-Chambered Heart (NY: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1950); A Spy in the House of Love (Paris, New York, 1954); Seduction of the Minotaur (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1961); The Diary of Anais Nin: 1931–1934 (NY: The Swallow Press and Harcourt, 1966); The Diary of Anais Nin: 1934–1939 (NY: The Swallow Press and Harcourt, 1967); Unpublished Selections From the Diary (Athens, OH: Duane Schneider Press, 1968); The Diary of Anais Nin: 1939–1944 (NY: Harcourt, 1969); The Diary of Anais Nin: 1944–1947 (NY: Harcourt, 1971); Delta of Venus: Erotica by Anais Nin (NY: Harcourt, 1977); Fire: From A Journal of Love: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, 1934–1937 (NY: Harcourt Brace, 1995); Nearer the Moon: The Unexpurated Diary of Anais Nin, 1937–1939 (NY: Harcourt, 1996).
In 1914, shortly after her parents separated, Anais Nin, along with her mother and her two younger brothers, journeyed from their home in Spain, boarded a ship and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to begin a new life in America, specifically New York City. Nin was 11 years old. During her 13-day sea journey, she chronicled the events aboard ship in detail, including drawings of her departure and arrival. She intended to send a complete description of the trip and of the new country to her father with the hope that he would follow. Nin's letters were never sent, however; her mother felt the notes were too precious to mail overseas, and so they were kept safe. Out of these travel journals, conceived as letters to her estranged father, grew Anais Nin's immense diary: over 50 volumes' worth of personal chronology, written throughout her life. The manuscripts were drafted in longhand in her native French, and later in English, with selected sections in Spanish. Beginning in 1966, Nin allowed publication of her diaries after realizing that many of the people and ideas mentioned within in them had influenced the shape of the world, and in particular the artistic community.
Nin's diaries have been treasured not only for their content but for their context, for she vividly describes the Paris art community of the 1930s and 1940s, recording her conversations and friendships with the likes of Henry Miller, Martha Graham, Maya Deren , and Isamu Noguchi. Her subjects are extraordinary, but it is her manner of description that is of the highest importance. She utilizes a "poetic style" of language that rebels against sterile, sparse prose, and once noted, "I intend the greater part of my writing to be received directly through the senses, as one apprehends painting and music." Perhaps because she learned English as her third language, or perhaps because of her innate talent, Anais Nin has become one of a handful of accepted American writers who are celebrated for their experimentation with the nature of text.
Anais Nin was born in Nuilly, near Paris, France, on February 21, 1903, the first of her parents' three children and their only daughter. Her father Joaquin Nin was a Spanish composer and concert pianist; her mother Rosa Culmel Nin was a dancer of Danish and French descent. Anais' childhood was spent in Europe, where she learned to speak Spanish and French with equal fluency. Upon separating from her husband, Rosa Nin decided to move to America with her three children, a decision that went against Anais' wishes. As a child, she maintained a great hope that her father would someday return to his family. Joaquin Nin never did come to America, choosing instead to remain in Europe to pursue his own career and life. Nin speculates, "It may have been my mother's wish to take us into another culture which he could not follow." Her father is mentioned frequently in her diary, and is alluded to in some of her fiction.
The America of her dreams was not at all similar to the New York that greeted Anais: she was expecting "Indian" tents and found instead tall skyscrapers blotting out the sun and the sky. Language became a major fascination. After learning English, she began utilizing it to express her ideas and emotions, and cultivated a passion for the language. Her writings in English display a distinctive quality of playing, or painting, with words. Nin felt that French was the language of her heart, Spanish was the language of her ancestors, and English was the language of her intellect. The writing in her diaries is explicitly trilingual; she uses whichever language best expresses her thought. At other times, access to different languages provides shelter from opposing cultural ideals; in her early diary, on September 22 and 23, 1921, Nin can speak of the frank sexuality depicted in the journal of Marie Bashkirtseff only in French. She writes, "I want to be free to be indignant, to be angry, to discuss her opinions with her, to contradict her, blame her, and with the heat of battle ahead of me, I find that French (the language of my heart) has more vigor and brilliance."
As a child, Nin exhibited a flair for the unconventional. She was not fond of American schooling from the outset, mostly because it strove to constrain her creativity and to regulate her free-form thoughts. In her early drawings, she depicted her school window with prison bars. At 15, she could no longer endure the restrictions put upon her and dropped out of school. When asked her motivation for quitting, Nin replied that her teacher had discouraged her persistent questioning and had criticized her use of "precious," "pretentious" and "over-literary" English. Nin never finished her formal education. Instead, she began to educate herself by reading the books in the public library, alphabetically from A to Z. At 16, she felt the need to attempt one college course, so she enrolled in a short-story class at Columbia University. Again, Nin was discouraged by structural rigidity. "They started to tell me that the stories I was writing had no beginning and no end," she said later, "something they're still telling me today." She dropped out of the course and pursued writing on her own.
Quitting school enabled Nin to dedicate time to her favorite pursuits of reading, writing in her diary, and studying, but only for a while. The Nin family was in part supported by a business in Cuba owned by Rosa's relatives. With the collapse of the sugar market after World War I, the family began to struggle financially, but Nin was forbidden by her mother to work until 1922, when their monetary situation demanded nothing less. She worked first with her mother, who had a job sewing and mending, but soon began modeling. Her change in social status, called a travesty by her wealthy Cuban relatives, is reflected upon in her early diary (largely unedited and released after her death). Nin herself was disappointed but not daunted. She was surprised by the physical exertion of working—in both modeling and sewing—and she was somewhat uncomfortable modeling and posing for a male photographer. However, she soon mastered her distaste and began to market herself profitably. She notes in her diary that she began seeking out those painters who were shunned by other models so that she would have
more work. Her popularity grew, and soon Nin was modeling not only for artists, but also for shops and fashion shows. In 1922, she was featured as a Gibson Girl for a Saturday Evening Post cover. Her diary entries contain musings about her own loss of innocence, and describe her feelings of exhaustion due to work, but they also focus on love.
"Love and Labor! That is now the sum of my life," Nin wrote in her diary in mid-1922. Around this time, she became serious about her relationship with Hugh Guiler, also known as Ian Hugo, who would become her husband about a year later. Although she had many suitors and had expressed deep love in her diary for her cousin Eduardo Sanchez, Guiler impressed her with his intellect, social class, and artistry. Educated to be a banker-businessman, he later became an artist and directed films, and would illustrate most of Nin's books. At the time of their courtship, he traveled often. When they did see each other, they would have long and much-valued intellectual conversations. Nin expresses feelings of anticipation for his return, professions of love, and—nearing the time of their marriage—reservations about marriage itself. They were wed in Havana, Cuba, in late 1923.
In general, Guiler is almost never mentioned in the diaries that were published while she was alive (and which she edited herself). Instead, the diaries make mention of many other important figures who were obviously very much a part of her life. Always drawn to the creative scene, she moved to Paris in 1930 and became active in avant-garde literary, dance, music and art circles. The 1930s Paris art scene is one of the most exciting and romanticized periods in European history. Freud had only recently (around 1905) exposed the existence of the subconscious and the possible meaning of dreams, and his ideas gained in popularity throughout the early 20th century. As a response to, or perhaps as a foreshadowing of, Freud's work, Surrealism had sprung up in Europe, taking some form within all of the arts. Dada and Surrealism, as well as other types of creative rebellion against structure and tradition, were in full swing by the time Nin reached Paris, and she became a major theorist and practitioner of rebellion.
Whenever I felt I had to choose between two things, I always ended up taking it all in. I never wanted to choose one against the other, but to harmonize and fuse them into one.
Nin's first book, D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study, an exploration of gender roles in artistic society, was published in French in Paris (1932). In it, Nin writes, "The modern woman desires also to build her own world directly, not through the man. The woman who creates a world directly is the artist-builder woman." Her publisher went bankrupt due to lack of interest in her books. Until 1961, when it was re-released in English, her work on Lawrence was almost unknown within the literary world. It informed her writing style immensely, however, as she tried to expand his theories in her fiction. "Lawrence was an important influence," she said, "because he sought a language for instinct, emotion, intuition, the most inarticulate parts of ourselves." In 1936, her The House of Incest was published. It, too, went unnoticed until much later. Despite the obvious setbacks, she continued to write, although she published only one other work in France.
While in Paris, Nin formed intimate and lasting friendships with many well-known figures, the same people who populate her published diary and whose association initially spurred public interest in her writings. These friends included Henry Miller, Antonin Artaud, Lawrence Durrell, and Dr. Otto Rank, a psychoanalyst and a contemporary of Freud. Nin studied with Rank and practiced psychoanalysis: in later interviews, she attributed her emotional stability and love of life and self to psychoanalysis. Infused both by psychoanalysis and the trends of her artistic community, Nin's work exhibits a dreamlike quality that has been both criticized and critically acclaimed. Her writings would continue to be influenced by her involvement in the 1930s Paris art scene long after she moved away.
Nin returned to New York in the early 1940s and settled in Greenwich Village, which boasted a community of artists much like the one in Paris: indeed, many of her old friends, now growing in fame as painters, sculptors, authors, filmmakers and dancers, were returning to post-World War II America. Encouraged by their society, Nin bought a printing press and began releasing her own books, illustrated by her husband's engravings. Each book had to be hand-set and hand-printed; the first, Winter of Artifice (1942), took eight months to just set. Under a Glass Bell (1944), a collection of short stories, was also completely set by hand. The results were worthwhile, however, for in 1944 The New Yorker literary critic Edmund Wilson wrote: "Perhaps the main thing to say is that Miss Nin is a very good artist, as perhaps none of the literary Surrealists is. 'The Mouse,' 'Under a Glass Bell,' 'Rag Time,' and 'Birth' are really beautiful little pieces." Nin was finally receiving some appreciation.
Her real success came with the release of her diary; published in four volumes (beginning in 1966), it covered her life from 1931 to 1947. The diary had "long been a legend of the literary world," as one critic wrote in the early 1940s. Nin edited each section before publication, opening her original diary manuscripts and typing out her words, rearranging "here and there, for clarity." She claimed to have retained about half of the original material, leaving out only the passages about people who would not appreciate mention. (Perhaps her husband was one of these.) The published portions focus mainly on her famous artist friends, her social life, and her writing. Many critics have cited the silences and discrepancies in the diary's contents, and have alluded to her succumbing to public pressure to expose the famous people with whom she was intimate. Other, more favorable, commentators
focus on her style and her underlying study of the female mind and of woman's place within a masculine social structure.
Nin's work can be, and often has been, analyzed in layers: at the outermost layer, she writes about her own interaction with famous friends. Another layer reveals a woman's analysis of daily living and loving, told with a budding feminist consciousness and a bohemian sense of autonomy. Beneath that, finally, can be found the question of intent and intentionality, for Nin mythologized her life through the device of her published diaries. Her editing process allowed her to recreate her life, omitting those details that she did not want to show the world while ostensibly exposing her private life. Her knowledge of life as a well-read woman, historical figure, artist-writer, wife and breadwinner impacts the recreation of her diary, and she writes the myth of her life, as she did her fiction, as a dreamlike series of meaningful events.
Another layer of Nin's work is the context of her life and writing. Her connection to famous men was obviously the catalyst in bringing about her popularity, for it began due to an upsurge in scholarship about the male writers and intellectuals whom she knew in the 1930s. Her friendship with Henry Miller was especially instrumental in the discovery of her work. In 1939, Miller released a glowing essay in praise of Nin's talents as a diarist which remained the main source of information about the diary before its publication. He writes, "Still a young woman she has produced on the side in the midst of an immensely active life, a monumental confession which when given to the world will take its place beside the revelations of St. Augustine, Petronius, Abelard, Rousseau, Proust and others." Such comparisons naturally made Miller's many devotees anxious to read Nin. Nonetheless, she has never received the same attention as Miller, and despite its power her work has remained largely unappreciated except as a tool for understanding those important men surrounding her life. In the "official" canon of 20th-century American literature, much of which was written by men, she is usually relegated to the subgroup of "women writers." Nin was acutely aware of her secondary position within this hierarchy. In a 1971 interview with Priscilla English , responding to the male critics who denigrated her work due to its focus on and through female characters: "I'm coming into my own; I've been rewarded. The attitude of the forties was very narrow, very chauvinistic in every possible way…. [F]or instance, Sur realism was a dirty word, a sort of curse. So was fantasy—to talk about dreams was insane." She seemed content with the improvement she saw in her own lifetime, and with her growing popularity.
The last ten years of Nin's life were rewarding ones. Her literature was finally being discussed; she lectured to thousands at Harvard and at the University of California at Berkeley; she began teaching at the International College in Los Angeles; and a documentary film, Anais Observed: A Film Portrait of a Woman as Artist, was made about her life. In 1974, 76 articles about Nin and her work were published. Happily, she was able to enjoy her own success before her health began to fail in the mid-1970s. She died of cancer on January 14, 1977. After her death, several editions of her diary, including more of the original material from her manuscripts, were released. Guiler, who survived her, donated a collection of her papers to the library at the University of California at Los Angeles, which includes her diaries, book manuscripts, letters, and other papers. The late 1970s also saw publication of two collections of erotic fiction—Delta of Venus and Little Birds—that she had written on commission from an older man in Paris early in her career. Nin had been paid $1 per page with explicit instructions to "leave out the poetry," but these stories, like her other fiction and nonfiction, resonate with her Surrealistic style.
Nin's published diaries, far from answering definitively questions about her life, only heighten readers' curiosity: what was she really like, and what really happened? Are her diaries a fictionalized version of reality, or an actualized version of fiction? The question probably cannot be answered. What is certain is that Nin has presented us with a version of her life story, written in her highly artistic style. Nin insisted on being photographed and filmed with soft-filtered lenses, making her pictures and movies slightly out of focus, dreamlike. She always dressed extravagantly for the public, claiming that she was creating a persona, and extending the statement by saying that we all are always creating a persona; especially in her last years, Nin presented herself as a living work of Surrealist art. Her art surrounds her at all times; we are able to obtain a few concrete facts about her, but even these have been shrouded in her own self-created mystery.
Cutting, Rose Marie. Anais Nin: A Reference Guide. Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1985.
Franklin, Benjamin. Anais Nin: A Bibliography. OH: Kent State University Press, 1973.
Nin, Anais. Delta of Venus. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977.
——. The Early Diary of Anais Nin, Volume Two: 1920–1923. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.
Snyder, Robert. Anais Nin Observed: From a Film Portrait of a Woman as Artist. Chicago, IL: Swallow Press, 1976.
Zaller, Robert. A Casebook on Anais Nin. NY: Meridian, 1974.
Bair, Deirdre. Anaïs Nin. NY: Putnam, 1995.
Miller, Henry. "Un Étre Étoilique," from The Cosmological Eye. NY: New Directions, 1939.
Nin, Anais. The Diary of Anais Nin. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
Nin's diaries, correspondence, manuscripts and related papers, beginning in 1913, are located at the University of California at Los Angeles, University Library Special Collections.
Anais Observed: A Film Portrait of a Woman as Artist, produced by Robert Snyder, Masters & Masterworks Productions, 1973.
Henry and June (film), based on books by Anais Nin, starring Uma Thurman , Fred Ward, and Marie de Medeiros as Anais Nin, Universal, 1991.