Where new writing finds its voice

The Unveiled Woman

Hannah McSorley


Hannah McSorley delves into the diaries of Anaïs Nin

Anaïs Nin, the infamous sexual adventuress and lover of Gore Vidal and Henry Miller, amongst others, was a gifted writer, but her artistic reputation seems doomed to be forever over-shadowed by such lurid details of her biography. The great work of her colourful life was the personal diary that reported her exploits – both real and fancied. On its publication Anaïs was hailed as an icon of female sexual freedom, but when it was later discovered that she had been a bigamist and an incestuous fantasist whose promiscuous lifestyle had been funded by her generous banker husband, the revelations devalued the dream; her journal was mocked as the ‘liary’ and her other work labelled tawdry and cheap. 

In both the life and writings of Anaïs Nin, there is a touch of farce that has, up to now, managed to obscure the talent and value of both. In fact, she was one of the most imaginative writers of the modern era, who placed individual experience at the heart of her work, and refused to accept the idea that erotica should only be written for and by men. The reader must look the deceptions and outrages of her biography squarely in the eye, and then move on to the rare delights of Anaïs the writer and her stranger-than-fiction life.  

The diary that came to dominate Anaïs’s existence was begun on a steam ship from Barcelona to New York when she was eleven years old. At twenty, and still writing the diary, she married a young banker, Hugo Guilier, whom she found sexually disappointing. After several false starts at unfaithfulness, she eventually began an affair with the struggling writer Henry Miller. The unexpurgated diary of 1931 and 1932 is now published as the novel Henry and June, and its story is this affair. Anaïs begins the book as a frustrated young wife fearful of remaining a ‘virgin prostitute’. Miller then explodes on to the scene, causing a series of events that leads, almost inexorably, to the Anaïs that the world knows. 

Her affair with Henry changed the tone and direction of Anaïs’s life and writing as she announces: ‘I am going to make a new beginning. I want passion and pleasure and noise and drunkenness and all evil’. In the course of Henry and June Anaïs moves from being a frustrated figure to a woman of action, living out her fantasies and frankly recording them. After her initial infatuation, Anaïs becomes disillusioned with Henry’s vulgarity and beggarliness and she eventually concludes that ‘my best moments with Henry are in bed’. But this affair empowered her for further liaisons: ‘I carried his sperm to Hugh, to Rank, to Allendy, to Eduardo, to Turner, to many places’. Anaïs’s greatest achievement in Henry and June is the description of sexual tension within her own household, where she maintains her love for Henry and his presence in the house despite the mortified embarassment of her husband, mother, brother, cousin and servants: ‘I went upstairs, still throbbing, and talked to Mother. Henry followed, looking like a saint and I felt his presence down to my toes’. 

Anaïs later referred to the Thirties as her ‘years of erotic madness’, claiming that her ‘recipe for happiness’ was to ‘mix well the sperm of four men in one day’. In the diary Anaïs does not simply report the facts of her adventures – she seeks to understand and express her thoughts fully, she comments that ‘I close my eyes and seek to become aware of my desire for man – any man, any hand, any mouth, any penis – saying to myself: Any man, I want any man at all.’ She had sex with Hugo’s work colleagues in lifts and with strangers all over the city. According to Anaïs, the climax of her madness was a three-month affair with her own father. Her incest led her to seek psychoanalysis from Dr Otto Rank, a disciple of Freud to whom she admitted the full story. Anaïs accompanied Rank to New York, where they, rather predictably became lovers, and where she began to share his practice by taking on patients of her own. There seems, in the diary, to be no limit to what Anaïs can be – muse, lover, patient, carer, thinker, abuser. 

It was on the heels of such of experiences and fantasies that Anaïs produced her most acclaimed work – her erotica. These short stories are now published in two volumes, Delta of Venus and Little Birds, but they were originally written for a private collector and Anaïs was paid a dollar per page for them. The erotica presents a cascade of sexual encounters with strangers the world over and the sheer density of sexual descriptions can be overwhelming. She was specifically asked to strip out the poetry and deliver sex act upon sex act to her anonymous buyer, but whilst the stories are certainly pretty steamy, it is hard to believe these are Anaïs’s idea of writing ‘without poetry’ so full are they of careful languid description. The pace of the individual stories is breathtakingly fast and they kaleidoscope into vivid and grotesque sexual scenes. ‘The Hungarian Adventurer’, for example is only seven pages long but contains not only sex, fellatio and masturbation, but also three counts of incest and three of paedophilia. Anaïs’s erotica is not for the faint hearted, but it is remarkably well written and as reader, you may be shocked to find that you admire it.

After the outbreak of war the Guiliers moved to New York, where Anaïs met the young actor, Rupert Pole. Rupert was in appearance a ‘young Hugo’, but Anaïs soon found him to be her best-ever lover. In 1955 Anaïs entered into her most elaborate lie; she married Rupert while still married to Hugo, maintaining what she called the ‘trapeze’ of her deception for nearly twenty years; for many of those years the diary was her only confidante.  

The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin is a staggering document, in size and scope and value. It stretches from 1927 to 1974 and hovers constantly between farce and brilliance, drama and pathos. Anaïs comments in one passage ‘what a personage you are’ – and indeed, the diary was the person with whom she ‘talked in the dark’, a life-long companion and a repository for all her dreams and secrets. In the diary, Anaïs presents a rich and complex cast of characters: her long suffering and doting husband Hugo, her disapproving but financially-dependent mother, her armies of lovers, each of them different. Many characters who are impressive in Anaïs’s mind seem undeserving to the reader; and many literally pass by in the night but leave traces of colour and being on the pages of the diary. Anaïs is a powerful conveyer of time and place – her rambling Paris house, cold winters in New York, dark nights in Paris brothels and glamorous evenings out with Hugo. At the heart of this world is Anaïs herself, at once incisive and deluded who admits, ‘I know I go through life like a drunkard. I’m drunk on illusion’. The reader’s relationship with the diarist ricochets between sneaking admiration and outright disgust. The skill of her writing is that she builds an extreme closeness between herself and her reader. You may well find yourself willing her deceptions to succeed and, when she is on the brink of discovery by either husband or by one of her lovers, you will be desperate for her escape; she makes you her conspirator. 

The reader is witness to Anaïs’s development into ‘a lover of the world and men’. Her restlessness and lust for new experiences are almost exhausting to read. She is propelled through life by expectation and a belief that she is not cut out for an ordinary life, in her own words: ‘I am expecting someone … Where is he? If he does not come soon I am going to wander by myself into some dangerous ordinary adventure’. At the same time, when Anaïs does tire, she confides in the diary: ‘life on three floors, three levels, in three languages, three climates, three tones, three rhythms is wearing me out’. She changes her mind about which of her lovers she really loves quite literally from day to day – the truth is that she does not know who she wants and is ‘reaching sexual fusion’ with so many different men that she no longer knows who is arousing her or why. There are few writers candid enough to lay such profound personal tragedy before their readers. 

So what will you find disappointing about the diary? It is astoundingly egotistical and there are times where Anaïs’s self-aggrandisement is frankly unbearable. During her period as a psychoanalyst, she reports numerous letters and conversations with patients who apparently worshipped her. Anaïs is ‘the first and finest lady in the world’ according to a patient whom she ‘raised from the dead’. Another comments ‘what beauty you have Anaïs, it takes centuries of race to make a body like yours’. Such absurd reports of her effect on others jar with Anaïs’s brutal deeds and delusions. She writes for example, ‘the lover I expected so keenly was the state of pregnancy again, which is bliss. How I regret each time its end. No use. No child possible without caesarean operation and caesarean dangerous to my heart and general condition’. (Anaïs undergoes several abortions, all reported in similar terms. To the diary she explains that her lovers are her children who ‘lie in my arms, crawl and rest in my womb’. She comments to Henry Miller that ‘you are not man, you are the child who sucks one’s breasts until they bleed’). And so, Anaïs absolves herself on twisted and self-indulgent logic of any wrongdoing, just as she says that if her lovers ‘suffer at my infidelity, I am baffled’. 

She sees herself in extraordinary terms, commenting that ‘I rule by seduction, charm, devotion, and by returning with interest all that is given me. If many women think they can make three men’s lives marvellous, let them try. It takes superhuman agility, the gift of pouring so much into one hour that it seems like a complete day and night to the man’. The reader, because of the ‘closeness’ the diary creates, is dragged along with her on these flights of monstrous egotism: the diary offers a complete picture of the diarist and that is how the reader must accept her. In a more realistic mood she explains her actions with the maxim ‘and so to bed, and to hell with values’. 

Ultimately the quality and power of the diary massively outweigh its many absurdities. She reports how Henry Miller chastises her for her diary fixation – ‘the problem is one of arithmetic. You will never catch up with the days. And the record of a day will not satisfy you. It will be like a big web that will strangle you’. But he was quite wrong – it is from that web of tiny details that a colossal life
narrative, and a rich reward for the adventurous reader emerges.