February 24, 2018

The Diary/Liary of Anais Nin

Near the end of her life, Anais Nin was a popular draw on the American college lecture circuit. She would speak of her uninhibited attempt to "make the dream real," of being "a lover of the world, and of men," of giving to posterity, through her novels and especially her diary, "the gift of one perfect life."

Her message of empowerment and liberation was well-received in the 60s and 70s, especially by young women. Some formed themselves into fan clubs, calling themselves her "daughters" -- or, fondly but out of her hearing, "Ninnies." Today, the Nin web sites still promote snapshots of her beauty and aphorisms from her books, though the cult seems to have dwindled to curiosity.

Nin would be disappointed to learn that most of the curiosity is directed to the anonymous, dollar-a-page pornography she wrote in her late 30s. Delta of Venus and Little Birds became best sellers when they were released the year after she died, and some place them among the best female writing in the genre. To Nin it was a job, one she took over from Henry Miller when he couldn't keep up with his 100-pages-a-month contract.

She would be even more disappointed to learn that her diary, the lifetime work which was once so popular, and upon which she wanted her reputation as a writer and feminist icon to stand, has become an object of suspicion, if not scorn.

The diary -- dubbed by one of the many who claims to be misrepresented in it as the "liary" -- is a remarkable document. There are sixty-nine original handwritten volumes, starting in 1915 when Nin was twelve years old and continuing daily for over forty years. They tell little of the times -- WWII does not even get a mention -- but they tell much about a mid-century literary sub-culture, and about Nin's attempts to be the self-proclaimed "literary madam" of it. They also reveal a deeply troubled woman, and make the pornographic fantasies seem but a sideshow to the three-ring circus life.

Image: photograph of Anais Nin, twentieth century American diarist
The diary began as therapy, an adolescent's attempt to deal with her parents' separation and her nomadic life. When her career as a novelist floundered, and when Henry Miller started stealing juicy sections of the diary for his novels, Nin began to look upon it as her best and most marketable work. Publishers agreed, but found it too libelous. In the forties, Nin began a process of revision that would carry on for decades: names were changed, events were telescoped, quotes were amended. Very often original passages were edited to make Anais Nin look better and others look worse. Too, she concealed the extent to which her peculiar version of feminism was only made possible by her husband's blank check and blind eye.

But the "liary" label goes beyond Nin's revisionism to the deeper truth that much of her life was indeed a lie, or rather sets of lies, each packaged for her various men. Not counting the many casual encounters, Nin was involved with up to a half-dozen men for most of her adult life, and sometimes intimate with three or four of them on the same day. This led to numerous pregnancies, although no children. "I am a mistress," she wrote on the eve of her first abortion, "I have already too many children ... too much work to do, too many to serve." Nor was she troubled by bigamy: her second wedding day finds her "elated by the danger, the adventure [of] such chess games with the world's literalness."

The most famous of her chess games was Henry Miller; the most secret was her father. Also included were her psychoanalysts, whom she seemed particularly delighted to couch. One, the famous ex-Freudian Otto Rank, began by insisting that she stop her obsessive diary-writing, but ended by joining her, happy scribbling away in post-coital euphoria on the left page while Nin scribbled away on the right. Nin felt so accredited by this success that she actually practiced psychoanalysis in New York for several years, as did Henry Miller.

Such a dream-life may have played well on the lecture tour but it was a nightmare to organize and hide. She wrote decoy diaries and hid the real ones behind false closet walls. In her late forties she was still sending herself fake telegrams, and going to fake jobs. In her fifties she seemed to elevate the duplicity almost to an art form. With the two husbands, the two homes (one in New York, one in California), the two analysts, the one dog with two names (depending on which spouse was calling it), she resorted to what she called her "Lie Box." This was a set of filing cards tracking the vital deceptions upon which her two lives were based, something to keep her straight and uncaught.

All this seemed to work, in public at least: when Nin died on January 14, 1977, at the age of 73, the obituaries in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times listed different surviving husbands.

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