Love, hate and Anais Nin
A defence of Deirdre Bair’s biography of Anais Nin.
Never before have I been so obsessed, so emotionally tangled with a writer and their work as with Anais Nin and her journals. From reading her erotica and short stories (Little Birds, Winter of Artifice, Under a Glass Bell, Spy in the House of Love), to her journals, my emotional response to her has swung from adoration, gratitude and pity and then finally to hatred and revulsion.
Only after reading Deirdre Bair’s biography of Nin, the only “objective”, critical study of her life and work, have I been able to make peace with Nin and her writing.
Critics, especially Nin devotees, have seemed mistrustful of Bair’s book, and it has been called “damning”, “moralistic” and “judgmental”. The critics of the biography have seem so outraged that I read it expecting to see Nin obliterated as a literary figure, essentially rendered a complete waste of life. It has been called “a ruthless attack on Nin’s character”.
It’s not hard to see what provoked these responses – Anais Nin dedicated her life and work to creating and living a “dream”, and Bair single-handedly tears down the facade and reveals ugly reality (the truth of Nin’s drinking – so often denied in her diaries – the extent of her lies, self-absorption, cruelty and narcissism).
Bair also uses many qualifying words to preclude descriptions of Nin and her behaviour, such as “horrifying” and “appalling”. While her behaviour quite often was horrifying and appalling, it would be better left for the reader to decide. Although, I suppose that’s the tension between writing a clinical, scholarly account and producing an engaging biography people will connect with.
Nin’s diary is often devalued by literary critics, with it being dubbed everything from “boring” to self-absorbed (which it certainly is, as she is always the main character), narcissistic and neurotic. Nin herself has referred to her diary as something like “a case study of the neurotic”. But Bair never tows either the dismissive or the adulating line. She is neither a “Ninny” nor a hater.
But Bair’s honesty, the depth of her research and dedication to giving a whole, factual account of Nin’s life (or multiple lives), is an exercise in respect, if not love. She has called Nin a “major minor writer”, which makes sense, and her book does something to soothe and validate the strong emotions Nin’s diaries provoke.
Bair lets you understand Nin the writer, Nin the person, the real essence of a woman writer behind the carefully crafted facade. Reading the diaries, I couldn’t stand not knowing the truth of Nin’s accounts, and by the time I read Fire, I realised that as a reader I had been cruelly duped. It is a shock, as a reader, to find you are being lied to. When you read fiction you expect this, but you quite often read a diary to marvel at the magic possible in real life.
Nin furthers her duplicity by letting readers in on all her lies and careful scheming that takes up so much of her life. We are privy to her ordeal on the tightrope, wondering if, or when, her lies will unravel. We are made complicit, and even feel special and privileged for having such an intimate knowledge of a person’s darkest secrets and neuroses.
But when you discover or suspect, as I finally did in Fire (I am perhaps a little slow), that what you are reading is in itself a lie, you feel hurt and deceived. The bond formed with Nin from reading volumes of her rich and beautiful diary feels strained and invalidated, if not broken. When I realised this, I spent days trying to find any material I could about the “real” Anais – I was tormented by not knowing. Bair’s definitive account has completed my search.
Bair offers an interesting perspective that allows you to reconcile yourself with Nin’s lies: Bair wonders why so many people expect to find truth in Anais Nin’s diaries. The diaries were never intended to be a factual, historic account of Nin’s life. They were written as an expression of one woman’s view and take on the world. As Nin herself wrote, “we don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are”.
Diary writing was cathartic and necessary for Nin, and she used them as a balm and a tonic to calm her demons. This is why they are so full of self-praise, criticisms of others, defensiveness and every compliment she ever received (due in part to Rupert Pole’s loving editing in the “unexpurgated” versions released after her death).
It is then unfortunate Bair’s treatment of her subject has been called “merciless”. If anything, I find her biography redemptive. Bair even refuses to use clinical terms that have become associated with Nin and her “disordered personality”: borderline, compulsive liar, psychopathic, narcissistic, etc.
Nin is acknowledged, understood and finally appreciated for her contribution to women’s literature. She is given credit for being a woman before her time, for recognising literary and social themes and ideas that only became popular decades later. Bair’s honest criticism, coupled with the recognition, is more valuable than the sappy adoration that has been lavished on Nin by her “daughters”.
Nin was not feminist, or political in any sense, and she was in some ways representive of the sort of woman I detest (weak, over-sexualised, pre-occupied with men, needy). But the importance of her writing, especially her erotica, arguably the best written depiction of feminine sexuality, cannot be denied. To provoke reactions so strong in readers cements the power and importance of Nin’s work.
Nin would force you to love her, but love means more when you discover it your way. Bair has allowed me to do this, and to make peace with Anais Nin and the hours of thought and reams of writing and emotion that I, and so many others, have dedicated to one of the most complex and haunting female literary figures in history.
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