Affairs to remember, Anais Nin revealed

January 17, 1994|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,Staff Writer

When a woman leaves dozens of diaries behind, describing the most intimate details of her life from her childhood on, it's logical to conclude that a biography can do little but abridge the collective epic. Not so with Anais Nin.

This writer of autobiographical fiction and dreamy erotica is chiefly known for her journal, which elucidates her emotions even as it deepens her enigma. Noel Riley Fitch, whose books include "Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation: A History of Literary Paris in the Twenties and Thirties," has skillfully lifted the veils that Nin so delighted in weaving.

Nin (1903-1977) gained her first real fame late in life, with the publication of the expurgated diaries -- noted not only for her insight and eloquence but for her glamorous life in Paris before World War II and her association with Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell and other artists and writers of the Lost Generation. (In recent years, passages she chose to keep secret during her lifetime were published in the journals "Henry and June" and "Incest.")

In literary circles, her renown preceded the publication of her diaries, but her reputation wasn't strictly literary -- not after her affairs with Miller and a dizzying number of other men, as well as flirtations with a few women.

Ms. Fitch looks beyond the reputation and the diaries to find the vulnerable child Anais, who was abandoned and, Ms. Fitch posits, sexually abused by her father, composer Joaquin Nin y Castellanos.

"She learned to seek approval in a sexual way," Ms. Fitch writes, for Nin's father took photographs of her naked. "She sat for 'countless pictures' in a prefiguring of the literary disrobing in her diary. In her first childhood diary she pasted one of the nude photographs, apparently unaware that the photograph revealed unusual behavior on her father's part." Years later, Nin had an affair with her father, whom she called her "double."

Living with her mother and brothers in New York, young Anais created an ideal life for herself -- in her diary: "My childhood was an invented one." Later came marriage -- unconsummated for more than a year, Ms. Fitch writes -- to Hugo Guiler. "She has chosen him because, unlike her father, he does not pose a challenge to her control of her own body." She often associates with people too weak to control her, parasitic friends whom she sees as her "children."

Hugo deferred to his wife for years, giving her the financial security that let her write and turning a blind eye to her affairs (at least according to Nin). Much later, when the aging couple were living in America and she had found freedom in lecture tours and flying from coast to coast, she committed the ultimate deception in a bigamous marriage to Rupert Pole. The newlyweds built a home in California, while she and Hugo maintained a residence in New York.

The women's movement and the psychedelic crowd at last produced a devoted audience for Nin, who had been stung by years of lukewarm reviews. "Perhaps more than most authors," Ms. Fitch writes, "she sees only the negatives, which hurt her deeply and lead her to believe that she is misunderstood by the entire literary establishment."

The charismatic Nin cultivated her followers, wryly termed "Ninnies" by James Wolcott. Still, she didn't have a best seller until "Delta of Venus," a collection of erotica published after her death from cancer.

Ms. Fitch details Nin's soap-opera existence, but she also cuts through the diaries' exaggerations, lies and revisionist accounts through interviews, documents and revealing comparisons with Nin's fiction.

Of course, part of the pleasure in reading Nin's journal is trying to unravel her webs of words while admiring their gossamer elegance. Enjoy the mystery of the diaries; then call in the insightful detective, Ms. Fitch, and read "Anais."

(Ms. Kridler is a copy editor in the features department of The Sun.)

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Anais: The Erotic Life of Anais Nin"

Author: Noel Riley Fitch

Publisher: Little, Brown

Length, price: 525 pages, $24.95

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