For those captivated by Anais Nin's persona, her fiction, her erotica or her diaries - or for those who love to hate her - one aspect of her endures beyond her death: her mystery. Or, more accurately, her lies.
She remained an enigma even to herself, despite a lifetime of analysis, as biographer Deirdre Bair makes clear in "Anais Nin: A Biography." A "major minor writer," as Ms. Bair describes her, Nin showed the world only what she most wanted it to see, especially in the works that established her reputation: her diaries. The first published diaries, and even the "unexpurgated" diaries that have appeared in the past few years as "Henry and June" and "Incest," have been heavily edited; the latter are based on Nin's typewritten versions of the originals, Ms. Bair writes.
While Noel Riley Fitch's 1993 biography "Anais" did an admirable job of lifting the veils in which Nin wrapped herself, Ms. Bair has the indisputable advantage of access to Nin's unedited, handwritten archives. Her excellent use of these journals, letters and notes gives her convincing book an unprecedented depth and resonance.
Another invaluable source appears to be Joaquin Nin-Culmell, Anais Nin's brother, whose testimony, combined with Anais' original diaries, paints a harrowing picture of their father, a musician and an abusive, arrogant, deceitful Don Juan. The sexual undertones of his abuse and his abandonment of his family left scars on Anais that forever affected her relationships with men and precipitated her incestuous affair with him many years later.
Ms. Bair's portrait reveals that from the days of Nin's affair with writer Henry Miller in Paris to her bigamous bicoastal marriages in the States, she sought to establish a serious literary reputation while attempting to record and sort out her sexually voracious and emotionally confused life.
Nin's fame owes much to Henry Miller's notoriety. Miller, however, is portrayed here as a parasite more than anything else; Joaquin, Anais' brother, "never forgot his first sight of Henry Miller: 'instant dislike.'" Although Henry gave Anais the intellectual approval she needed, and the sex she craved, he constantly demanded from her money that she lacked and, according to Ms. Bair, stole her ideas as well. In Anais' notes about Henry's wife, June, he found "in them the subtle kinds of character analysis that his emotional involvement with June kept him from being able to express. 'Would you mind if I borrowed these?' he asked, and then went on to incorporate almost everything, just as she wrote it, into his own book, 'Tropic of Capricorn.'"
Nin's husband Hugo Guiler appears here as much less of a dupe than Nin's accounts would imply; aware of her affairs, he simply chose not to acknowledge them and even had a few himself later in life. What they had most in common was also their bane: an inability to handle money. Anais spent it faster than he made it, and he lost it when he had it. Nin's debts are a major theme of the book. Even when profits at last began to roll in with belated literary recognition, she managed to squander huge amounts on self-promotion.
Ms. Bair also writes of Nin's continual abortions, her "Lie Box" (designed to keep her stories straight when she was with each husband), and her strained friendship with Gore Vidal (not an affair, as previous accounts would have it). For the most part, Ms. Bair's reporting is matter-of-fact and nonjudgmental. The detail in "Anais Nin" is exhaustive, almost too exhaustive, as Ms. Bair tries to recount Anais' every lie and liaison, but this biography is invaluable for its copious research and for its genuine appreciation of Nin as a writer - even a major minor one.
Chris Kridler is assistant arts and entertainment editor at The Sun. Her work has appeared in the Miami Herald and the Charlotte Observer, Premiere, bOING bOING, Indie File and the Charlotte Poetry Review. She reviewed Noel Riley Fitch's biography of Anais Nin in The Sun.
"Anais Nin: A Biography," by Deirdre Bair. Illustrated. 654 pages. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. $39.95