Book Tastings: Stars in My Sky

My purpose here is to focus on the young Anaïs Nin in the process of becoming a writer, primarily before the period covered by Nin’s Diary, Volume I. Nin has proved that she was always a writer, despite the conflicts of her life and the views of parents, friends, psychoanalysts, and critics. It is well known that Anaïs Nin at the age of 11 began keeping a diary as a long letter to the father from whom she was separated. But the first published Diary — Volume I — begins when the author is 28 years old in 1931. By that time stories by Nin had been published in various literary, mostly French, publications as well as her first book, D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study. She was working on other pieces, a novel at least, stories that would ultimately appear in Under a Glass Bell, and the prose-poem, House of Incest. Prior to these published works the author wrote other novels and stories, which have never been published, although some are available for study at the Library of Northwestern University.The unpublished material in the Library’s Special Collections Department is especially significant for showing the progress of Anaïs Nin’s writing. Reading through her novels, beginning with the first, written in her teens, is a fascinating trip into the development of a writer. The heretofore unknown stories and the early drafts of House of Incest show Nin’s techniques of creation, her refinement of words. Her early, always passionate concerns can be observed as they develop and change as she lives and writes. Knowledge of Anaïs Nin’s early work enlarges awareness of the creative process; it is like watching seeds grow and become many different flowers. One becomes more intimately acquainted with the personage of Anaïs Nin.

For all writers, writing is a brave act. It is especially difficult when the writer is young, for then she is searching for her own voice, seeking a comfortable framework, comparing herself to other masters, and justifying time spent at this activity to others. Creative-writing teachers have their own ideas about what should be written and are often not so acute in perceiving the student’s uniqueness. The English novel is usually taken as the standard for demonstrating literary method. Writers also face rejection slips and so building confidence becomes an endurance test. Anaïs Nin’s writing, remarkably, is consistently strong and deft. Her voice is assured. She is serious with intellectual objectivity and depth. In using language she can be cool, with high aesthetic standards, as well as profusely ardent. One of her strengths is that from the beginning she did not hide herself behind words but sought to express herself as openly as possible. She is a self-taught writer, and, as she grew, she found ways to strengthen the sound of her inner voice.

Indeed, Anaïs Nin can be described as a witch of words. Very early she sensed the magical power of words to produce states of being, such as ecstasy, languor or dread. Her ambition was to transform the ugly realities of life into beauty, as the beast in fairy tales becomes the handsome prince after achieving a certain wisdom. She desired to distill the pure from the dross, and writing was her charm. Through writing she can inhabit other worlds for herself. Writing is a drug of the imagination. It casts spells on others, putting them into new worlds with her. Dreams can be lived out. The magic of words has also a healing effect. By writing she can examine her wounds privately and confront all the loose ends of her daily life, the unspoken but very present psychological currents. The act of creation itself is a balm, a tonic. The work of art is the witch’s marvelous gift to the world. It is created from intense living and contemplation. Life itself is the witch’s cauldron. The writing witch uses words to transform, heal, and teach wisdom. Her fresh awarenesses about the meaning of life for men and women have the capacity to change their lives.

Another way Anaïs Nin casts a magic spell is her ability to influence others by wishing them to be busy at their own creations. Countless people have testified to having experienced this. She inspires people to make creativity a way of life in the sense that the Balinese mean it when they say, Art is doing anything well.

I first discovered the work of Anaïs Nin after several discouraging years of sending my writing around to magazines and receiving rejections. This also corresponded with my marriage to a writer and the birth of two children. I had also been so conditioned by an academic education in literary criticism that I was unable to accept the diary form as literature. Thus, when I first saw Nin’s books on the shelf, I had a closed mind toward the Diary and I surmised the novels were too avant garde. Rather staidly I settled for the book of stories, Under a Glass Bell. That book was a powerful introduction.

Soon afterwards I became involved with a feminist art group which focused on women’s condition in society. As I conducted my own reexamination of womanhood, I read all of Anaïs Nin’s Diaries. She became for me the most important representative of the questing female writer. When I was 32 years old I could read and identify with her struggles in her thirties to write her books and achieve recognition. Because she is generous I visited her, exchanged letters, held a weekend symposium for her, and produced a book on that radiant event. I read and re-read her books, collected publishers’ first editions and the rare books which she typeset and printed by hand. She confirmed my youthful passion for writing and literature because she conquered hopelessness herself. She is dedicated to the fully realized personal self. She plunges into the chaotic sea of intimate, responsible relationships with compassion and genuine concern. With the tools of psychoanalysis and her own sensitive inner radar system she probed her actions and the unconscious powers behind them. In communication with the world she strove for tender solicitude among people as well as independence, liberty and integration of the self. Her life is epic and evanescent; her contemplation of it is the exploration, embodied by the art of her books.

In her books I was attracted, like many others, to her treatment of personal relationships. Separation from the father (in my case it was by divorce) created a longing for his love and respect. Nin’s fascination for June in Diary I expressed the nature of love for a woman I felt too. In Nin’s describing her experiences with Henry Miller, I saw the story of my husband and me when we first met, both fiery about writing, independent but coming together for the sparking of each other that could only happen in rare communion. In her renderings of people’s sensibilities as she perceived them, Nin indirectly bestowed the gift of understanding to others again and again.

From her earliest diary entries Anaïs Nin was concerned with the personal details that are concealed from outward appearances by necessity or fear of reprisal and the real nature of life. When she was 11 years old, she wrote:

Today I have nothing to tell so I will chat with my diary, or rather, my confidant, for I write here many things I never tell anyone and that nobody knows. Let us begin: Today when I opened a book at hazard I read: Life is only a sad reality. Is it true?

Photographs of the young Anaïs show a graceful, wistful girl. She has flowers in her hair and writes pensively. She began her diary-keeping on the boat to America and early entries contain passages about school experiences, reactions to other children (including the dawning of a special attraction to boys), and her sympathies for poor people. The diary reveals many thoughts and feelings that will still concern Nin in the published Diary (Vols. 1-VI). The following excerpt shows her love for quiet, beautiful objects, her admiration for the strong, heroic type of woman, the agonizing isolation of self-doubt, and her dislike of aspects of urban America. Even as a young girl, she resorted to writing as the way to assert herself honestly.

I work hard at school but that does not prevent me from doing what I prefer to do. I have written a story Poor Little One. I only love either gay or very sad things. Now I hate school, and everything American. Mother asked me why. Why? Why? Because I love silence and here it is always noisy, because everything here is somber, shut in, severe, and I love gay landscapes, I love to see the sky, I love to admire the beauty of nature, and here the houses are so tall, so tall, that one does not see anything, and if you do catch a little corner of the sky it is neither blue nor pink nor quite white, no, it is a black sky, heavy, lugubrious, soiled and blackened by the pride and vanity of modern men and women. I say this because I hate the modern. I would have loved to live in the first century, in Ancient Rome, I would have loved to live in the time of great castles and gracious ladies, I would have loved the time of Charlotte Corday when each woman could become a heroine. I must recognize that I am crazy, but since my diary is destined to be the diary of a mad woman, I cannot write reasonable things in it! And they would not be my thoughts.

Anaïs was already impressed by dreams and had a prophetic one

…But I must tell about a rather singular dream I had last night. First of all I found myself in a grand salon carpeted in dark grey. I still remember how it looked, but that is not interesting. I was seated on a small wooden chair which smelled of pine. Then a fine lady dressed in black velvet and wearing a belt of diamonds or something sparkling, who first rushed towards a grand piano on which she played, a long and sad melody which made me sad. When she stopped she went to a big easel, took a paint brush and began to paint a very somber wood, with a pale blue sky in the distance, she did that softly, and in one minute she was through, then she advanced towards a big desk and taking a pen and a big book, her big blue eyes looking at me first of all, then at the sky, she began to write pages and pages. I could see they were big and beautiful poems full of charm, tenderness and sweetness. I could not read them but I feel sure they were beautiful. Then she closed the book softly, lay down the pen, and came silently towards me and then I heard these words: Choose. Oh, how much I hesitated, first I remembered the beautiful melody, then I suddenly turned towards the easel, it was so beautiful, and with a paint brush I could describe the sweet and charming landscapes, all the beauty of nature. But suddenly, I turned towards the big desk loaded with books, an invisible force led me towards that corner, involuntarily I seized the pen, then the lady smiling came up to me and gave me a big book saying: Write, I will guide you. Without any difficulty I wrote things which I think were beautiful because the lady said to me pointing to a corner where men with vendable beards, as well as queens and pretty ladies woe writing without stopping: Your place is there. As soon as the lady was gone I softly dropped the book, and I went towards the piano, I wanted to try, first of all my fingers went very well, I like what I was playing but suddenly I had to stop. I did not know anymore. Then looking at the piano sadly I thought: I cannot. Then I tried to paint, my landscape was already pretty but then I stop and see that big smudges spoiled the whole thing, and then I said: Adieu, I don’t want this. Then I took up the pen again and I began to write without stopping. My dream was very long, but seemed so singular that I wanted to tell it so as to be able to re-read it.

Yet she reveals a profound ambivalence about the possibility of communicating with others.

When I reread these pages I like to be able to say: this is a special story. Does it matter if no one understands? Am I writing for the world? No. My language is unknown. What a joy it will be if I am overlooked; my treasures will then belong to me alone. When I die I will burn these pages and my thoughts scribbled here will live only in eternity with the one who expressed them. Of course, if someone should understand, if someone should hear this contradictory language, these novel impressions, I would be very happy.