Book Tastings: Stars in My Sky

In her teens Anaïs Nin worked as a model for artists, which appealed to her dramatic, flamboyant side as well as gave her the opportunity to know other artists with whom she always felt an affinity. She also lived for a time with relatives in Havana, and became acquainted with another form of society. Nin’s first novel, written when she was 19, contains material from these two episodes. This interesting novel is about a girl named Aline who poses for artists in order to earn money for her father and brother. Here is a page from it:

They set to work again, and while Zanelli mixed more paint he told Aline: “I’m surprised that your father lets you pose. Parents usually make a fuss over that.”

“Oh, father did, of course, but what other work could I do?”

“You were born to pose for artists,” Zanelli said emphatically. “You stick to that as a profession, and I prophesize that in a year David Sterling himself will have painted you.”

“Who is David Sterling?”

“A painter who’s been doing fancy things-you know the sort-paints clouds and fairies, etc., and he’s always saying he hasn’t found a woman he has wished to paint yet-they don’t please him. Years ago we all enjoyed sending him the girls who came to our studios looking for work, and they all wasted their carfare, the poor things.”

“Oh, how interesting,” Aline exclaimed, slowly losing her first shyness. “He and my father would certainly agree if they met. My father says he will never write about women again, though he used to write novels about them once. He says that no woman eve comes up to a man’s ideal. He’s kept me home all these years, fearing I’d become like the rest of them, and hoping I might be saved by his constant teaching.”

“And what on earth did he give you to amuse yourself with?” Zanelli questioned with apparent concern.

“Books of poetry instead of dolls,” Aline laughed, “And now I feel like taking a good look at the world outside.”

Aline conquers the awesome Sterling but in doing so discovers the importance of her work, and the story ends with her marriage to Sterling at the same time as she begins to write a book. A major theme of the novel is Aline’s concern with being a mere woman. It seems as if only men are destined for success and freedom. Yet as a woman, she senses an enormous power. She desires to create and live boldly. She can be light and love dancing like other women but she is also solemn and thoughtful, qualities which she feels are not accepted in a woman by those around her. She sees that people have great capacity to hurt others as well as make them happy and she desires to express what she has observed in her writing. She justifies her obsessive interest in people’s personalities by making it for literary purposes. Writing for her is the way she will heal the thousands of thoughtless, intangible cruelties people inflict on one another.This 200-page novel is written in traditional third-person narrative structure. Occasionally a scene is prefaced by a quote, such as As to us–we are uncertain people, who are chased by the spirits of our destiny from purpose to purpose, like clouds by the wind. — Shelley. Someone who has written in the margins of this manuscript advised Nin to use her own lines to head chapters and to concern herself with plot construction. But Nin, the budding writer, is already writing what engages her rather than following how-to-write formulas. She expressed the feelings of Aline, although not as extensively as characters are portrayed in her later work. In this novel and her next one the story is advanced through dialogue far more than in Nin’s later work.

Nin’s next novel, written when she was 25, is labelled unfinished and is about 150 pages long. Like the first, it concerns a woman in relation to men artists. In this one the woman, Rita, is a muse of the men but a strong believer in the talents of women. The men are rather chauvinistic, at first thinking it is only their place to create, but by the end they learn to be more sensitive to Rita. Rita says:

“Poor Joseph! You have grown thin. You need me to take care of you.”

“Oh, not like before. I want other things now. I think I understand what you needed. Now I would like to know your thoughts, to let you live as I live, with the things you love.”

“Oh, let’s not think about all that. I don’t ever want to write again. I’ll just be your wife, and nothing else.”

“No, No, I tell you I know what it is you want. I’ll try and make you happier.”

And then the calm, full days began just as before. Joseph at the piano, Rita everywhere in the studio. With this difference, that Joseph made constant efforts to talk to her as he talked to his men friends — seemingly considering her opinions. Rita teased him about it but accepted it.

Her husband Joseph says:

I can’t say I find our marriage as peaceful or as secure as before. You have shown a spirit which frightens me, in a way. I suppose now it is up to me to keep you from wanting to go.

Nin described this novel as written in imitation of D.H. Lawrence, an author who profoundly affected her. Although this novel dissatisfied her, writing it gave her a firmer stance as a writer. In a sense the influence of another author plays a role in helping the young author achieve her own style, which Nin proved, for instance, when she came to write the book about D.H. Lawrence. Another significant influence in her growth as a writer, Nin felt, was her knowledge of three different cultures and languages. She absorbed the essences of French, English, and Spanish even though she wrote largely in English. According to Nin, she received from her Spanish background — asceticism, fervor, physical and mental passion, the color and vividness that dramatizes everything, the fusion of body and mind, love for beauty and gesture, comedy and tragedy; from the English — critical tools, analysis, lucidity, awareness of the senses and subjection to them, the separation of body from head with the emphasis on keen, selective thinking and discipline of the body-machine; and from the French — a soft, misty quality, not treacherously musical nor irrevocably clear but poised somewhere between, and tasteful selectivity, a resistance to impulse, deliberate transfiguration. She adds in her note, The Spanish people live for an idea, the English die for an idea, and the French fight for it. I imagine that Nin would do all three.Nin’s third unpublished novel, referred to as the John novel (although in early drafts the character later to be named John is called Duncan), is approximately 170 pages long. It was written when she was 26 years old and living in France again, occasionally dancing under a Spanish name. In this work Nin significantly progressed as a novelist. The reflective passages are longer, as though Nin is groping for the words that would precisely dramatize all the feelings. She demonstrates the ability to handle more deeply emotional material. In her efforts, some of the drafts are written on pages torn from calendar books, hotel stationery, small scraps, upon which she wrote whenever and wherever material felt alive to her.

Unlike the first novel, this one is divided into sections that are prefaced by Nin’s own lines, as follows:


The leading character of this novel, written in the first person, is a woman who paints. She is married to Duncan, whose business is the Rubber Company and whose artistic production has been one book. Duncan talks about when he will create but cannot match the constant creative force of his wife. She is impatient with his passivity, and he cannot understand her intensity. She has met another man, a playwright named Alain who has the color and strong opinion that she missed in Duncan, and for whom she has a burning desire She and Duncan have been married seven years though, and she regards her love for him as like a religion. Their idea was that the test of a great love was endurance. Their love was a third truth, and their selves must revolve around it, must submit to it. She does not want to hurt him. But she would reflect:

Yet she would have wanted one life, just one life with Alain. Why did she remember at this moment just one thing: no words, no embraces, no exaltation, just a twist of Alain’s mouth, a voracious animal twist which had drawn the whole tidal rush of her blood to him? …She was afraid of her body. When she looked at it in the mirror she observed the mystery of its separate individual life. The silent curves contained emotions and pains, independent, secret, which she could not fully realize. In the mirror it was smooth; its movements were slow and supple. Inside, something was happening. She could feel it when she heard music-then something stirred, very heavily. She was bearing two lives, two desires, two wills. The other was a menace because it was unknown, inaccessible.

The emotional tension of this novel is strong and taut; it moves more passionately than the first two. The woman faces imminent change in her life. She loves her work and exploration in living, as well as her husband. With her husband she has had a secure, comfortable, serene life, filled with qualities many people strive for. To change this life, possibly to leave it, requires courage of a kind that many people spend lifetimes avoiding. She must conquer enormous fears of the unknown. One of these is the guilt in realizing that she is smarter than her husband.

The sudden realization that inevitably even if he gave all his life to literature she would outstrip him mentally gave her such despair that after talking very quietly and tenderly with him, holding herself in, she slipped into bed and began to shiver and tremble violently, overtaken by a deathly feeling of cold, and then she felt she could not breathe anymore and she gasped and trembled like that for a few minutes while her poor darling called out to her and she could not answer.

Her love for Duncan becomes more painful because it is impossible to continue. She is dissatisfied with any lack of imagination in living. With Alain things are beautiful but she experiences increasing restlessness. She daringly criticizes his work, letting her intelligence show. She sees limitations in men but does not want to destroy them. She realizes that

…she lived now with all herself, this body so long ignored. She burned at last completely and living was revealed to her in a thousand ways. She melted into the world, into dreams, into flesh, into moist desires. Before she gave only the cold radiation of her thought-now she gave her burning flesh. She was woman.

Significantly, the working title for part of this novel is Woman No Man Could Hold. She will follow her mind, even if it takes her away from any love. She dispels the illusion she built around Alain.

She had endowed him with the supreme poetical qualities, particularly of imagination. When she had discovered that he did not possess that why had she not ceased to be attracted? Because in Alain she had not been seeking the poet, but the big sensuous power and vitality. Her imagination was whipped and tormented by his literalness but her body had been enthralled, for all his matter of fastness seemed a necessary part of real earth man. His earthiness answered a need in her. But if this were so how could she be cured without the physical experience? Because she had discovered in several ways that there was no sensuality in Alain, that it was all on the surface, in the eyes, voice, and body: there was vitality, intellectual force, vigor of speech, love of investigation, of oblique living, curiosity about everything but real sensuality.

The woman wants to discuss Alain with Duncan but even though they had a capacity for intellectual tolerance they also recognized in themselves a fund of emotionalism and a strong wild jealousy. Pity for him prevents her at first from speaking, yet finally she does tell Duncan. Note how painstakingly the author depicted this profound crisis between Duncan and his wife.

He had thought of her first, he had first given her pity and understanding. His love warmed her. But the pain was slowly awaking in his body; he suffered from a physical realization of the physical facts. It was this pain she had most dreaded. She could do nothing for him. No amount of love could heal him. Every time he looked at her body he thought of Alain, and the thought and image were intolerable to him. She would find him awake at night, and know what he was thinking. It was his turn to die, to be tormented by doubts and jealousies, to touch the bottom of suffering. He asked questions constantly. He was curious, fearful, and though they let passion rush through them often, and clung to each other, at moments he would understand that the experience had enriched their love, at other moments he questioned what had become of their love, whether she had ever hated him, whether she had ever loved Alain more than himself. She repeated that she had not loved him, that it had been a physical bond. He had a terrible desire to know, he had to know every detail of the scene. With Duncan’s head on her breast, she had to tell him, through tears, every detail, and it was then she realized fully that what she had thought a peak moment had become for her an hour to loathe because the suffering in telling him was far keener than any pleasure she had known in obeying the impulse. This was true intensity, this was the peak, the explosion, through suffering, of such passion between her and Duncan as she had never before conceived or experienced. The full, blinding, startling realization of the preciousness to her, of the inseparableness of their two bodies. Every moment, in every embrace she could feel the breaking forth of his love, never so violently expressed…it was absolutely new.

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