Book Tastings: Stars in My Sky

A few years later when Henry Miller read this novel, he wrote in the margin: This is rot! Too goddamned good to be true. Miller probably thought it was impossible for a woman to have the feelings for her husband as Nin had portrayed them. But experience in the life of women has shown that what Nin revealed is valid. More than that, Nin has put into words the pain of such a situation and she has shown a character who has sympathy for her husband and her lover. The woman is not just selfishly seeking her own gratification nor bringing her relationship with her husband to a jarring conclusion, leaving both of them in despair from the sudden break. No, she has stayed close to the woman’s feelings of love for her husband as a person, and in the end wins support from him in the form of belief and faith in her being. And similarly, the lover turns out not to be the goal either, as has been seen. Miller, who had a tendency to pay scant attention to the feelings of others in relationships, probably could not fathom this.

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The experience of writing this novel gave Nin a new perception of life that answered her childhood question –is life just a sad reality? Her awareness, which includes pride in herself as a woman and her ability to create, is both psychologically and philosophically perceptive.

…all the while she knew she was not running away from one man to another but from one feeling to another. The first was worth staying with, and undeserving of pain, and the second was, ultimately, hardly different. But living with the first was death, and going to the second was life. There was livingness even in the effort made to break the tension, to draw away, in the feeling of running to new sensations. All beginning was a kind of living, all settlement was a kind of death. The first man may not be different from the second, but the second could create a feeling. She was running imperatively towards life, she was running away from no one but herself, herself unresponsive to one man, responsive to another, that was all.

And the tragedy was that the men thought it was they; the one who was left was hurt in his pride and in his manhood, the one who was to receive her was exulting in his triumph; there was no triumph and no abandon, just the mere movement of life itself, of feelings that moved like a river, that was all. There were no persons, no real persons, and there should be no tears. But the body of the woman who was growing thus kept both men from seeing the idea, an idea for which, if they had seen it, they would have had no sympathy and no compassion.

The process of life is like a continuous gnawing of the brain on the nervous system. When the death of a relationship occurs, it is felt in the psyche first and outward events follow afterward. Death is withdrawal of energy from a person or work or place or object and is experienced as pain So, in this novel Nin has chronicled death in a relationship and followed it further than she had ever gone before; and in so doing she came upon spiritual truth.In a fragment Nin noted that it seemed as if her blood eventually turned to ink. It was very economical. Her sardonic humor about herself shows how united writing and living have become for her Such explicit spontaneity could only come from the labors of a desperately committed writer.

Actually in much of Nin’s writing there runs a vein of ironic humor that has gone unmentioned by critics. For her irony feels as if her intellect opens a window and lets out fresh air. Humor can be seen in a number of the stories Nin wrote in her twenties, of which approximately 16 of the Northwestern Collection have not been published For instance, in a story titled Alchemy, a wife receives visitors who have come to see her husband, the great writer. The visitors ask to see him but he cannot be seen. The visitors recognize details from the house and the wife’s anecdotes, as having appeared in the great writer’s novels As the wife patiently explains his sources of characters and ideas, the visitors cannot believe the great writer’s ordinary wife could be the phosphorescent creature he described in his books. The truth is that her life, her character and friends, all her activities are the great writer’s material, which he has alchemized, as F. Scott Fitzgerald did of his wife, Zelda; indeed she could even be the great writer herself. Through irony this story makes a humorous point about the creative process and also releases some of Nin’s anger at being used and ignored as a writer.

Another story, SUR/Realism, makes fun of the random disassociation of elements that so often appeared in the work of the Surrealists. In this story a man, his wife, and another woman are in a House of Surprises, presumably of the mind rather than an actual carnival. The wife spends time in a room with a crusading-American, but she worries that her young friend, who is afraid of men, is lost with her husband. She finally finds them; the woman is squealing delightedly and her husband observes dryly, She had a very nice sweater on.

In a story called A Dangerous Perfume, Nin’s sardonic humor points up a landlady’s repressive, puritanical, and dull stance toward life. Lyndall, a beautiful woman anxious to enjoy a balmy day in Paris, must see her landlady about the apartment she’d been living in. The landlady detects the aura of an exotic perfume, which upsets her. She hates it and wants to condemn the apartment. Lyndall is annoyed with the landlady’s values, clearly aware that it is her love of beauty and passion that so offends her. She induces the landlady to admit her jealousy, after which Lyndall feels she could never live in the apartment again.

Other stories by Nin in the Northwestern Collection are fascinating dramatizations of states of feeling, written to more serious, symbolic purpose. Nin occasionally signed the name Melisandra to them. Most are intact and polished, while others are handwritten first drafts. They concern women, love, the chaos of inner struggle, the quality of life in today’s society. An example is A Spoiled Party in which a strange woman enters a party unannounced and bewilders the guests. She is dressed in emerald green silk and has very large, turquoise eyes and sienna hair which stands out around her head airily. She will not speak, only looks into people’s hearts and minds knowingly. She is the personification of self-knowledge.

In another story red roses are made the image of the terrible joy of fulfilled desire:

The red roses are flames, addressed to the flame in her. She cannot place them in a vase. She is overflowing with their redness…They will burn the house, melt the snow, and burn her and all her brothers and sisters, her mother, her father, the neighbors. They will burn the village, and spread in circles throughout the whole land and scar the city.

More so than in the novels the women characters of the stories recognize the importance of work to their lives and are not content with just the security offered by a man. In a story called The Waste of Timelessness a woman is tired of the usual party and people and wants explorations. She gets into a metaphorical boat and sails magnificently away:

Along the shore she saw her husband one day. He signaled to her: “When are you coming home?”

“What are you doing this evening?” she asked.

“Having dinner with the Parkeses.”

“That is not a destination,” said she.

“What are you headed for?” he shouted.

“Something big,” she answered, drifting away.

Nin always had an intuitive grasp of the unexpressed feelings in men and women. From childhood as we have seen she had an unusual longing not to hurt others. This sensitivity plus her author’s intelligence consistently gave her writing a compelling compassion. Because as an author she conducted an honest struggle with the problems she set herself in portraying life for the reader, she produced a quality of livingness in her prose that made her material seem highly relevant. Transmuting ordinary experience was the underlying purpose of her writing in the novels and stories. In drafts of House of Incest she will bring her life/material to a new level of awareness.By the time Nin was 28 years old, which is when Volume I of her Diary opens, her literary production had increased. She continued to write stories, in addition to material that became parts of Winter of Artifice, Ladders to Fire, and House of Incest. In 16 days she wrote the critical book, D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study. As Volume I of the Diary reveals this was a time of many changes in Nin’s life too. She both regretfully and joyfully was leaving behind a certain life-style and opening herself to new relationships and experiences. The publication of D.H. Lawrence brings her the literary friends that she always wanted. It seems as if the emotional turmoil of the author’s growth was the fuel generating her prolific literary production at this time. In her case at least it seems that the period of greatest suffering provided her with the themes of her best, most important works.

Because D.H. Lawrence’s books helped shape Nin’s own theories about literature and the relationships of men and women, she wrote the book about his work out of gratitude. Lawrence was a pioneer in expressing the psychological entanglements between mother and son, man and woman; being a man, he did not give as much attention to the relationships of father/daughter, which Nin eventually would do, or mother/daughter. Lawrence wrote about many of the inner effects of sex and the blood of marriage. He said that human love was relative and not an absolute, that at times individuals had to react away from one another in order to preserve their integrity. Marriage, he believed, was based on the pair’s bond in one area and unknowingness in others. It was important to meet resistances in each other. Lawrence also wrote that the secret to unutterable living is obedience to the urges that arise in the soul, that these urges lead to new gestures, new embraces, new emotions, new combinations, new creations. In his work he took readers on his own soul-searching explorations, rather than merely entertain them. For him, writing was the profession of knowing the feelings inside a person and making new feelings conscious.

Nin pursued the same goal, which can be seen in the early novels and stories. She searched for the unconscious motivations behind people’s actions, appreciated the life-giving power of sensuality and the necessity for creation and building one’s own world. Lawrence had more empathy than most authors for the nature of woman, but he, like Freud and in a different way Jung, fell short in not being able to understand the woman seeking achievement in the world; they too often confused natural activity with aggression and gave it an exclusively masculine connotation. During this literary period, Nin began working with psychoanalyst Dr. Allendy, and her technical knowledge of psychoanalysis increased her capacity to understand the realm of feeling and psychic energy in human existence. Eventually through her work Nin would define in her way the psychological reality of the woman who builds and constructs other things besides relationships.

When Nin was 29 years old, D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study was published and among those who admired it was Henry Miller. He must have seemed to be a man incarnating D.H. Lawrence’s ideas in the flesh. He was exuberant, warm, a great conversationalist. He too was finding his voice as a writer, was yet unknown, and totally devoted to writing. He had an extensive familiarity with people who knew poverty, slums, violence, lust, things which in human affairs are the other face of ideals, beauty and virtue. They shared revolutionary objectives in writing and had many conversations to refine them. Regarding Miller’s writing, Nin is baffled by his strange mixture of worship of life, enthusiasm, passionate interest in everything, energy, exuberance, laughter and sudden destructive storms. He uses the first person, real names; he repudiates order and form and fiction itself. Miller extols her matter, content, and vitality. Both are inspired by Andre Breton’s urging to write as one thinks, in the order and disorder in which one feels and thinks, to follow sensations and absurd correlations of events and images, to trust to the new realms they lead one into.

They inundated each other with their own work and works of others whom they admired; they revelled in each other’s growth. Their rapport was intense; as they worked, they served as muse and sympathetic listener for each other. Nin wrote,

I have given him depth, and he gives me concreteness…I am merciless on his childish rantings…I only act as an analyst, helping him discover himself, revealing to him only his own nature, desires, aspirations…He helps me by always asking me to say more, to write more assertively, to clarify, expand, to be strong.

Reacting to Miller’s ideas about writing forced Nin to explain her own more fully. He was a merciless critic, as enthusiastic and exaggerated as he was in his own writing, and for Nin to survive that, without being destroyed, strengthened her. His notations in the margins of her manuscripts contain advice to learn new words, to cure herself of abominable locutions, and lively expansions of his own ideas (which her words stimulated). This relationship enabled both to more clearly see their own directions as writers. And that is the rare reward in the relationship between two people who write. Nin saw Miller lose sight of individual truth for intellectual world theories; whereas, she pursued the path of reaching for universal meaning within the individual. Eventually she withdrew herself from deep immersion in him. She felt that The exaggerations he brings to his euphoric adventures in life, sex, food, laughter are wonderful. The inflation, bloatedness, giganticism he brings to his ideas, I suspect conceal a lack of focus and true insight. Nin’s future books could not help but benefit from such a literary encounter.

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