Book Review: Henry and June

NOTE TO READERS: Not only is it very long, but this review has adult content and language. The language used below is in the context of the work; Nin is totally frank and not delicate with her choice of words. If you’re not a grown-up, please click here to go over to Reddit and read about unicorns.

TL;DR: Henry and June is the journal of a passionate, often overwrought married woman who tells of overcoming inhibitions and freeing her inner self simultaneously through psychoanalysis, multiple sexual and/or emotional affairs (including with the psychoanalyst) and the pursuit of an intense romance with another writer who, at the end, re-unites with this wife.

How good is it?

After a mere 12 pages Nin had already left an impact on me. It didn’t stop there. At every page there is a relevation to wonder at, whether it is her development (in any number of ways, more on that later) or how her many relationships are changing. The entire book is incredibly rich with detail, impressions, analysis as well as description. It never gets boring.

If the diaries can be taken at face value, they are a rare window into the mind of a woman who engaged life with complete and total abandon. She covered love, jealousy, infatuation, dominance, submission, self-destruction, shame, tenderness, pity and war, in the sexual/relationship sense. She provided a historical window into how some women had adapted to 1930’s mores, maneuvering as she did her era’s socio-sexual landscape with such aplomb. She did not build dams to hold back the passions of the men around her, she carved new channels to redirect them where she pleased. She choreographed her sexual and emotional  interests through an obstacle course of devoted marriage, past loves still lingering, and a dual intellectual and romantic love with one of the era’s most passionate men. She was a remarkable dichotomy of ingenue and sexual warrior. Nin sets off two recurring themes right off in with Drake (pages 8 and 9): he kisses, she rebuffs, but then she leads, only to rebuff, as he has no love, only passion. And then the thigh-fuck. Themes: the need for total absorption (love, passion, lust), and pity with compassion when her consort didn’t measure up — she is never derisive in her pity, though she sometimes, quite consciously, torments the men in her life. She operated the mechanics of sexual and emotional energies with a level of self-awareness and (at times) detachment that is amazing to behold and illustrated her mastery of those mechanics.

Why read this book?

I decided to read Anais Nin for two reasons. Firstly, because it was a hole in my literary experience. I did not attend college until my mid-20s, but was always a voracious reader.  Dostoevsky and Henry Miller were the most influential writers of my pre-collegiate life. I never would have read Miller except that, in an article somewhere, a columnist mentioned that he was the least known of America’s great writers. So I ordered a copy of Tropic of Cancer and found a writer who reveled in the tawdry joys of the most base kind — of fraternal intimacy, poverty (I was hard up at the time myself), eating, drinking and sex. It was mind-opening and liberating to someone who’d been raised in the tradition of East Coast prudery.

I knew Miller was involved with Nin, and I had heard that Nin wrote journals and erotica. I wasn’t into erotica or journals at the time and though I picked up Nin’s Diaries Vol 1 at the library, it didn’t stick. But it is a hole in my understanding of Miller’s legacy that I needed to fill, hence reason 1.

Reason 2: fast forward 30 years and the Internet. I’m trying to write fiction and I want characters with realistic views on their personal relations. For that, I need insight into how women think of romance, sex and men, and looking for unvarnished perspectives. There are a lot of resources, and I stumble across the web site of Charlotte Shane, a phenomenal writer who happens to be a feminist ex-sex worker and continues as an advocate. (More on her here.)  Needless to say, her work is a gold mine of unvarnished perspective. I read her articles, and bought her two books. From her articles, I was expecting from Shane’s books intimate and frank discourse on her experiences and deep introspection on sexuality. But to understand Shane in the context of literature as well as female sexuality, I thought it sensible to get some historical perspective. Hence, Anais Nin,

What is the scope of Nin’s self-observations?

Nin explored her own personal development, psychologically, emotionally and sexually. In Henry and June, we travel from her position of relative (and self-avowed) sexual naivete to the total consumption of her soul in search of passion and fulfillment — in every possible way and with a number of men and women. She discovers carnality through submission to a man (Miller) whose very being is founded in carnality, finds release and expansion of her consciousness through that relation, and at one point overwhelms and discards Miller (and just about everybody else), recognizing in the end he’s just a “gentle German who could not bear to let the dishes go unwashed” — p. 186. Along the way she discovers in herself desire for other women, the tender attachment she has with her husband, a desire to be unfettered both sexually and emotionally — a separate but entangled journey she makes with her psychoanalyst. She has a thousand separate discoveries in each interaction that she shares. It is a journey of stunning detail and intimacy told in a unique stream-of-consciousness technique which leans heavily on non-sequitur: from one paragraph to the next she switches foci, attitude, lovers. The intensity and intimacy is such that Henry Miller himself — avatar of the intimate and exposer of base emotion — could not, when offered by Nin, read this journal. He had to stop. Of course, being the subject would make it a much different experience.

Nin starts the book, her purple journal, a woman seven years married to a ‘safety’ kinda guy, Hugo, who is kind and incredibly blind to his wife’s peccadilloes. She’s had sex, sure, but tame stuff, until she runs into Henry Miller. A dual fascination in both Henry and his wife June, a femme fatale of the first order, cranks up the libido and interest of Nin. Not that she’s not already dallying — there was Drake, and John, an editor, and she’s in the process of stringing along Eduardo, a man who is beautiful but weak. She pity-fucks Eduardo. In fact, she’s pity-relationshipping Eduardo, literally, while pursuing psychoanalysis for her frigidity (!!) and simultaneously getting an energetic sexual education at the hands of Miller. Hey, you can’t make this stuff up. What impresses me the most about Nin is that she’s an emotional animal as much as an intellectual and sexual one. She simultaneously celebrates the carnal, while working up passion and getting deep emotionally with the men she interacts with, while at the same time deconstructing the motives of all to record in her journal.

Is she honest? I think so. Nin does take wild flights of fantasy at times and yet pulls herself back into a realistic frame in respect to her circumstance. For instance, after rekindling her passion for Miller, they think of running off together. “Today I would follow Henry to the end of the world. What saves me is only that we are both penniless.” That’s a tough realization to make, to ground one’s inner butterfly and it takes an internal honesty to execute. And she’s honest about the less attractive parts of her personality: “To exasperate a man is a pleasure” (p. 202). There is truth in her frank depiction of her own vacillations: Nin unabashedly vacillates from loving Henry, to being done with him, to being totally absorbed with him again. She hates sucking, she loves sucking — that theme flip-flops several times throughout the book. Nin doesn’t have to be consistent. She is honest in each moment.

There is a definite arc to the story that keeps it fascinating, even if there weren’t so many touching scenes that illustrate two mad geniuses coming together. It’s an arc of exploration, submission, exultation and domination — and in the domination, she loses the allure that Miller had for her. She finds that again, and the last third of the book devolves into a maelstrom of relationship manipulation, as she flits from one man to another (and admits to herself she is capricious).

Themes

For the adventurous (and patient) reader, these are the main themes I took from Henry and June.

Intimacy

This is to me, the greatest gift Nin has given. One expects, given Nin’s reputation, to hear about sex. But she goes far beyond describing sexual acts; Nin describes deeper territory, she bares her soul. She bravely records her most intimate details — exaltation, joy, love, lies, subterfuges, guilty pleasures, semen-soiled dresses, little shames that even someone of her emotional stature could be subject to. One of the more heartbreaking passages is this, when she is ‘back’ with Henry Miller: “‘Are you ever dry?’ he teases me. I confess that Hugo has to use Vaseline. Then I realize the full significance of this confession, and I am overwhelmed.’ In a single realization she captures the depth of love, pity, shame and conflict she has in maintaining her marriage, her marital relations, to a man in whom she can find no fault save lack of depth, of interest. That line hurts, you can feel it for both Anais and Hugo.

Passion and sensuality

There’s enough passion and sensuality to fill pages, let’s just have one good example of each. First, sensuality in an excerpt which also displays Nin’s frank and base use of language: ‘I want more than ever to fuck and to be fucked, to assert the sensual woman. Henry says one day, “Listen, I believe you could have ten lovers and handle them all.‘ (p. 127). That sentence solidifies her as the woman the equal on all counts to the famously sensual Miller.

Passion? Yes, we have passion: also on page 126, forming the emotional counterpoint to the above sensuality: “…as we walk along a boulevard, I want to kiss the man whose passion rushes like lava though a chill intellectual world. I want to give up my life, my home, my security, my writing, to live with him, to work for him, to be a prostitute for him, anything, even to be fatally hurt by him.

Submission

Nin’s joy in meeting Miller is in his wholehearted carnality. They make love and in doing so, the modern reader may be surprised by what today would be called rape in several sections: “The tenderness of his hands, the unexpected penetration, to the core of me but without violence. What strange, gentle power.” (p. 56). And “Two hours later Fred has gone to work and Henry is kissing me in the kitchen. I want to play at resisting him, but even a kiss on my neck melts me. I say no, but he puts his hands between my legs. He charges me like a bull.” (p. 125). Maybe this is not so different from what we find in modern romance literature. But this isn’t fiction and I wonder how it sits with modern feminist attitudes.

That scene and the Drake scene echo what is called rape culture today. To Nin, dealing with male sexual aggression is part of the interplay between man and woman — in fact, it is that aggression which fuels her libido, hence her exasperation with Eduardo. One observes throughout the book that she has a keen understanding of relative power in a sexual relationship. And despite the modern reader’s sensibilities, the interactions she has with Miller are founded in tenderness and emotion. This, just after the aforementioned love scene on page 125: “He is lying in bed, body arched against my back, his arm around my breast. And in the circumference of my solitude I know I have found a moment of absolute love. His greatness fills the wounds and closes them, silences the desired. He is asleep. How I love him! I feel like a river that has overflowed.” (p. 126)

Nin presents submission as her way to release herself, to abandon herself to carnality: “It transpires, it blazes. I cannot conceal it. I am woman. A man has made me submit. Oh, the joy when a woman finds a man she can submit to, the joy of her femaleness expanding in strong arms” (p. 58). These words strike the reader perhaps as a construct of a romance novel. Odd to the modern reader, but a strong and consistent theme throughout.

Dominance

The easiest relationship to see Nin’s dominant side is with Eduardo. “I sit so securely before Eduardo’s timidity…look at what I have done! Look at the spectacle of Eduardo’s torment.” (p. 73), In this scene she revels in her ability to arouse him, then “Tomorrow it will die, I thought.

The relationship with Miller is founded in her surrender to him, mentioned in the surrender section above. But cracks are telegraphed early, but subtly, and as soon as she sees herself as dominant over Miller, she loses her passion for him. On page 77, “Even Henry, with his adventurous life, does not altogether have confidence.” It will be a crisis of confidence that shatters the bubble of their passion, and she realizes, it is his writing that is fierce: “There is really nothing crazy about Henry except his feverish writing.” (p. 186). At that point, she is done with Miller. For a while, anyway.

For some context of the times, we have this statement from the psychoanalyst (Allendy), which she doesn’t disagree with: “a woman considers man as an enemy, and she is glad when she can humiliate him or demolish him.” Funny, later she deals with Allendy.

Fidelity Reimagined

Fidelity in the conventional sense doesn’t apply to Nin. She states on page 210 “No one can help weeping over the destruction of the ‘ideal marriage.’ But I don’t weep any more. I have exhausted my scruples. Hugo has the most beautiful nature in the world, and I love him, but I also love other men. He lies a yard away from me while I write this, and I feel innocent.” This type of incident occurs frequently throughout the book — Hugo just there, and Nin furiously scribbling in her journal of her passions for someone else. Note that Nin considers it her right to take whatever men as lovers she sees fit. She also torments herself for it.

Exultation

In the aforementioned submission to her love and passion, Nin soars the highest, of course. When ‘there were no words’, her joy is “palpable and terrifying” (p. 58) and it “… swelled within me as I walked the streets.” That’s enough on this subject, there are too many examples to quote!

Consideration

Much of what Nin does she does out of consideration for others. She helps Miller with his writing (and he with hers), she assists Miller with money and Eduardo with the involvement he seeks (a masochist I think!), encourages Hugo to psychoanalysis so he will become more self-aware. Although she’s certainly the dom in the relationship with Eduardo (which must, now 5 years on, have started after she married Hugo) “I sit so securely before Eduardo’s timidity” (p. 72) yet she is a kind dom whom you would call sentimental: “Maturity, virility, wholeness, the power to conquer me? Already I know he cannot conquer me, ever. I keep it a secret from him. Oh, the pity that stirs in me to see his beautiful head bowed down, his torment.” (p. 78).

She treats Hugo with perfect consideration (for someone who’s juggling three other guys). After coming back from seeing Henry, and getting her legs widened, she writes of when she could share her new-found awakening with Hugo, “Telling the truth about myself now would only kill him. His development is naturally slower…I am always concerned over Hugo, as if he were my child. It is because I love him best.” In fact she never let on to him of her infidelities. “I struggle to spare Hugo every humiliation. I do not ride over his feelings. Only twice in my life has passion been stronger than pity.” (p. 36). There is torment in that throughout the book, and you wonder if Hugo is her psychological safety net.

Bottom Line

I can’t imagine someone like Nin in today’s world. Not in any ordinary society, people who ‘over share’ get pushed aside, no one has the time, we are too private, and too rational. There are too many distractions, too many worries, taxes to pay, mortgages to cover for most of us to be so self-indulgent as to suffer for self-awareness. But in 1930’s Paris, a poorer place by far than most cities in 21st century America, where someone could live on a few sous a day, the lost generation had the time to indulge in passion, navel gazing, creation. They took the time, and to them, “Life is not rational, it is just mad and full of pain.” (p. 90).

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About H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.
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2 Responses to Book Review: Henry and June

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Diaries of Anais Nin Vol 1 | Albino Tree Productions

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Charlotte Shane’s N.B. | Albino Tree Productions

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