Book Review: Diaries of Anaïs Nin Vol 1

Note: I can’t annotate with page numbers here as my Kindle version has only ‘locations.’

TL;DR: The Diaries reveal an impassioned but (compared to the unexpurgated diaries)  composed Nin. She starts with the story from Henry and June. It is presented in a more linear, if incomplete, fashion and loses much of the impact as Nin excised all references to the steaming hot sex she was having with her lovers. Those relations lose depth as a result. The book livens up near the middle as she becomes more confessional regarding Antonine Artaud, with whom she conveniently did not sleep with. The last two-thirds of the book contain lengthy retrospectives of her first psychoanalyst, her father and her second psychoanalyst, who tries to convince her to stop with the diaries (!). The psych bits don’t interest that much and there is a lot of repetition. The story of her father is unsettling but very interesting and reveals much of her history. She closes with a tale of her pregnancy which is heartbreaking in several dimensions, finding God at the hospital, losing him when she must choose between God and psychiatry, which she’s chosen to study. Then it’s off to New York. Finis.

The Diaries vs. the unexpurgated journals

The Diaries are a fascinating read after reading the unexpurgated journal of the same time period (Henry and June, hereafter referred to as H&J for brevity). In that review, I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek TL;DR describing Nin as ‘overwrought.’ I used that word for both its definitions — in a high state of excitement or anxiety, and as referring to a work which is overly elaborate. The unexpurgated diary is very stream-of-consciousnesss and records extreme levels of emotion and absorption. Here, in the originally published (and heavily-edited) Diaries, her story is more linear, more composed. She tells of her engagement with life as being at a high order of awareness: “Ordinary life does not interest me. I seek only the high moments. I am in accord with the surrealists, searching for the marvelous.” In the first third of the book, she’s a bit stiff, and as a result, Nin comes off as a a bit precious for us normal folks, we who “never awaken.” She’s living off a stipend, after all, and for her, life is not a struggle to make the rent. (When talking of giving money to June, Nin mentions a monthly allowance). However, that changes as the book progresses and she bares more of her soul to the reader in sections about Artaud and her father.

The mood changes again in the last third, becoming tiresome in its psychoanalytic navel gazing (her involvement with psychoanalyst Otto Rank). Finally, in the last fifty pages or so, she is back doing what she does best — relating feelings, encounters, victories, defeats. Her infatuation with her father ends when she sees his need to force her to conform to his ideals an falsities. She struggles to finish her own books and get Miller published, and wrestles over whether she’ll continue the diaries further. And then, she drops the hammer in a wrenching depiction of her pregnancy and the loss of the child, stillborn at six months. As ever, she spares the reader not at all from the most intimate details and sensations and you want to fly back in time and shout at the doctor, just stop! Physically restrain him, if necessary. The poignancy is foreshadowed, when she is already ‘quickened’ (as they used to say) and she muses about her child:

It would be better if you died inside of me, quietly, in the warmth and in the darkness.

This, because of her fear the child will wander the world in search of a lost father, as Nin had done (figuratively — explained n the psychoanalytic section).

Another difference between H&J and the Diaries is that, in relation to certain people, Nin is more reserved; one can surmise that was to insulate her husband from her sexual adventures. Her pity and consideration is a theme which continues from H&J, though here mainly in a non-sexual context. In Diaries Vol 1, she makes this explicit: “I have compassion. Everything in me is either worship, passion, or else compassion, understanding.” We learn the genesis of her compassion: witnessing her father’s beating of her brothers and constant conflict with her mother. As a result, she compensates, becoming the anodyne for about everyone she meets, though her limits are tested with Antonine Artaud, who rages at her:

You give everyone the illusion of maximum love. Furthermore, I do not believe I am the only one you have deceived. I sense that you love many men. I feel you hurt Allendy, and perhaps others.

(This, because she never intended to be sensual with Artaud, to whom she had no physical attraction.) Oddly, we see her try to refute her compassion later (after psych dude # 2 convinces her to ditch the diary). There’s a trenchant quote in the psychoanalysis section below.

Theme: the feminine,  the masculine, and creation

I was so fascinated by this theme I ended up writing an entire post about it (coming soon). For the purpose of the book review, which is long already, we can summarize thus: Nin had definite view on the masculine and the feminine. To her, there were essential differences, though they were not always tied to physical gender. At times she is ‘masculine’ with her writer friends — as one who critiqued, reviewed, pushed the artists forward in their investigations of theme. The feminine is posited as a force of finesse and artifice and of deep feeling vs. the masculine of force, brutality, and creation. She saw that her contributions to the artists with whom she worked were essential, the feminine and the masculine working together. Clearly, Nin contributed much to her artist friends’ efforts, Miller went so far as to cadge her portrait of June as his own (and admits it).

Theme: Psychoanalysis

Throughout this book Nin refers to a multiplicity of selves and “fragments” and how they are assembled into the whole. June is comprised of fragments, Miller paints “a portrait of a June scattered into fragments,” Nin was made up of fragments as a child, as writers, they re-assembled wholeness. Her father comes into play, and in Diaries we learn far more about her father than in H&J. (I assume she gets into it in Incest). Her dad was a real creeper — a ‘Don Juan’ who later abandons the family, but who first photographs his daughter “while I bathed. He always wanted me naked.” And we find out about her need for compassion above all things, due to her father’s brutality: beating wife and son, and caning a cat to death. A nasty piece of work. Yet she falls into a platonic love with him, clearly exulting in the facets of herself she sees in him. There are differences, no doubt, but more similarities. It’s a bit strange for a modern reader, especially considering the guy’s creepy ways.

One of the psychological excursions, pursued with her psychoanalyst, Allendy, is her body image. It’s an odd passage in many ways; whereas most of the book dwells in the realm of consciousness, Nin was also preoccupied with her physical image (modes of dress are important themes). Nin was slender and her parents compared her to what an American would call a bag of bones. She frets that June has a ‘full body’ and a ‘full strong body’ and a ‘fullness’ she does not. ‘Full’ is a word she uses a lot (mentioning ‘full breasts,’ even, which seems trite nowadays). This theme goes on for quite a while, and Nin even goes to the extent of displaying her breasts to her psychoanalyst (clearly, from H&J and this book, we see the lines of propriety in psychoanalysis had not been laid down yet). Allendy says they are fine and in proportion, suggests she eat more, gain some weight (which she does). It really boggles the mind the stuff Allendy got up to.

The final section on psychoanalysis is very long and detailed, but repetitive. It is when she is seeing Otto Rank, who treats her as an individual where Allendy tried to fit her into a predetermined psychoanalytic category. Rank entrances her, he is an artiste of a psychoanalyst. At the end, she is ready even to give up the diary, and makes some dramatic statements about herself:

I face the world without the diary. I am losing my great, dissolving, disintegrating pity for others, in which I saw deflected the compassion I wanted for myself. I no longer give compassion, which means I no longer need to receive it.”

If this was the result of psychoanalysis, one might doubt the value.

Bottom line

The book does warm up after the first hundred pages, and the characterizations become more lifelike, though never to the fluidity and passion of the unexpurgated Henry and June. The main characters who benefit from the later sections are Antonine Artaud,  her father, and herself (of course). The middle third of the book has some great insights and astonishing passages — and some incredibly trenchant quotes, such as this one about Artaud:

I let him pronounce his anathemas, curses, as a malefic, dangerous being,
black magic, and he seemed more and more like an outraged castrated monk.

Nin reaches for the sky; one assumes she lived there, not on Earth like us mortals. The experiences Nin describes are almost superhuman. She’d endure “any” pain, she revels in “pure, pure ecstasy” with June. Yet in editing her journal, as I have mentioned, she lost some impact — the essence of Miller, for example, and in comparison, the Diaries are flat in some respects, simplified compared to the unexpurgated journals. On the other hand, the Diaries are far better constructed and easier to follow than H&J, and certainly worth a read. In this volume, the multiple dimensions in which she describes her life are fascinating and we learn much about her past and how it shaped her as an adult. But if you want the feeling of Nin and Miller, then the unexpurgated diaries are where you want to spend more time. The same might be said about Incest (which I have yet to read) and her relationship with her father, as one might surmise form the title.

Nin is not altogether likeable. She’s conceited — she refers to her ‘stupid, homely’ maid with an almost paternal condescension, refers to the ‘ugly’ woman helping them in the shoe store, who envied her and June their happiness. Why did the woman have to be ugly? Why not just describe her as unhappy, maybe unfulfilled? She recounts her father’s seduction of the ‘homely’ governess without comment, shocking given the delivery:

He tells me the story of the humble and rather homely little governess no one paid attention to. “Without me she would never have known love. I used to cover her homely little face to be able to make love to her. It transformed her. She became almost beautiful.”

This passage contains no reaction from Nin. Other people who speak or act despicably do get reactions, so it was not just convention of the diary that she has no comment on this passage. And she’s quite aware of her own genius. There are several passages where she explains how she is an enzyme which speeds the reactions of her colleague’s artistry:

“D. H. Lawrence, and other men gave the best of themselves to primitive
women, endured them, while I, being the woman whom men associate with their
creation, I get treated in a superior, elevated, mature way and so much is
expected of me that I cannot always live up to.

Yet I admire her for her compassion (whether it survived Rank we will see in Diaries Vol. 2) and also for her one immutable law:

Elsie broke the only law, the only law I respect: don’t inflict
unnecessary pain. That smile!

A highly recommended read, but have something light to switch to now and then.

Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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