Nin (c. 1903-1977) is best known for her erotica and for her seven volumes of diaries published from 1966 to the end of her life.
Nin's other works, which include novels and short stories, are greatly influenced by Surrealism, a movement initiated in the 1920s by artists dedicated to exploring irrationality and the unconscious, and by the formal experiments of such Modernists as D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, who employed expressionistic and stream-of-consciousness narration. Rather than relying on a chronological ordering of events as in conventional narratives, Nin wrote in a poetic style featuring repetition, omission, and pastiche as organizing principles. Critics favorably note her attention to physical details and the influence of sensory information on the moods, thoughts, and interactions of her characters. Nin's predominant subject is psychological, and her insights into the behavioral and thought patterns of women have been particularly praised as both astute and free of misanthropy.
Nin began her diary as an ongoing letter to her father, Spanish musician and composer Joaquin Nin, who abandoned his family when she was eleven years old. Nin kept a journal throughout her life, recording such experiences as friendships with famous artists and writers, her years in psychotherapy, and, eventually, her worldwide travels on speaking engagements. Because she edited and excerpted her original diaries for publication in seven volumes as The Diary of Anais Nin, many commentators assess them for insights they shed upon Nin's literary technique. Nin's diaries relate incidents in the present tense and feature real people who appear as carefully delineated characters in fully-realized settings. The diaries are divided according to theme and share many of the concerns expressed in Nin's fiction, including the life of the creative individual, psychoanalysis, the relation between the inner and the outer world, and the nature of sexuality. The volumes include photographs, conversations presented in dialogue form, and letters from Nin's personal correspondence, completing the impression of a thoughtfully orchestrated work of art rather than a spontaneous outpouring of emotions. Susan Stanford Friedman determined: "The Diary records Nin's attempt to create a whole identity in a culture that defines WOMAN in terms of her fragmented roles as mother, daughter, wife, and sister."
Nin's first published work, The House of Incest, is often considered a prose poem due to its intensely resonant narrative. This book achieves a dream-like quality through its emphasis on psychological states rather than on surface reality. Nin's next publication, The Winter of Artifice, contains three long short stories. The first, "Djuna," concerns a menage a trois that closely resembles the relationship Nin depicted in her diary as existing between herself, novelist Henry Miller, and Miller's second wife, June. In "Lilith," Nin portrays the disappointing reunion of a woman with her father, who abandoned her in her childhood, while "The Voice" features an unnamed psychoanalyst and his four female patients who must learn to incorporate the emotions experienced in their dreams into their conscious lives. Under a Glass Bell, another collection of Nin's short fiction, contains "Birth," one of her most celebrated pieces. In this story, a woman undergoes excruciating labor only to bear a stillborn child and discover that through this process she has been symbolically freed of her past. This Hunger…, Nin's next collection of short fiction, extends her exploration of the female unconscious in psychoanalytic terms.
Cities of the Interior, which Nin described as a "continuous novel," is often considered her most ambitious and critically successful project. Between 1946 and 1961, Nin published the work in five parts; these installments were published as Ladders to Fire, Children of the Albatross, The Four-Chambered Heart, A Spy in the House of Love, and Seduction of the Minotaur. Ladders to Fire concerns Lillian, a character known for her violent temper, who is as dissatisfied with her extramarital affair as she is with her marriage. Lillian seeks the perfect lover as an antidote to the problems of her life. In Children of the Albatross, Djuna, a minor character in Ladders to Fire, is emotionally stunted due to her father's abandonment. Djuna prefers playing mother to a series of adolescent lovers rather than becoming involved in a mature relationship with a man. In The Four-Chambered Heart, Djuna gains a measure of self-awareness through her relationship with Rango, a Guatemalan musician and political activist. A Spy in the House of Love, Nin's most popular novel, features Sabina, a minor character in the earlier volumes. A woman looking for affection through sexual gratification, Sabina discovers she has never experienced love. Seduction of the Minotaur reintroduces Lillian, who realizes the preciousness of human life while travelling in Mexico and returns to her husband a more mature woman. Collages (1964), an experimental novel that relies upon pastiche unified by a single character, reworks themes from Nin's earlier novels.
Much of Nin's fame is attributable to the short erotic pieces she wrote for a patron while living in Paris during the early 1940s. Collected in Delta of Venus and Little Birds, these works have garnered much commentary regarding their status as literature. Although many feminist critics object in principle to sexually explicit literature, some have championed Nin's erotica, declaring that these stories advocate mutual respect and consent between the participants in a sexual relationship. Some critics defend Nin's graphic depiction of sexual situations as an exploration of psychological truths, while others emphasize that her artistry removes these pieces from the category of pornography.
Further Reading on Anais Nin
Newsweek, January 24, 1977.
New York Times, January 16, 1977.
Time, January 24, 1977.
Washington Post, January 16, 1977.
Anais Nin Observed: From a Film Portrait of a Woman as Artist, Swallow Press, 1976.
Authors in the News, Gale, Volume II, 1976.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume I, 1973, Volume IV, 1975, Volume VIII, 1978, Volume XI, 1979, Volume XIV, 1980.
Cutting, Rose Marie, Anais Nin: A Reference Guide, C. K. Hall, 1978.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume II: American Novelists since World War II, 1978, Volume IV: American Writers in Paris, 1980.
Evans, Oliver, Anais Nin, Southern Illinois University Press, 1968.
Franklin, Benjamin V, Anais Nin: A Bibliography, Kent State University Press, 1973.