I once saw a black and white picture of a woman in a bank vault full of her own diaries. Short hair tied up and curled back, bright round face, leaning on a stack full of books she’s filled with her own words. I looked at it nearly every day for a week. Years later, I realized that woman was Anaïs Nin. If you are anything like me, you sometimes like to imagine yourself in Paris in the 1940s, sat around a cafe table with some smart friends, wine, and possibly a book for when they leave. Which also means that if you’re anything like me, you like to imagine you’d have gotten along great with Anaïs Nin.
A world-renowned novelist, eroticist, and diarist, Nin went unrecognized for (I would argue) far too long, but her power has come to light nevertheless, and her life was full of color, romance, and adventure regardless of how many read her work while she was writing it. Goodreads describes her as “one of the leading female writers of the 20th century and a source of inspiration for women challenging conventionally defined gender roles.” Just in time for Valentine’s Day, here’s a guide to the one and only Anaïs Nin.
This might be what Nin is known best for – her intense, consistent journaling. As you’ll see from the sheer amount of material, she wrote long, hard, and well about her own life. She details love, her private thoughts, and relationships, and they’re nearly impossible to put down. You really feel like you’re in her brain, and it’s a great brain to be inside of, to say the least. It’s all so…dreamy. It makes the most sense, in this case, to go in chronological order – so you can keep up with her mind and life, watch it all unfold. You’ve got the seven-part Diary of Anaïs Nin, which spans the years 1931-1974. There’s a lot of information/controversy about what could remain in the volumes and when they could be published because the characters were still…living/working/creating figures (*ahem Henry Miller*) But then you have Henry and June: From A Journal of Love. The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, which is a great look into the sort-of-love triangle between Henry Miller, his wife June, and Nin – an important part of much of Nin’s writing (and, thus, life). Then, there are still more: Incest: From a Journal of Love, for more about Henry & June, and Nin’s relationships to her father, her husband, and her psychoanalyst; Fire: From a Journal of Love, and Nearer the Moon: From a Journal of Love, both on female sexuality (duh) and more explicit looks at topics she’d written about before.
Nin is also known for her relationship with fellow writer Henry Miller. In A Literate Passion: Letters of Anaïs Nin & Henry Miller, a thick, lovely book, you’ll get their relationship in all its NSFW written splendor.
Erotica is where Nin made her mark. But it’s interesting: most of it was published posthumously. If you can imagine Europe at the time she was writing, erotica wasn’t rare, but it was nearly all written by men. And Nin realized this – she realized things about language, characters, point-of-view, and relationships, and saw how to turn it all on its head by writing it from her own perspective, which was a bit of a revolutionary act. Delta of Venus is the best-known and my favorite, comprised of loads of lovely dreamy & steamy short stories, but Little Birds is great, too. Also, unimportant, but the covers of her books just look so good! Cities of the Interior is worth checking out, as well. It was published in five parts but makes up one continues novel, so you’ll be busy with it for a while. As with most of her writing, it’s quite inspired by her real life and relationships.
Nin is one of those special kinds of dreamy French artists who dipped her toes in a lot of forms of art, beyond just writing, as her circle of friends was as artistic and creative as she was. She’s appeared in several films: 1954’s short-cult-film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, and the experimental short films Ritual in Transfigured Time, and in Bells of Atlantis – search around, they’re quick and not hard to find. There’s also a Philip Kaufman film titled Henry & June, made in 1990, based on Nin’s novel, and a documentary about her called Anaïs Nin Observed.