when literary scholar and journalist Deirdre Bair first embarked on an exploration of the life of Anaos Nin, she knew little about the famous diarist and writer of erotic fiction beyond the most public details of her life. But after poring over more than 250,000 pages of Nin's handwritten diaries and conducting countless interviews with those who knew Nin, Bair emerged with a portrait very different than that which the diaries alone suggested.
In "Anaos Nin: A Biography," which won Bair her second National Book Award for biography (the first was in 1981, for her biography of Samuel Beckett) and was recently published in paperback by Penguin, Bair revealed that much of Nin's life revolved around the tainted relationship she had with her estranged father, with whom she had an affair in her early 30s. But she also asserted that Nin, while not quite the fiercely independent woman she presented herself to be, was still "a shining exemplar of the modernist dictum 'Make it new,' for she was prescient enough to poise herself directly in the path of all that was fresh, exciting, and frequently controversial."
While in San Francisco on a recent reading tour, Bair talked to Salon about Nin's unique place in 20th century cultural history, why she excelled at memoir and erotica but not other forms of literature, and how biographers should handle personal revelations they unearth about their subjects.
Having already written biographies of two major cultural and literary figures, Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett, you chose Anaos Nin as a subject -- against the advice of most of your colleagues and despite the fact that you yourself describe her as a "major minor writer." Why?
It really wasn't against their advice. Perhaps they were surprised and suggested we were an unlikely combination, Nin and me. What made me choose her was that I was finishing the biography of Simone de Beauvoir, and I had become fascinated through reading and rereading her memoirs with the idea of how and why and what women write about themselves. Originally, I was thinking that perhaps I should just write an article, or maybe a "Hers" column or something on the subject. Then I came into contact with a number of journals, just in passing, nothing that I really read seriously.
I kept thinking about the lives that women commit to paper, and whether they do it for themselves, in the privacy of their home, or whether they always have in mind it will be read by a larger public, or whether they write for posterity. All of these questions came up at about the same time that any number of people were bringing up Anaos Nin's name in my presence, or asking questions about her. Suddenly, I thought, instead of writing an article, or a critical book, why didn't I address these concerns through another biography, and wouldn't she be perfect?
Why do you think Nin was so severely denounced for having lied in her own diaries?
Well, somebody once said that memoir, diary, journal or private writing has to be truth. This was before the age of postmodernism, when we all said, "There is no truth, there's no one truth. There's your truth and my truth." So when Nin's diaries were published, women in the '60s, in the dawning of the feminist movement, were reading these diaries and were saying, "Oh my God, here's one woman who really had the perfect life. She went around the world independently, she lived independently, she did whatever she wanted, she was in charge of her own sexuality, her own finances, everything. We all want to be Anaos Nin."
Many, many women I know left their partners, changed their sexual identity, just totally changed their lives, and in many instances really messed up their lives. And then it gradually filtered out, well, you know, she not only had one husband, she had two, and one of them was incredibly wealthy, and he paid for everything. She was never really doing anything on her own, there was always this big safety net of all these people. And so people turned against her, because the diary wasn't the truth. People were unable to say that memoir and diary writing are allowed to be the written version of the person's life, as the person wants the life to be known and perceived. They get angry, and I think Nin really was one of the first, 30 or 40 years ago, who was attacked for not telling the truth. And suddenly, the quest for the truth took over, and all sorts of scholars were going out there, writing biographies saying, "Aha! Robert Frost was a liar! Fitzgerald was a liar! Everybody was a liar, they didn't tell the truth!"
Okay, fine, but how about the work? Could we maybe judge the work? Why do we make these demands on the lives of others that they have to be perfect? Why can't these people be normal human beings like all the rest of us?
This is why I'm one who has said, "I have no problem with your written version of reality, if that's the way you want it to be told, fine. I'm not going to point my finger at you and say, 'nasty, hideous liar.' Okay, so you lied, I'll put that in the context of the rest of everything else."
Given the current literary climate, where so much fiction is based on implied memoir, would Nin have had an entirely different experience were she writing now?
Had she been alive today, her diaries would have been published much earlier, and much more easily. Everyone was terrified of the censorship of the '50s -- from 1940 to 1960, when you know, "Lady Chatterley's Lover," that tame book today, was banned. "Catcher in the Rye" was a dirty book. You have to put yourself back into that historical context and realize that these diaries were shocking at that time, and nobody wanted them.
She would have had such an easy time getting them published today, so she might not have ever tried to write fiction, because diary writing was so easy for her, and fiction writing was so hard. She could never make that leap, beyond herself into the world of pure fiction. Her material was herself, though she was never able to turn that self into an other self, an other entity entirely.
But her erotic fiction brought her the most commercial success, at least while she was alive. Was that perhaps her best attempt at fiction?
It probably was, and for several reasons. The first is that she wrote it for hire, and she was told, "Take out all the poetry, it has to be nothing but descriptions of sex." She wrote it very quickly for money, so there was not the same booby trap that she got into when she tried to write her own fiction, making the leap into pure creativity that fiction requires. Certainly most fiction writers take the stuff of their lives and the lives of the people around them and convert it into a form of fiction, but they somehow convert it into art.
And Nin never could?
Nin was always so afraid of being discovered for this transgression or that transgression, that she was never able to do that. Whereas, with the erotica, it was going into a private collector's hands, it was never to be seen again in the world, and she was just sort of sitting down at the typewriter and belting it out. And that was it.
Do you consider her erotica literature?
Very much so. A friend of mine, Michele Slung, who's kind of an expert on pornography and erotica, considers it to be practically the finest example of women writing erotica. Also, it's really the first time that a woman was able to express her own command of her own sexuality in a lyrical, beautiful form. I've read the erotica certainly, and I've read some other erotica, but I count on the experts to verify that opinion. And I share that opinion.
The film "Henry and June," about the relationship between Anaos Nin, Henry Miller and his wife June, was supposedly based on Nin's diaries, but it's a very different portrayal than the one you offer.
I was struck by the way (director Philip Kaufman) was able to take the incidents and the conversations that Anaos Nin put into her diary and turn it into something on stage.
But there are two facts that are very, very wrong and have to be corrected. One was that Anaos Nin never, ever had a physical relationship with June Miller. Anaos Nin's first lesbian relationship happened during an orgy in the 1940s in New York City, and she didn't like it. And she never had a physical relationship with women after that.
The second thing was that Hugh Guiler, her husband, was not the buffoon, the fool , the cuckold, the stupid, silly man that Phil Kaufman turned him into in that film. Hugh Guiler was an extremely sensitive, sophisticated man who knew everything that was going on but simply chose not to see it. So those two things notwithstanding, everything else in the film was pretty accurate.
Do you think Nin was ultimately a more important cultural figure than she was a writer?
I think as time passes, the diaries are going to become a historical document, because when people in the 21st and 22nd centuries want to know who we were and how we lived, they'll find a great deal of cultural background and information in Anaos Nin's diaries.
I think they're going to become kind of a reference work for the 20th century, starting in the 1920s, when she talks about how important the Delineator magazine was, which was a very important early publication in this century, and going through the '20s with T.S. Eliot's "Prufrock" and Joyce's "Ulysses" and the '30s with Lawrence, and on and on and on and on. Everything that mattered in every decade of this century she has written extensively about.
Were you the first writer to fully explore Nin's relationship with her father?
Yes. I had a feeling I was going to find (incest), and I spoke to her brother Joaquin at length about it before I found it in the diaries, and again during the time I found it. I also spoke to her niece, who is a lawyer in San Francisco and the daughter of her deceased brother Thorvald.
I'm a member of something called the New York Institute for the Humanities, which is kind of a think tank. There's a seminar that's been going for years with eight or nine women panelists of various persuasions, from Freud to Jung to Melanie Klein, who all specialize in various kinds of abuses that women suffer. I asked them to read this passage (from Nin's diaries). I gave it to them at the seminar, because I didn't want it to get into anybody else's hands.
As they read it, I was watching them, and they were gasping. They were all underlining the same parts, and when the discussion started, they said, God, this language is classic adult-onset incest. This is classic separation of parent and child at a very early age coming together as adults and having incest as an affair, rather than as an abuse. The passage that she wrote, they said, could be in any textbook.
I only had her written record, I didn't have her father's. But I have letters that members of the Spanish family had written that say, "Anaos is publishing a book with the dreadful title 'House of Incest' and her father is appalled," putting it down to Anaos' bad manners and reversal of her upbringing. When in reality, (her father) was scared to death that she was writing about his affair with her.
Did the fact that Nin was not alive while you were researching the book allow you a certain sense of freedom in assessing her character?
To be quite honest, no. When I wrote the Beckett book, I was aware that aspects of his life -- his life in Dublin, his relationship with his mother, his analysis -- these were private events that should not be committed to paper. But I knew that as a scholar I had a responsibility to write of those things because they occur again and again in his fiction. I did so with great trepidation, fearing that the whole world would turn against me for being a gossip, that kind of thing. But I knew I had a responsibility to write this stuff, so I did.
It was the same thing with Simone de Beauvoir, who would say to me every step of the way, "I know you're going to write thus and so," and I'd say, "Yes, I am, and this is how I'm going to write it. If you don't agree with it, you correct it now, and if I don't agree with you, I'll still do it my way."
But the most moving thing that happened to me in my professional career was that Anaos Nin's brother Joaquin, a distinguished musician/musicologist who lives in Berkeley and is the former chair of the music department at Berkeley, when I sent him the book, he wrote me a letter. He said, "Well, you've proven every terrible thing I've long suspected that my sister had done. But you wrote it in such a way that you still allow me to love her."