The Diary of Others

The Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin

Edited by Paul Herron
Sky Blue Press ($22)

by Robert Zaller          

The diary is a literary genre beloved in Europe, and particularly in France, where Anaïs Nin came of age in the Paris of the 1920s and 1930s. The daughter of Cuban parents, Nin had begun a private diary in the form of a letter to her absent father at the age of eleven; it evolved, under French influence, into the major work of her lifetime, and when its first volume was published in the United States in 1966, it revolutionized American letters in many ways.

The Diary of Others is the penultimate volume of the second edition of the Diary, whose original manuscript is housed in the UCLA Library. The first edition, covering the years from 1931 to 1974, was prepared by Nin in collaboration with her long-time friend and agent, Gunther Stuhlmann; the second was created under the aegis of Nin’s second husband, Rupert Pole. The current volume, continuing the work of Pole, has been sensitively prepared and edited by Paul Herron, the publisher of the former Nin annual A Café in Space and an author in his own right. Covering the years between 1955 and 1966, much of it deals with the preparation of the first edition of the Diary and Nin’s concurrent struggle to publish and keep in print her fiction. As well, it engages the stress of maintaining separate households in New York, where Nin lived with her first husband, the businessman and filmmaker Hugh Guiler, and in Los Angeles with Pole, to whom she was bigamously married between 1955 and 1966. This arrangement, which had some parallels to the ménage à trois Nin maintained in Paris in the 1930s with Henry Miller and his wife June, was part of a deeply complicated life which, when revealed in full, would create the air of scandal that continues to hover over her life and reputation.

Nin married Guiler at the age of twenty in 1923, and their connection was lifelong. Her acquaintances in Paris, to which the couple moved in 1924, included a who’s-who of the luminaries of the period, among them Antonin Artaud, Otto Rank (with whom Nin studied and briefly practiced psychotherapy), and the then-unknown Henry Miller. In the mid-1930s, she was reunited with her estranged father, the concert pianist Joaquin Nin, with whom she was briefly intimate. This liaison was hinted at in her fiction,but not revealed until the Pole edition of the diaries. Guiler was absent from the Stuhlmann edition as well, at his request. Settling in New York at the outbreak of World War II, Nin had affairs with Edmund Wilson and other prominent figures. In 1947 she met Pole, sixteen years her junior, with whom her relationship endured beside that of Guiler, from whom she was never divorced.

Nin was neither facile nor opportunistic in her choice of lovers. She acted based on desire, but she demanded emotional openness and honesty of her partners, and she did not casually discard them, maintaining friendships with many over decades. Sexuality for her was a means both of self-discovery and of discovering others. The enduring human connection, however, was what mattered for her above all.

The Nin of this Diary, moving through her fifties and into her early sixties, is at a critical moment of transition as she at last approaches the publication of the Diary and begins to see her fiction recognized through connection with a new publisher, Alan Swallow. But the heart of it is the story of her evolving relationships with Guiler and Pole, candidly expressed in the journal entriesalthough more tactfully in her correspondence with each. Guiler, at first, is someone she wishes to protect but whom she bears as a burden; he is essentially a man of business (though by this time established, as Ian Hugo, as a filmmaker as well). Her physical life is with Pole, but to her increasing dismay she finds him arrested and incurious, a tender lover but satisfied with a mediocrity that, for her, reflects American life in general. Her quandary, then, is to find herself trapped between two men, neither of whom can truly satisfy her but neither of whom she is capable or desirous of abandoning as well.

A choice of one man or a rejection of both might have seemed a logical step, but, as the Diary makes clear, loyalty—not to be confused with conventional attachment—is also a deep virtue in Nin, and so she continues to work with both relationships, achieving intermittent successes and what appears, at the end, to be a new openness with Guiler. Nor is it a matter of others simply failing to live up to her expectations and demands, for she is above all self-critical. In a revealing passage about the Diary itself, she writes:

The Diary is the museum, the storeroom, the attic of the mind. The past, intact, and the child are there. Whenever the love has a moment of inattention, or gives it to some other matter (business, art, other women, friendships), what I recall is not what I am, but rather this angry child who clamored for love and did not get it.

When we recall that the Diary began as a love letter to an absent father and that even physical union in adulthood did not requite her longing, we understand that the Diary is at its root—as perhaps all diaries of value are?—the record and recovery of a trauma that, if not faced clearly, denies one emotional fulfillment and the capacity for mature growth. To put it another way, as Nin suggests, if healing requires others, it must begin with oneself.

The other major story in The Diary of Others is of Nin’s long quest for recognition. Other women writers had achieved renown—Colette, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf—but Nin was in quest of a psychic penetration only signified by external circumstances and events, and when in the 1950s she decided to collect her fiction in a single volume, she would call it, fittingly, Cities of the Interior. It was where she herself wished to live.

Still, despite the appreciation of figures such as Wilson and Gore Vidal—not to mention the support of Henry Miller, himself now famous with the American publication of The Tropic of Cancer—Nin was compelled to subsidize publication through much of this period. This changed in 1961 when Alan Swallow, a small press owner in Denver, agreed to publish the corpus of Nin’s fiction in handsome softcover editions. Swallow was also interested in the Diary, but that was a project beyond his scope alone, and much labor (with numerous disappointments) would be expended before Harcourt Brace undertook the primary work of publication. Friends and fellow writers had long approached Nin with the idea of publishing the Diary in excerpts and fragments, but she resisted this, regarding the Diary as an integral whole. At the same time, it was clear to her that, apart from the necessity to protect or conceal certain identities, it could neither be approached as a simple reproduction of her journals nor as an act of confession; rather, it had to have its own literary shape on the French model of André Gide and others.

For Nin, the Diary and the fiction had always been in dialogue. Much of the fiction had been adapted from Diary material, poetically as well as narratively reshaped; this meant changing names and recasting events. In returning to the Diary as a literary work in its own right, the same techniques were applied—sometimes by choice, sometimes by necessity. There was a further consideration as well, namely the audience to which the Diary was now to be addressed. The 1960s had brought a belated sexual revolution to America, as well as a feminist one. The story Nin wished to tell was of a woman in search of herself as well as an artist developing a highly personal artistic vision, at first on the freer stage of interwar Paris but later as an expatriate adjusting to the very different climate of wartime and postwar America.

Nin had found the right moment, and, if the term be properly understood, the right persona. She could have told her story in an autobiography, but that, she felt, would have smoothed the difficult path she had traversed, for if she was now on the cusp of all but undreamt-of success, her life had been one of long struggle and frequent disappointment. The Diary had not only been the record of that struggle as it transpired, but the only form in which it could be properly presented. For millions, it would strike a deeply resonant chord at a moment of cultural crisis unlike any America had experienced before. As such, it was not only a literary event, but a phenomenon in the unfolding of modern feminism itself.

The Diary of Others ends with the publication of the first volume of the Diary in the spring of 1966, and Nin’s wary apprehension of its success; a final volume from Sky Blue Press will take it from her emergence as a major cultural as well as literary figure to her death in 1977. Nin left her literary estate in Pole’s hands. She could not but have known that, with the notebook journals secured, the first Harcourt Brace edition would not be the last word on the Diary, and that a fuller story and a partly different truth would emerge from it.

The Pole edition, which appeared after Guiler’s death in 1985, was advertised as “unexpurgated,” with the unfortunate implication that the first one had been censored to conceal or misrepresent intimate truths. But Nin gauged, accurately, what a principally American public could digest and productively utilize in the 1960s and 1970s, and the care she took to protect and archive the original journals suggests her anticipation that a fuller truth would emerge, and that her legacy would be reevaluated in light of it.

The Pole diaries did, of course, fill in much of what had been omitted or circumspect in the earlier ones, but as some of their titles indicated—Fire, Incest—the emphasis on what might seem not only erotic but salacious gave short shrift to the maturing of a woman and an artist, a view that played all too readily into the more cynical atmosphere of the 1980s and 1990s. What we learned was, in short, all too often distorted as well. If the Diary reveals anything to us, it is the multidimensionality of a remarkably complex personality determined not only to explore life fully but to understand it as well. As with works by other iconic figures such as Simone de Beauvoir and Sylvia Plath, we will be deciphering it for a long time to plumb the feminine experience of the twentieth century.

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