Anaïs Nin, once a byword for scandalous living and avant-garde writing, has faded from prominence in the 21st century. She is now remembered primarily for her erotic short story collection, Delta of Venus; her torrid affair with author Henry Miller; and her voluminous diary, which she wrote from age 11 until her death at age 73.
She spent years trying to get her diary published, revising it over and over even as she was still writing it. This led to an interesting outcome: The diary of Anaïs Nin now exists in multiple forms:
- Seven published diaries spanning the years 1931 through 1974, all heavily edited, six of which were published in her lifetime
- Four “early diaries” chronicling Nin’s childhood, adolescence, and the early days of her marriage to Hugo Guiler
- Sixty-nine original unpublished manuscripts of the diary housed in the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) library
- Six “unexpurgated” diaries published by her husband, Rupert Pole. Fun fact: Rupert was Nin’s second husband, but not in the way you assume. She was married to him bigamously while still married to Hugo. Neither man knew the other existed.
- The “Lie Box,” comprising a collection of notes that Nin used to keep track of the fabrications she wove as she commuted between her two husbands, Hugo in New York and Rupert in California
- Numerous loose pages of diary entries scattered in hundreds of files with Nin’s miscellaneous notes and papers
- Her public and broadcast readings from the diary. Though this category is not typically included as a variation of Nin’s diary, in my opinion the extant recordings represent another version of the multivalent “document.” Nin treated the diary as a public text throughout her life, reading it aloud to Miller and Hugo, presenting passages on stage at universities across the U.S., and even performing sections with Rupert as dramatic dialogues. Nin’s own unusual cadence can lend a specific sense to these passages that a reader might not glean. This is especially true because of her multilingual background, which gave her a tendency to use idiosyncratic or incorrectly applied words. Nin was born into a Spanish-speaking family that switched to French when they moved from Cuba to France just before she was born. Nin’s family changed languages again, to English this time, when they immigrated to the United States. She then returned to France for a number of years before moving back to the U.S., where she spent the rest of her life. Hearing how she renders her own words can offer insight into what she understood her words to mean (it wasn’t always what a native English speaker might expect).
Today we will talk about the diary of Anaïs Nin with the diary itself.
The Diary of Anaïs Nin in Its Own Words
So glad you could be with us today. Should we call you “Diary” or “Diaries?”
“Diary” is fine.
So, Diary. Anaïs Nin has been called everything from a nymphomaniac to a feminist to a pathological narcissist. What are you?
Multitudes of what?
Truths. Or lies. There’s a reason I’ve been called “the liary.”
What sort of lies are we talking about? Lies of omission? White lies?
Yes, lies of omission, most definitely. Just to give you an example, when Deirdre Bair was writing her biography of Anaïs, she ran into a real puzzler that nobody could figure out just by reading me. When Anaïs was living in Paris, she led this expansive bohemian life, spending all her time writing and learning flamenco and having wild affairs. She didn’t have a job. She didn’t seem to have any means of supporting herself. Bair made a point of mentioning this. “Critics, reviewers, and the most sympathetic of her readers all wondered as they read the diary, ‘who paid?’ for Anaïs Nin’s seemingly charmed life.”
Who paid? Her husband, Hugo, paid—and he paid plenty! But Anaïs never mentioned him in the published version of me. That’s a pretty significant lie of omission, wouldn’t you say? And it’s only one of many. Bair read the unpublished drafts of me at UCLA, and she noticed Anaïs’s lies of omission sometimes crept to the surface after years, as she revised me again and again and again.
“I compared everything with the various typed versions of the diary that she prepared throughout her life, noting how time and distance made her change much in some instances and nothing in others. … From beginning to end, Anaïs Nin had one clearly discernable habit: whenever she did something personally embarrassing, she usually mentioned it [in the diary] the first time casually, offhandedly. Days, months, sometimes years later, she wrote a second, fuller account, as if the passage of time gave her the necessary distance to write objectively about most of what originally happened. Finally, in a third or even fourth account written long after the second, she told all the details, no matter how unflattering they were. Sometimes she repeated the information in fuller and fuller detail until it became a referential code, a kind of shorthand for what happened in her by-then-far-distant past.”
But Anaïs also liked to fill me with little falsehoods she called “mensonges vital, the lies which give life … the special lies which I tell for very specific reasons—to improve upon living.” She was very insecure at heart. Bair picked up on that, too: “She could never record enough compliments or details of her outrageous behavior in compensation.”
She loaded me with inflated praise that her friends and even her enemies supposedly heaped upon her. I think her life was duller and less exceptional than anyone imaged. When she was still young, she told me, “I reread my diary a few days ago, but instead of being pleased, very often I was angry with myself for the silly things I wrote and wanted to tear out the pages … but if I tore them all out, what would be left of my diary, of my life which is silly itself in its eternal monotony?”
That kind of lie—the lie to improve your life—has become pretty common in today’s public diaries. Social media and blogs, I mean. They’ve become a people’s “highlight reels” rather than the raw truth of their day-to-day lives. Did she feel guilty about these white lies?
I’m not sure. To me, it seemed like she was proud of how elegantly she constructed them. But now and then…
Listen, you can hear it when she reads this part of me. It’s a passage about how she came home late one night, closed her bedroom curtains, and got me out of the place she’d hidden me.
“Never have I seen as clearly as tonight that my diary-writing is a vice. … I had the feeling that this is the way an opium smoker prepares for his opium pipe. For this is the moment when I relive my life in terms of a dream, a myth, an endless story.”
Her real life wasn’t good enough when she was living it. It was only when she told me pretty little lies that it improved enough to be acceptable.
Did Anaïs tell you any big lies?
Oh dear God, yes! So many big lies. Jenny Diski wrote, “Nin’s capacity to fudge reality is monumental,”
and I agree. I often wanted to ask Anaïs, “Why are you lying to me? I’m the only one you can—and should—come to honestly and openly, without fear of judgement. But I’m just a diary; I can’t talk back.
(Laughs) I guess that’s what people like about diaries, right? We can only listen.
Speaking of those who can only listen, Anaïs spent many years in psychoanalysis, correct?
Yep. One of her analysts, Otto Rank, thought she was obsessed with me to an unhealthy degree. And maybe she was. She admitted as much to me: “I carry the journal everywhere; the journal is out, too. I carry it everywhere, writing on café tables while waiting for a friend, in the train, on the bus, in waiting rooms at the station, while my hair is washed, at the Sorbonne when the lectures get tedious, on journeys, trips, almost while people are talking.”
And here’s Anaïs reading a passage from me about the time Dr. Rank tried to get her to take a break from me so she could get out of the house and write a novel instead of “compulsively” writing in me.
“The period without the diary remains an ordeal. Every evening I wanted the diary as one wants opium. I wanted nothing else but the diary to rest upon, to confide in. … I poured everything into the diary. It channeled away from invention and creation and fiction. … Introspection almost devoured me.”
She wrote in you about wanting to write in you but being unable to write in you. Very meta.
I don’t know what that means.
This is the second time she’s compared you to opium, a dangerously addictive drug. Are you dangerously addictive?
Me specifically, or diaries in general?
Yes, I believe I was addictive. I think Anaïs was in love with me, because I was her way of creating a fantasy version of herself that seemed both better and more real than her true self. She was addicted from the very start when she began writing in me as a preteen.
“I am a romantic, but I shall keep it a secret and never dream except with my diary. The two of us, all alone, will dream peacefully when it is time for dreams. … In the century in which I live, people who dream should take their dreams, write about them, sell them and make money. Idle fancies? One takes them, calls them an ‘idea’ and they become a ‘thing.’ So that my dreams and my idle fancies may belong to me, so that they never turn into fact, so that I may always call them back to keep me company, to make me alive, I shall keep them in the depths of my soul or in the most secret pages of my diary.”
But was I dangerously addictive? You tell me. When she was happy, when her real life finally felt like the fantasy life she was so desperate to create, she didn’t need me as much.
“Why should I strain and struggle to write? … If you lived in a fairy tale, if you were swimming in caresses, if you lived among stars and clouds … would you write?”
If you’re living fully, do you really have the need—or the time—to reflect on the act of living fully?
That sounds like a Zen koan.
I don’t know what that means. Anaïs was sensual in her outlook, not spiritual.
And how about all diaries? Are all diaries addictive?
(Sarcastically) All diaries? Well, I’m sure I can’t speak for all diaries everywhere, but I think that we’re only addictive for some people. Like alcohol—not everyone who drinks is an alcoholic. Some people can write in us without becoming obsessive. Others are hooked from the get-go and they just can’t stop reliving their lives, rethinking their thoughts, re-feeling their emotions on our pages.
Are the ones who become addicted narcissists, like Anaïs has been accused of being?
I can’t answer that.
How about writers? Are most of diary addicts writers?
As opposed to…?
Doctors, politicians, musicians….
I can’t answer that either, but many of Anaïs friends and her husbands and her analysts felt that I was preventing her from becoming a polished, professional writer. She wanted to write novels. And she did, but they always seemed to be adaptations of me.
Zadie Smith, who’s a writer like Anaïs but hates writing in a diary, once opined,
“The dishonesty of diary writing—this voice you put on for supposedly no one but yourself—I found that idea so depressing. I feel that life has too much artifice in it anyway without making a pretty pattern of your own most intimate thoughts. … If you’re going to write a diary, it should be … utterly free, honest.”
Do you agree?
I’m so filled with artifice, I can’t even imagine what an utterly free and honest version of me would look like. I can’t tell you where the “voice” Anaïs was putting on for herself, the “pretty pattern” of her thoughts, and the reality of her life begin or end.
Do you believe that compulsive diarists are compulsive liars?
All I’m saying is Anaïs may have had her reasons for lying to her husbands, her family, her therapists, and her friends, but she had no reason to lie to me. And yet she did.
But she did have a reason. She first envisioned you as a literal letter to her absent father, after he left her mother and abandoned Anaïs and her brothers.
“I began to write the diary on the ship bringing us to America at the age of 11 for my father to tell him the story of my wanderings away from him. I tried to mail the volumes but my mother did not let me, saying they might get lost. … Whenever I feel sadness about my father, I write. When I yearn for him, I write. When I feel regrets, I write.”
This was from a passage she recorded in 1966, after years and years of revisions to you. Do you believe her?
She also told me she had a sexual affair with her father after she became an adult.
Is that a yes?
I don’t know what to believe. I’m “the liary.” She used me to create a fantasy life for herself—one where she was admired, sexually irresistible, daring, happy. A fairy tale existence. But if she succeeded—if she really did manage to transform her real life to match the fabricated reality she dreamed up, that means her lies became truths. So…if a lie starts out as a lie but becomes true later, is it still a lie?
You’re making my head hurt.
Is that how a Zen koan works? Is it meta?