Deirdre Baire: On The Secret Life of Anais Nin

December 27, 2008

posted by Caroline Picard, in continuation of the day’s earlier explorations on the life, writing and style of Nin. This interview was originally posted on salon.com. You can read the entire interview here.

june-miller-anais-nin

Deirdre Baire: On The Secret Life of Anais Nin


By CYNTHIA JOYCE

When literary scholar and journalist Deirdre Bair first embarked on an exploration of the life of Anaïs 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 “Anaïs 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 Anaïs 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 Anaïs 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 Anaïs 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 Anaïs 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 Anaïs Nin put into her diary and turn it into something on stage.

you can read the rest of this interview by going to http://www.salon.com/weekly/bair960729.html

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