CHARLIE CONNELLY on the contradictions of the writer Anaïs Nin.
Anaïs Nin was sitting in a Paris café when she saw the advertisement. “Houseboat for rent. La Belle Aurore. Quai du Pont Royal.”
It was September 1936. The Spanish Civil War was underway, Hitler was tightening his iron grip on Germany, Mussolini had just increased Italian power in East Africa and was days away from sealing the Rome-Berlin Axis. As summer turned to autumn Europe was slipping further into febrile uncertainty and the tension was almost palpable in the Parisian air.
Nin dashed straight from the café, found La Belle Aurore, skipped down its ladder and knocked on the hatch, which was opened by the eccentric Swiss actor Michel Simon. Explaining that he’d hoped to live on the boat with his monkeys but they kept escaping and running riot on the quays, he showed Nin around.
“It was beautiful,” she wrote, “with windows through which I could see up and down the river, and the Quai d’Orsay as well as the Tuileries gardens.”
She rented the houseboat on the spot, despite the fact that with her banker husband she already had several properties in the city. Returning later in the day with her Peruvian lover Gonzalo Moré, he told her of an Inca tradition whereby households would have access to a secret garden called nanankepichu, meaning ‘not a home’. La Belle Aurore, he suggested, was Nin’s nanankepichu.
The boat, on which she would stay for three years until the outbreak of war, was perfect for Anaïs Nin. On it she could entertain literary friends and lovers like Moré, Henry Miller, Christopher Isherwood and Lawrence Durrell, but it was also somehow symbolic. Her ‘not a home’ was just that, an escape from the chaos of late 1930s Europe raging above, just a few steps away on the quay. On the river she could stay separate, rising and falling with the tides, observing, thinking, writing.
“Day and night the river laps at the wood, rocking the houseboat gently,” she wrote in her diary. “It gives me a feeling of departure.”
Her diaries made her. One obituarist called her “the most famous diarist since Samuel Pepys”, and the seven volumes published in her lifetime combined unabashed literary gossip with a deep, explorative introspection to bring a literary success that had long evaded her. The first volume did not appear until Nin was in her 60s but the timing couldn’t have been better. The growing force of international feminism immediately adopted her as a woman fiercely possessive of her personal and literary independence, a woman who had put herself in a position of influence able to facilitate the careers of others even while struggling herself, but struggling mainly because she refused to compromise her integrity.
“Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell were always telling me, you have to write the traditional novel,” she said in 1970. “Edmund Wilson said, why don’t you write like the Brontes? He sent me a whole set as an example. But I had a feeling a woman had something else to say.”
Most of what she had to say was contained in diaries begun when she was a child, more than 150 notebooks chronicling a remarkable life that, she said, “covers all the obscure routes of the soul and body seeking truth, seeking the antiserum against hate and war, never receiving medals for its courage. It is my thousand years of womanhood I am recording, a thousand women.”
Like her houseboat bobbing outside the political crises of the 1930s Nin was a woman out of her time, living a life entirely separate from norms and expectations. She wrote about sex, unashamedly and from a woman’s point of view, giving frank accounts of illegal abortions, affairs and even incest in a way that would still be remarkable today let alone in the middle of the 20th century. Inevitably she was criticised by some as an attention seeker, a scarlet woman, even a liar, but none of it prevented her living her life on her terms.
It was on a ship from Spain to the US when Nin first opened a notebook and began to record her thoughts. She was 11 years old and, with her mother and brothers, was setting out for a new life on the other side of the Atlantic. Paris-born, her father Joaquín was a musician and composer and her mother a singer. Anaïs was two years old when her father abandoned the family for one of his music students. As the ship rose and fell on the Atlantic swell she began writing as if she was writing to him.
“The diary became first of all a sort of letter to my father. It was something I could confide in, a personal thing.”
She returned to Paris in 1924 having married the wealthy Hugh Guiler at a ceremony in Havana. The couple moved into a large 18th century house on the outskirts of Paris where Nin soon found herself isolated and unfulfilled.
“I was in my 20s and I didn’t know anyone at the time, so I turned to my love of writers,” she recalled. “I wrote a book and I suddenly found myself in a bohemian, artistic, literary writer’s world.”
The book was a volume of literary criticism analysing the works of D.H. Lawrence published in 1931. “From Lawrence I learned that the naked truth is unbearable to most and that our art is our most effective way of overcoming human resistance to truth,” she said.
It was through her book that she first met Henry Miller. The pair encouraged each other’s literary aspirations and soon embarked on an affair and a friendship that would endure for the rest of their lives. Miller seemed to benefit most from the relationship, certainly at first. When they met he was 40 years old, unpublished and living in poverty. For ten years Nin paid his living expenses and even financed the publication of his first novel Tropic of Cancer, establishing the American writer at the cutting edge of the avant-garde.
While she became a noted champion of others’ work, giving spiritual and financial support to a succession of gifted writers, no-hopers and outright chancers that came after Miller, Nin found no takers for her own.
“I seem to identify with the one who needs,” she mused late in her life. “People who read the diaries say I made them feel like living, writing, painting. Who did I inspire? I can’t say because of men’s vanity.”
Unable to find a publisher, she published her early works herself on her own printing press, including her surrealist novel House of Incest, written in 1936. It would take until 15 years after her death and the publication of her unexpurgated diaries for it to be revealed that having been reunited with her father in her early 30s the pair embarked on a brief physical relationship around the time she was writing the book.
It wasn’t the only aspect of her private life that broke taboos. As well as her numerous extramarital relationships, in 1955 Nin married former actor Rupert Pole in the US despite still being married to Guiler. She later agreed to the posthumous publication of the reams of erotic stories she’d written in order to provide for both her husbands and Delta of Venus appeared shortly after her death in 1977 praised as the first significant collection of literary erotica by a woman author.
She’d left for New York with Guiler at the outbreak of the Second World War and became a staple of the American literary scene for the rest of her life, especially after the publication of her diaries in the 1960s. But it was with Paris that she was always most strongly associated.
“Sometimes I think of Paris not as a city but as a home,” she wrote, reflecting on a life spent largely on the move. “Enclosed, curtained, sheltered, intimate, the sound of rain outside the window, the spirit and the body turned towards intimacy, to friendships and loves. One more enclosed and intimate day of friendship and love, an alcove. Paris intimate like a room.”
She was only there for three years but La Belle Aurore was as much a microcosm of Nin’s Paris as it was a microcosm of her contradictory life; an escape from the world and the centre of her world, the personification of her individual introspection and a haven for those drawn into her orbit.
In 1938, when news reached Paris that Hitler had annexed Austria, she wrote in her diary, “I have created individually, personally, a world as I want it which serves as a refuge for others, as an example of creativity. If one does not believe the world can be reformed one seeks an individually perfect world. The houseboat is like Noah’s Ark”.