BOOK REVIEW / Daddy's girl in love: Natasha Walter on the mixture of amazing candour and sly indulgence in the taboo-breaking work of Anais Nin: 'Incest' - Anais Nin: Peter Owen, 25 pounds
Saturday 10 July 1993
To us, father-daughter incest wears the mantle of abuse. We look with repulsion at the pictures of a naked Lee Miller, photographed by her father; at tales of the too-great love Lawrence Durrell had for his daughter; Soon-Yi seems horribly exploited by Woody. But the 30-year-old Anais speaks from a place beyond judgement. No other woman has described the decision to take her father as an equal lover. 'When his hand caressed me - oh, the knowingness of those caresses - I melted . . . With a strange violence, I lifted my negligee and I lay over him.'
These passages will be read and re- read, but despite their apparent openness they yield very little. The affair begins with a touch of guilt on either side. On first penetrating his daughter, Joaquin sighs, 'Toi, Anais] Je n'ai plus de Dieu]' and a few weeks pass before Anais can relax sufficiently to attain an orgasm. But all the rest of the affair, the details of secret meetings in hotel rooms and gardens, is described with the same sly self-congratulation that marks all Nin's confessions of her liaisons.
She gestures towards grand feelings - 'He has come upon me like a great mystery. I have been dazed . . . awed' - but nothing goes deep with her or with her father, who can joke in a 'fantastic tale, full of puns, about a speech he would make to Mother: 'You have taken me often, but you did not know how to take me. Anais knows. I would like to marry her'.' Anais does not bother to flesh out the scene, but the idea of her and her father in a sunlit garden, smiling out their transgression, gives the reader a deep shock, caused merely by their calm loss of affect. Oedipus's reaction may have been excessive, but puns?
As it is, we react to these moments as we would such scenes in a film - to their exterior oddness rather than the uniqueness of Nin's inner life. Anais Nin could convince herself that she had complex feelings because she binged on them, and the indigestion looked like intensity. Even her affair with her father dissipates itself in a great banquet of clashing flavours, as straight after her holiday with him, she goes to Avignon to meet Henry Miller, who 'can only write and fuck'. From Henry Miller, straight to her husband, who 'treats me like a mistress'. And then into the arms of her analyst, who likes to whip her; and then the impotent embrace of Antonin Artaud; and then Dr Rank, who 'wants to lose himself in me'. In all the hotel rooms, the phrases are much the same - the adoration given to Anais as the perfect virgin-whore. Though each man puts it a little differently, for each she fulfils the same fantasy, and it is sad to see her grab each compliment and greedily record it, desperate to prove her own value to herself. Once or twice the mask slips, but only briefly, and she whispers to a sleeping Henry Miller, 'I'm lonely'.
Anais Nin was not a great writer. Her fiction is abstract and self-indulgent, her erotic short stories her only real success, her diaries slapdash and nebulous. But her work has a glorious aura because she speaks from that age of innocence when adults still talked about the utter bliss of a kiss, the supreme otherness of sex. And despite her yearning for the ultimate love, Nin never found it. So her appeal pulls also in another, contradictory direction: while in her life she upheld the feminine mystique, in her work she begins its destruction. She acted out total sexual surrender to Henry Miller in the name of the 'purest love'; made her house a work of art; bought satin nightgowns and lace underwear with the passion of a novelettish heroine.
But her diary is a long, semi-secret laugh at those preening men, who were so self-congratulatory at finding a sex goddess, when none of them could hold her attention for long. And thus she drives into the tragic impasse of pre-feminist rebellion, when freedom could only take the path of passive deceit. 'Everyone whom I saved from truth, I here destroy,' she crows in her secret journal.
Her inability to face the truth in life rather than on the page gradually begins to pall. As she says, 'What a mess the world is in. I keep my face turned away as much as possible'. This can lead into a rather pathetic egotism. This volume also contains the previously published, but still astounding, section that deals with Nin's abortion. Whether this baby was her own sister, or her husband's child, or her analyst's, or Henry Miller's, is unclear. Whoever the father, Nin feels little sadness at the idea of aborting, or, rather - such was the botched ordeal - giving birth in terrible pain to a six-month- old foetus. She merely revels in the experience for its rare flavour: 'I had sat up on the operating table to look at the child. The doctor and nurses were amazed by my aliveness and curiosity. They expected tears. I still had my eyelash make-up on,' and explains her inability to be a mother in the same self-important terms as she explains her inability to be faithful: 'The simple human flowering denied to me because of the . . . sacrifice to other forms of creation.'
Nin, like many of her generation, mistook glamour for creative life. And both her poses - the artist and femme fatale - came at a great human cost. When people now become nostalgic for Paris in the Twenties or New York in the Thirties we can go back to Nin's diaries and remind ourselves how lucky we are to have got beyond that, out of the smothering embrace of posturing Bohemianism.
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