Double agent in the house of love

ANAIS NIN: A Biography by Deirdre Bair, Bloomsbury £20

WHEN the novelist and diarist Anas Nin died in California in 1977, the Los Angeles Times reported that she was survived by her husband, Rupert Pole. The New York Times carried a similar announcement, except that the husband's name was given as Hugh (Hugo) Guiler. Thus ended, in characteristic confusion and uncertainty, the life of a self-confessed bigamist, fantasist, pornographer and feminist icon.

Years earlier, Nin had created her own epitaph in the title of one of her novels, A Spy in the House of Love. It exactly describes the shadowy, deceitful existence embraced by her in 1955 when she succumbed to the entreaties of Rupert Pole, a young forest ranger, and married him in a courthouse in the Arizona desert, disregarding the presence in New York of Guiler, her husband of 32 years.

Deirdre Bair, who has previously written biographies of Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett, minutely documents the domestic complications consequent on Nin's split existence, her "bi-coastal trapeze". This involved persuading Guiler that she needed to retire to a ranch in California to recover from their hectic social life in New York, Pole that she worked for various magazines on the East Coast which required frequent visits to their offices.

Using Guiler's money to support Pole, just as she had taken money from him in Paris in the 1940s for her then-lover Henry Miller, Nin invented another lie to explain how she paid for her constant flights across America: she claimed that her friend Gore Vidal, whose father was president of Eastern Airlines, had given her a courtesy pass to use on any airline. When Pole became suspicious and called Guiler's apartment in New York, she persuaded her real husband that Pole was a deranged fan who had somehow managed to track her down.

Meanwhile, she told Pole that she stayed in the apartment supposedly belonging to her ex-husband only when he was absent, travelling on business in Europe. "He believed her as well," says Bair, "or, like Hugo, pretended that he did." While this preposterous deception was going on, Nin continued her life's work, heroically trying to convince publishers, reviewers and readers that she was as important a writer as her famous friends, Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell.

Much of her work was self-published, with Nin even having to set the type herself, and the sudden upturn in her critical reputation in the 1970s must have seemed like a long-overdue reward for decades of neglect. Born in Paris in 1903, the eldest child of Cuban parents with Danish, Spanish and French antecedents, Anas - the correct pronunciation is Ah- na-ees - Nin arrived in a world quite unprepared for her flamboyant brand of exhibitionism. Her sexual hunger, her voracious ambition, the extreme solipsism which expressed itself in 69 volumes of diaries, had to wait until the upheavals of the late 1960s to be seen in anything but a coldly negative light.

By the time of her death, Nin had been discovered by feminists and hailed as something of a prophet of the movement. Her novels and short stories, the pornography she began writing in 1941 for an unknown collector who paid a dollar a page, and the first published volume of the diary, came to be seen as pioneering investigations of a woman's inner life.

Yet confusion remains about Nin's literary status, about whether she is significant in her own right or chiefly as a chronicler of a period of literary history. The question is not resolved by this biography, which offers Bair's partisan and patently casuistic assessment: "Anas Nin will enter posterity as a minor writer, but I insist upon one distinction: that she must be judged a major minor writer."

As long ago as 1945, in a review of Under a Glass Bell, Edmund Wilson recognised that Nin was trying "to put into words a new feminine point of view". He thought she was one of a handful of women writers dealing with "the conflicts created for women by living half in a man-controlled world against which they cannot help rebelling, half in a world which they have made for themselves but which they cannot find completely satisfactory". This notion of Anas Nin as a kind of bridge, someone with a precarious toehold in two different worlds, is a useful way of acknowledging both her strengths and her weaknesses. (It is also prescient in a personal sense, eerily prefiguring the shuttling between two men and two coasts of the final three decades of her life.)

Nin's writing in many ways expresses a traditional, passive, clinging type of femininity. Yet there is also a sense of someone struggling towards an imperfectly-realised goal, a tormented journey whose final destination she is not quite able to envisage. Nin's own appraisal of her erotica, expressed in a preface to Delta of Venus written only four months before her death, reflects surprise at the belated recognition of this duality. Her style in the erotica, she had always believed, "was derived from a reading of men's works". Now she realised that her own voice had never been completely suppressed, that "I was intuitively using a woman's language, seeing sexual experience from a woman's point of view". This remains true even though Delta of Venus is peopled by characters from another era, adventurers and courtesans who could exist only in the charmed, hectic space between the two world wars.

Bair has surprisingly little to say about Nin's writing, preferring instead to concentrate on the affairs, the marriages, the never-ending psychoanalysis. In doing so she misses something important about Nin's character, something implicit in A Spy in the House of Love, which is that deception is a form of power. Nin's background, as a sexually abused child whose father abandoned his family for a rich second wife, may well have inclined her towards compulsive promiscuity but it also revealed to her the value of secrecy, and the habit of never fully revealing the self.

Anas Nin found bigamy exhausting, but it meant she could never be dominated by either husband. The diaries, published in a heavily revised form in her lifetime, reveal contradictory impulses to explore a woman's psyche in a new way and to manufacture a glamorous public persona - like a secret agent. She had two husbands and two identities - three if we include being a writer - and the satisfaction of remaining an enigma to the end, probably even to herself.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker