Double agent in the house of love

ANAIS NIN: A Biography by Deirdre Bair, Bloomsbury £20
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The Independent Culture
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.