Sex, lies and narcissism

ANAiS NIN: A BIOGRAPHY Deirdre Bair Bloomsbury pounds 20
"The Ninnies" is the obvious name for the company of biographers, camp elderly gentlemen and misguided feminist worshippers at the shrine of the woman who elevated narcissism to an art form and called it integrity. And of the Ninnies, none are so ninnylike as the biographers.

This is the third life of Anais Nin I have read. The first, which had the merit of being brief, was by a French journalist under the impression that she was a new incarnation of her subject. The second, by Noel Riley Fitch, came out only last year and was marred by an ill-judged decision to write it all - all 525 pages of it - in the present tense. Exhausting and exhaustive, it appeared to have said everything we ever needed to know about Nin's life. And now comes Bair, staking her claim to be the definitive biographer by sheer weight alone (this is not a book to drop on your toe).

Like her predecessors, Bair has opted for a heated frills-and-swoon style. Here, the devilishly handsome Joaquin Nin prepares to seduce his 30-year- old daughter: "[He] arrived by car, alone, glowing with good health, his face unlined but powdered and faintly rouged; his clothing rich and impeccable, exuding a faint whiff of expensive cologne. He stared at her openly from head to foot, taking in every aspect of her physical being. She stared right back, flushed with pleasure. `But you are like me,' he purred . . ."

What is the source for this intimate account? None is given, but it seems clear that Bair is relying on the notoriously unreliable diaries which Nin kept from the age of 11 until her death at 74 in 1977. Riley Fitch had the good sense to question their veracity at every turn. Bair thinks that the diaries are true records because they were first written in seamless, uncorrected prose. Late in the book, she describes the terrifyingly fluent tissue of lies by which Nin managed to maintain a double life, with a devoted husband (Hugo) in New York and a doting lover (Rupert) in California. Bair does not attempt to defend the letters, by which Nin kept these two men in ignorance for years, as truthful; why, then, does she assume the equally fluent diaries to be any closer to reality?

Bair does not raise or answer this central question, but she does, in her ardent way, tell a rattling good tale. And, whatever we may feel about Nin's personality, or her writings, her life continues to make engrossing reading.

Sex, lies and diary-writing occupied most of Nin's time for the 60 years before fame embraced her. Bair, in an unusually sensitive passage, describes her, in a flowing robe, her eyes ringed with kohl, wandering for hours in the tropical birds' department of Sears Roebuck in Pasadena. The awful truth becomes apparent: when she was not seducing or reinventing her life, Nin had no idea what to do with herself. Did she have all those affairs and make up so many stories out of sheer, spoiled boredom? It seems quite possible.

Such self-obsession requires an explanation and the most obvious one is Nin's relationship with her father. Bair is disappointingly negligent of the influence this odd, charismatic man had on his daughter's life, but the facts are, however briefly, placed before us.

Both of Nin's parents were musical. Her mother was a singer. Her father, when he was not playing the piano, was an energetic philanderer, boasting of his conquests to his three young children. All three were beaten, often while their mother was locked in a separate room; later, Anais believed that she had been sexually abused, but her thoughts about this changed from year to year. After suffering typhoid fever as a small child, she became haggard and plain. Her father's response was to pursue her with his camera, telling her, even as he photographed her, that she was ugly. Later, after deserting the family, he courted her affection with adoring letters in which he ordered her to love him and explained that everybody else did so. It was at this point that Anais started writing her diaries. They began, and in some sense remained, a way of proving she was just as seductive, and manipulative, as her father.

Towards the last hundred pages, Bair comes into her own. Previously, it was assumed that Nin wallowed in the fame which attended her after the publication of the diaries. Now, we learn that she was in agonizing pain from cancer during the last years of her life. It was during this period that she toured America, giving lectures at $1,000 a time; she did so not from vanity, but because Hugo had become penniless and ill.

If Nin did little in her life to inspire admiration, she made up for it in those last years. But it is not for this reason that more books will be written about her. Nin's life continues to fascinate, long after she has been revealed as a liar and a narcissist, because of the sheer audacity of her deceptions. It is, as Bair points out, like watching a highwire act performed by a consummate professional. However reluctantly, one wants to applaud.