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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tv Review: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series began tonight with a feature-length special
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee