March Read of the Month: “A Spy in the House of Anais Nin,” by Kim Krizan

Kim Krizan

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Confession: I have only read one volume by Anais Nin. That was decades ago when I was in college and I don’t recall the title. The stories provoked a wide range of emotions. I was alternately shocked, titillated, appalled, and aroused by the content. Although I admired Nin’s storytelling ability and nimble use of language, I read the stories privately and never discussed them with anyone. I knew nothing about Nin’s life.

If you are looking for erotica, A Spy in the House of Anais Nin, Kim Krizan’s collection of essays, will not fulfill your fantasies. Not at all. Instead, the essays provide insight into the life events that shaped the woman behind the pen, the woman who would become one of the most notorious literary figures of her time. Perhaps of any time.

The volume opens with the story of how, as an undergraduate student, Krizan becomes fascinated with the diary Nin began writing as an eleven year old in 1914. The entries are letters to Nin’s beloved father, a composer who abandoned the family. She hopes to lure him back to the family by making her life and surroundings sound glittering and glorious. The reality is quite different as her mother struggles to support the family. Nin once overheard her father declare she was ugly. This insult and his abandonment haunted her for much of her life.

Krizan’s introduction explores the way Nin has fallen in and out of favor with feminists several times. The final essay argues that Nin deserves a lasting place in the world’s literary canon. Essay titles reveal the range of topics that comprise the main portion of the book: “Childhood and Adolescence,” “Early Marriage and Adulthood,” “Becoming Herself,” and “In the Real World at Late Middle-Age.” In short, this is biography.

Krizan notes that “Nin’s goal in writing was to record her life the way she saw it—or wished it to be. Perhaps this is the drive that compels all artists: the need to give form to our experience.”

The essays are mostly devoted to the seven decades of diaries Nin left behind. She wanted to tell “her whole story,” including her sex life—“an area women have long fought to control on their own terms.” Most of these were published: first as edited versions that omitted the more controversial sexual experiences, and later, as full, unexpurgated entries.

Nin’s adult life would hardly be less controversial today than it was back then. At twenty she married a banker, in part to bring financial security to her family—and then she married another man without divorcing the first. She regularly spent time with both husbands, one on each coast of the U.S. She had affairs with a veritable who’s who in the literary world that clustered in Paris cafés—starving artists who lived off her money. Men like Henry Miller and Gore Vidal. Most controversial of all, she had a brief, consensual affair with the father who had abandoned her as a child. She extracts a degree of revenge by dumping him.

Krizan speculates that when Nin speaks of a “café in space,” she foresaw the Internet. She notes that Nin’s diaries are much like the content that can be found on social media today where “we have the right to tell our own stories in our own words and images.” Krizan points out that what we post is not “pure truth,” but “our own most true version of a reality of our choosing.”

I came away from these essays feeling a bit of an ache for Anais Nin. She struggled so hard to throw off society’s restraints, to be free:

In reality, as a female born into a Catholic family at the turn of the last century, Nin made a number of dramatically independent moves. In her teens she stepped away from the Church. In her twenties, she questioned Puritanical sexual restraints and decided to have sex with whomever she pleased. In her thirties, Nin “rebelled” (one of her favorite words) against societal taboos. In her forties she graduated to flaunting the laws of the land. Finally, nearing age 50, Nin declared in her diary, “I am tired of the entire relationship to men.” But instead of blaming what we would call the patriarchy, Nin did something characteristic of her, which was to take full responsibility, writing, “I give the man the reins and then feel trapped in his patterns.”

Nin struggled to break free of the traditional roles allotted to women: “The status of a wife is worth nothing.” In her diaries, she relates stories of acquaintances who marry and become depressed and weighed down by domestic responsibility. Unfortunately, Nin lived in a time when women had few chances to wield power over their own destinies and certainly no way to wiggle free from the harsh judgments society would pass on any woman who rebelled as she did. At various times, Nin turns to glamorous clothes or exotic interior decorating as substitutes for fulfillment. But neither conforming to the aspects of life women were expected to content themselves with, nor violation of taboos, provided Nin with anything close to happiness.

Krizan makes a compelling case that Nin’s diary should “be appreciated as one of the most significant stories of the 20th century.”  These essays are thoroughly researched and documented, but readers may find the repetition of salient aspects of Nin’s life across the collection somewhat annoying. Despite the repetitions, the essays are well worth reading. They paint a vivid and disturbing picture of a troubled woman desperate to find freedom in a world that refused to grant her that right.

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