This is the first in a series of memories about visits to Louveciennes, the fabled village outside Paris where Anaïs Nin and her husband Hugh Guiler rented a home that became the site of many of Nin’s awakenings and the setting for the first of her published Diaries.
Feb. 1992: Cathedral bells. Dimanche. Sunday in Paris. I opened the curtains and looked up at the steel gray clouds. No one in the street. It was like an empty stage. The sky looked ill-boding. I was planning on going to Louveciennes in the afternoon to find the mythical “laboratory of the soul,” the house where Anaïs Nin met Henry Miller, the place where her first real adventure in life and art began. It seemed like an impossible journey—first, I didn’t know anything about the French rail system, didn’t have a map, and didn’t even know if the house still stood. But somehow I felt hope as I opened the window and let the dank air flow in. I remembered reading in Anaïs’s diary that one took the train from Gare St-Lazare and that the trip took a half hour, but that was in 1931. Yes, this was a gamble in regards to the very little time I had left in Paris, and I knew I could’ve visited Versailles or Fountainbleau, etc., and that would’ve been worthwhile, but this, this could touch the soul. So I hoped the rain could wait.
By the time I got to Gare St-Lazare, it was nearly noon and I was famished. I peered into the window of a bistro where I saw an old woman shoveling in some veal and pasta. I ordered the veau Milanese and washed it down with wine. Absolutely perfect. The combination of hunger, fatigue, and its remedy, along with the anticipation of the excursion, had awakened my sensory receptacles. I crossed Place Gabriel Péri, full and rested, and headed toward the huge train station. Inside this prodigious cavern was a menagerie of schedules, maps, people, confusion. As I stood gaping, a little man asked me if I needed help. I admitted my ineptness, and he guided me to a fire-engine red mechanical ticket dispenser. “Ou allez-vous?” he asked. “Louveciennes.” He pushed a button. “Allez-retour?” “Oui.” “Première ou deuxième classe?” “Deuxième.” “Voilà, monsieur. Onze francs.” I put the coins in the machine and it spit out the ticket. Two bucks round trip. So easy. I gave the man ten francs, which I thought he expected. Everyone was happy.
Now, what train? I looked toward the quais, and there were more trains than I could count. I had no idea! Remember, I had come not only from the birthplace of the train, but also from its graveyard. But the man, who’d turned to leave, came running back and escorted me to the correct train, imploring me to hurry because it was about to leave. As I boarded, he was still there, smiling and waving at me. The signal sounded and the door closed. We began to inch out of the station. This was real.
The train made the same stops it must have made whenever Anaïs or Henry took the trip to Louvciennes…St-Cloud, Bougival… After exactly a half hour, we pulled into the Louveciennes station, which was very old, quaint, beautifully clean. I noted on the schedule that a train left for Paris every half hour until late at night, so if things went poorly I could leave at any time. It was good to know that I had a safety valve, but, in a way, I would have preferred to be stuck there, having no choice but to make the best of it.
I stood on the street. Deserted. Deafening silence. A gray Sunday afternoon in a little village. I looked at a large map of the village in front of the station. Nothing to help me. So, I decided to walk toward the city center and find someone who might know something, but I truly had no idea where I was going. I took a deep breath and started, heading west from the station.
After a moment, I encountered an elderly couple walking toward the station, on what appeared to be a little Sunday promenade. Seizing the opportunity, I stopped them and asked, in the best French I could muster, if they knew where Anaïs’s house was. Neither one of them had ever heard of her. I was astonished. My heart sank. How was it possible they had never heard of such a famous resident? They bade me good luck and turned to leave. But then the gentleman said, “There is a book about the history of Louveciennes. I have some business at the train station. When I return, we’ll consult the author.” Suddenly my soul soared. I stood and chatted with his wife while he was gone, trying to explain why I’d made this pilgrimage. She had beautiful dark brown eyes and was bundled up on this cold, damp day. Explaining the life and work of Anaïs Nin to a louveciennois was, for me, the task of a disciple, but not a task at all, instead a unique pleasure.
When her husband returned—tall, erect, nattily dressed with a sweater, shirt and tie under his overcoat and silver hair under his cap, clear blue eyes behind his spectacles—we walked to his neighbor’s house, the author of the book on Louveciennes. The couple introduced themselves as Henri and Thérèse. I felt something happening at this moment. It was Louveciennes opening her arms to receive me, as if she knew my intentions. I was here out of my love for what had been written, for the feelings that were aroused in me across an ocean of water and time. It was as though she respected those who came and treated them with kindness and gentleness.
The owner of the house appeared, and Henri asked about the Nin house. I noticed he made a point of telling him that an American wanted to see it. The author, Jacques, said to him, “Oh yes, yes. It is at 2 bis rue de Monbuisson, but it is in a terrible state. The owners have run out of money to restore it, so it lies crumbling.” Then Jacques turned to me and asked if I minded if he gave me directions in French. Of course, I said no, but then, with a sly smile, he asked in perfect English, “Would it be better in English?” We all laughed. He invited us in and he gave me a copy of his book, opening it to the page with photos of the Nin house. Then I realized why Anaïs Nin was not well-known: the book was full of those who’d called Louveciennes home: Renoir, Sisley, Charles Munch, Madame du Barry, Brigitte Bardot, etc., etc. She was lost in a crowd of French legends. Jacques said, “I hope you will take a different piece of France home with you.”
Henri suggested that we drive to Anaïs’s house. When he asked if I’d like to have something to drink first, I declined: I wanted to see the house before I awoke from this dream. Henri unlocked his garage and pulled out his car. He said, “Do you see? I have a Ford!” I’m not sure what impressed me the most—the fact he had an American car in this land of Renault and Peugeot, or how proud he seemed of it. He gushed about its power, pep, solidity, etc. Then I found out he had been in a German prison camp during World War II and was liberated by Eisenhower’s forces. No wonder he had a passion for all things American.
In a moment, we arrived at rue de Monbuisson. As we crept slowly down the narrow street, I recognized Anaïs’s house on the left. It took my breath away. It reminded me of a bloated derelict with rotten teeth. Jacques was right: “a terrible state.”
The once stately house (map) had been reduced to a huge eyesore. The delicate latticework had crumbled and fallen to the ground, lying helplessly entangled in the weeds. The shutters, long closed, were rotting. The courtyard was overgrown, the gravel now buried beneath the mud and shaggy brown plant life. There was a construction company placard on the gate and signs of repair on the slate roof, and what little that had been done gave a hint of the potential grandeur of the place.
I tried to imagine what it was like on the inside of this house that knew so much living, creation, love, and lust. Today, dark, dilapidated, and cold. Rain leaking into the bedrooms, wind whistling through the broken windows and blowing litter across the rotting floors. Each day the sun traveling its path, warming different sides of this lifeless place, streaking in through the cracks in the shutters and illuminating the emptiness and death within. In summer, the lightning electrifying the rooms for an instant, the thunder echoing as laughter once did. A temple of life now a tomb for ghosts.
Craning my neck to peer over the huge locked gate, I could see the doorway where Henry Miller once posed for a picture. I stared up at the windows from which Anaïs watched her husband, Hugo, leave for work at a Paris bank, the gravel crunching under the tires of his car, the gate creaking and moaning a farewell, locking her inside. The honeysuckle whose fragrance Anaïs described was still there, its long, barren fingers reaching up to the second story windows. On the gate was a plaque which stated “Anaïs Nin (1903-1977), Romancière Américaine, vécut dans cette maison de 1931 à 1935.” Thérèse wondered aloud if we couldn’t get into the courtyard to look around and tried in vain to open the gate, which was under lock and chain. The vigor with which she did this astounded me—I thought she was going to knock the rusty gate off its hinges. Henri laughed and begged her to stop. So, instead, she took my picture standing next to it.
From there, Henri and Thérèse took me on the grand tour of Louveciennes and its environs: the aqueduct built by Louis XIV to carry water from the Seine to the fountains of Versailles, the chateau of Madame du Barry, Renoir’s house, Marly-le-Roi, where nothing is left but the foundation of a royal chateau on which the traces of the rooms are still visible, but the crown jewel of our tour was, according to Henri, the American barracks, the American store, and the nightclub the American soldiers had visited. If not for his enthusiasm, this would have been a spot we would’ve passed without a second glance. But I could feel his emotion. It was touching to see his gratefulness, something he’d never lost. To be showing an American this place was very special for him, and a moving moment for me. Afterward, it was off to their house for tea and cookies—American cookies, to be sure—and a long, beautiful conversation. A friendship was being forged as the feeble sunlight faded, and my trip back to Paris was dreamlike. I was indeed taking a different piece of France home with me.
To read more about Louveciennes, get Britt Arenander’s Anais Nin’s Lost World: Paris in Words and Pictures, 1924-1939, which has descriptions and an interactive map that includes the house on rue de Montbuisson.
To see a sample or to purchase Anaïs Nin’s Lost World, click here.
To view a sample interactive map drawn from the book, click here.
anais nin, louveciennes, henry miller, paris, france, hugh guiler
In 1916, less than two years after arriving in America, 13 year old Anaïs Nin created a monthly “magazine” entitled COMPAGNON DE L’OUBLIE, which roughly translates into Companion of the Forgotten, although it is considered to be Companions of Oblivion in Linotte, the English translation of Nin’s childhood diary. These handwritten magazines contained drawings, poetry, and stories. In Linotte, Nin says:
“I had to wipe away the dust that covered my ‘Companions of Oblivion’ in order to show it to Godmother, who was very much interested. She promised to subscribe for 50 cents a month, and we agreed that after I read the monthly journal to Thorvald and Joaquín [Nin’s younger brothers], I am to send it to her, so that I don’t have to write the paper twice. I would spend the day writing happily and without getting tired, but Maman watches over my health and won’t let me do that, saying, “Don’t hurry so much, fifille, you have time.
“Miss Mary Devlin, a friend of Maman’s, came over yesterday in the evening and I had to read her my latest poem, ‘Birth,’ and it seems to me she says it was very good. She told Maman that I could write for ‘Le Courrier des Etats Unis.’ Ah, if I could! My goodness! What a joy for me if I could make use of my chicken tracks and earn a little money for Maman! But alas, I haven’t much hope”(Linotte 139).
The poem Nin refers to follows, from No. 10, the October 1916 issue, translated from the French. She seems to be depicting the idyllic family awaiting the birth of its newest member: the gentle mother, the worried father, the loving grandmother, the doting grandfather. And yet little Anaïs throws in a twist at the end…perhaps life is fragile even in a perfect world.
The sun rose clear and proud
O’er a beautiful day in June
The merry birds sang their most beautiful airs
While the pure sky
Shed its protection on all the nests
Big or small
Nature is waiting for someone
A young mother in her room
Leaned her head o’er her work
A sunbeam illuminated her face
Which expressed joy and happiness
Her fine hands drew the needle
Through little pink and blue shiny ribbons
Folding beneath her activity
Mama is waiting for someone
Bent over a book
A man was concerned
It was a great problem
To be a good father
He had never even had dolls
And now he consults the heavens
To learn what it is to love
Someone smaller than he
Papa is waiting for someone
The yarn passes, and passes by again, the needle
With her wrinkled hands
Grandmother knits a little girl’s shawl
Whether she be beautiful or ugly
Does not matter—She has a grandmother to love her
Her white head wilts,
Falls, but is raised again with strength
Because Grandmother is waiting for someone
In a small corner, hidden
Lies a small purse
But here is the old Grandfather
Who, contrary to habit, empties it
And with a sigh slips his pennies into the hand of a shopkeeper
But his face cheers
At the blue and pink and white of the street
For…Grandfather is waiting for someone
Tenderly leaning o’er a wicker cradle
Grandfather, Grandmother, Mother, and Father
Contemplate the delicate baby
Who wiggles her pink feet and hands
And her small mouth, so pretty, drawn up in a smile
In the light of a day that does not want to die
On her fawn-colored face an angel wrote “Hope”
Hope, repeats the Mother with love
Hope, repeats the Father with joy
Hope, murmurs the old Grandfather, Hope
And the old Grandmother exclaims, There is nothing but darkness!
Life is waiting for someone!
We hope you like the new format of our Anais Nin blog. If you have comments or suggestions (accolades are not frowned upon), please leave a comment. New postings are forthcoming.
Bebe and Louis Barron in their studio
If Anais Nin was known for her diaries, she should also be known for her circle of friends, which included the electronic music pioneers Louis and Bebe Barron. The friendship ultimately turned into collaboration with Nin and Ian Hugo (Hugh Guiler, Nin’s husband) on his experimental film Bells of Atlantis (1952). The music and images work together to provide the audience with a full range of stimulation, both aural and visual, not to mention literary as Nin recites lines from her House of Incest (1936), upon which the film is based. Thanks to NPR, a retrospective of the Barrons and their impact on the music world can be seen here.
Bebe Barron died in April 2008; a video of her last interview can be seen here, conducted by Steven Reigns and Ian McKinnon.
Anaïs Nin Character Dictionary and Index to Diary Excerpts by Benjamin Franklin V has been reviewed by someone who happens to know a bit about Nin bibliography—Valerie Harms, whose Magic Circle Press published Waste of Timelessness and Other Early Stories, culled from Nin’s early fiction. In Harms’ review, she concludes: “This book belongs in the personal library of all those who love Nin’s work and to university and public libraries around the world.” You can read the entire review by clicking here.
Following is a portion of the interview I conducted with Deirdre Bair that deals with some of the questions that have been asked:
PH: How do you feel about Anaïs Nin, the woman, 14 years after the publication of your biography?
DB: More and more, as the years pass, I recognize how important she was as a woman of her time. She really paved the way—many ways—for women at a time when everything, in the world of women, was in flux and changing. She allowed women to realize all the possibilities that were out there in the world for them. And she did this so instinctively and naturally. A partial response to one of your questions—you’d mentioned how some women had said, “She ruined my life. I did what she told me to do, ended relationships and went on into the world.” Well, there were an equal number who said, “She gave me my life. She raised possibilities for me that I’d been to timid to embrace before I read her writing. After that, my life changed dramatically.” So I would say that for every woman who said, “She ruined my life because I did what she did and it didn’t work out for me,” there were an equal number who said, “She allowed me to realize so many possibilities for myself.” So I think the more we look back on her during the historic time in which she lived and wrote, we’re going to realize the importance of her contributions, not only to arts and letters, but to life.
PH: How do you respond to the criticism that your biography is judgmental and moralistic?
DB: I would to tell those people to look at the mail I received when the book was published. For every critic who accused me of that, there are other critics who said, “You were too easy on her. You were too soft on this terrible, dreadful person.” So what we’re looking at here is an individual response on the part of the reader, and I actually welcome both judgments. Basically I think it really comes down to the reader. Those who adore Anaïs will be disappointed—and Rupert Pole and Gunther Stuhlmann were certainly first among them.
PH: This is a question to which I know some would like an answer: did you like Anaïs Nin?
DB: I try to not like or dislike anybody I write about. Writing is my work; my life is elsewhere. I’m a scholar. I’m an intellectual and cultural historian of literature, and my job is to write a book that future generations will use in order to form their own opinions. It’s not my job to like or dislike; it’s my job to understand, and to present the totality of the person’s life and work with as much integrity and objectivity as possible.
In response to questions I e-mailed to Deirdre Bair (including why she chose to term Anaïs Nin a “major minor writer”), she responded:
I’ve been re-reading my introduction to [Anaïs Nin: A Biography] since this afternoon, when I received your email request to respond to critics. As you know, I’ve published two books since I wrote the biography of Anaïs Nin and I am now on deadline for a third, so I haven’t re-read any part of the book since the last time I had to give a talk about it, and that was 3 years ago in Australia. But today, in response to your thoughtful query, I opened the book and re-read my introduction carefully and thoroughly. I was surprised by a number of things that made me wonder how much “reason” versus how much “emotion” had colored the perceptions readers brought to bear on their responses to the book.
My first response to the readers who are hostile to the book was to note from my very first sentence, how clearly and succinctly I told them what my aims, goals, and intentions were in writing the book. In doing so, I enumerated all the charges against Anaïs that I had heard before I started to write—about the “liary,” or how she did not “deserve” a bio such as mine (p. xvi), and how I believed it was the biographer’s responsibility to answer such charges.
I explained to the reader how I went about my work, (beginning on p. xvi and continuing on xvii). The paragraphs on p. xvii beginning “In every instance” and ending with “…evidence for further scholarly inquiry” explain in full how I worked to produce an “objective” biography, how I avoided attaching labels to her, and how I felt the obligation “to allow readers to form their own opinions about this woman I found so compellingly complex.”
Then, on p. xviii, I explain in full how and why I came to adopt Cynthia Ozick’s sophisticated and well-reasoned argument for calling the neglected novelist Arthur Chester a “major minor writer” and for applying this term to Anaïs Nin. I believe those several paragraphs clearly and carefully explain what I meant, so I choose not to try to explain my reasoning further here. I urge readers to re-read these paragraphs carefully, objectively, and with “reason” and without the excess of “emotion” that many bring to their thinking about Anaïs Nin.
I urge them to read the concluding paragraphs on p. xviii. After that, if they wish to think negatively of the book I wrote, that is certainly their prerogative. But I would like to end this email with two remarks I live by as I practice the craft of biography.
The first is by Desmond MacCarthy, literary critic and friend of Virginia Woolf. He said the biographer must be “the artist under oath.” In other words, the biographer has the moral obligation to tell the truth, but to do so in a book that is every bit as interesting to read as a fine novel.
Woolf herself gets the last word here, for I believe that if I have a Credo, this is it: “Each of us has as many as a thousand selves. Happy the biographer who captures six or seven of them.”
That was what I tried to do as I wrote about the life and work of Anaïs Nin.
The entire interview will be published in A Café in Space, Vol. 7.
When Noel Riley Fitch’s study of Nin (Anaïs: The Erotic Life of Anaïs Nin) was published in 1993, the response of some in the Nin community was to swiftly brand it as “baseless” (in the sense Fitch did not have access to the Nin archive) and “sensationalistic” (in the sense it focused mainly on Nin’s love life). For the next two years, however, there were high hopes for the “official” biography, Deirdre Bair’s Anaïs Nin: A Biography, which was to be released in March of 1995. However, ominous rumblings arose even before its publication: Rupert Pole, in a letter to a friend, said the book was a “betrayal.” Gunther Stuhlmann said in a phone conversation that he had demanded his name be removed from the acknowledgements page. Once the book was published, the outcry grew, exacerbated by the response of the book reviewers, who often seemed more intent on reviewing Nin’s life rather than the biography itself.
For example, Carlin Romano of the Philadelphia Inquirer began his review with this statement: “Anaïs Nin lied and fornicated the way the rest of us breathe: regularly in order to live, and in deep gulps in order to flourish.” Nigella Lawson of The Times said: “An affair with Henry Miller—who matched [Nin] for self-centredness, grabbiness, and lack of talent…” Bruce Bawer of the New York Times said in response to Bair’s conclusion that “Nin was among the pioneers who explored three of the most important [concepts that brought sweeping societal change]: sex, the self and psychoanalysis” by retorting, “If Nin is remembered at all, it will not be as a pioneer but as a colorful peripheral character who embodied, in an extreme form, some of the more unfortunate distinguishing characteristics of our age: an obsession with fame; a zeal for self-advertisement; a tendency to confuse art and self-expression; a rejection of intellect in favor of feeling; a romantic glorification of neurosis, selfishness and irresponsibility.” The question begs to be asked: did the biography cause the responses, or did the pre-formed opinions of the reviewers and those in the Nin world skew their responses to the biography?
Within the Nin community, much was made of the fact Bair did not know Anaïs Nin personally and that she was “judgmental” in the treatment of her subject. Gunther Stuhlmann, in his introduction to Anaïs Nin: A Book of Mirrors (Sky Blue Press, 1996), addressed these issues in reaction to both Fitch’s and Bair’s books:
“In recent years a number of biographers, here and abroad, have tried to assemble their own images of Anaïs Nin. They seem to have been enthralled, most of all, by what they could glean of the erotic aspect of their moving target. With lipsmacking glee, or sour disapproval, they have turned their spotlights upon the supposedly “sensational” and “shocking” details of the private sexual life of the lady from Neuilly which, of course, fail to reveal a complete image of a complex personality, or to illuminate the nature of the impact her creations have had on a vast multi-generational audience.
“Biographers, especially when they have no personal knowledge of their subject, rely for their interpretations upon the sometimes dubious documentation of fragmented memory shards, the recollections of contemporaries often shaped by their own agendas, and most of all on the paper trail of the vanished person, the raw material of records and writings left behind.”
During the five years Deirdre Bair spent writing her biography of Anaïs Nin, she acknowledged that not having known Nin was a detriment. In her introduction, she says: “I had to settle for the verbal testimony of those who had known her…and I was astonished at the range of their responses, especially how, in so many cases, the mere mention of her name provoked vehemence and outrage… So a crucial issue became my trying to understand what there was about Anaïs Nin that made people react so strongly even though she had died more than a decade earlier.” So, were the “facts” again distorted by emotional responses to Nin? And how does one choose one response over the next as validation for factual information? And would knowing Anaïs Nin have helped in the end? To whom did she reveal her entire self during her lifetime?
In a recent interview, Bair said, “Any major event or happening or actions in Anaïs’s life began from what she wrote in her diaries at UCLA. If I wrote about something, it was because I fact-checked as thoroughly as I could. If she said she had an affair with somebody, if that person was still alive, I called them, I contacted them, I went to see them, and I asked, ‘Did you have an affair with Anaïs Nin?’ If I wrote about a possible incestuous relationship, it was because I checked every possible document, every possible person that I could. I think that was about as close to the truth as we were going to get.”
Explaining the issue of incest further, Bair says:
“The way I dealt with that was to photocopy those pages in the diary. I am a member of a group called the New York Institute for the Humanities, an NYU-affiliated body of public intellectuals, as we are called. Among them were some distinguished psychoanalysts and writers in that field—Jessica Benjamin, Muriel Dimen, Virginia Goldner, Sue Shapiro, and many of them specialize in the abuse of women. So I said to them, ‘I’m going to convene a special seminar.’ There were six analysts in total in the room. I said, ‘I’m going to pass out these photocopied pages from this diary that Anaïs Nin wrote, and at the end of the evening you have to give them back to me, and you have to swear secrecy to not tell anyone about this because I don’t know if it’s true, and I don’t know if I’m going to write it.’ So these six highly respected, important authorities in the field, they all turned to me and said, ‘It’s as if she is in my consulting room and that she’s one of my patients. This is the story that I hear.’ They called it adult onset incest. They said that often, when a parent and a child have been separated at a very young age, when they come together as adults, they see the reflection of themselves in the other and a love affair results. Shortly thereafter, a woman named Kathryn Harrison wrote just such a memoir, about her incestuous affair with her own father…it was word for word what Anaïs wrote in the diary. At that point, I knew I had to write it.
“So I said to Joaquin (Nin-Culmell), ‘I’m very, very worried. You have become a dear friend of mine, and I’m going to have to write this, and I’m afraid it’s going to end our friendship.’ And he thought very carefully for a long while. And he said, ‘Well, you’ve told me every terrible thing I’ve long suspected about my sister, but I know that you’re going to write it in such a way that you will still allow me to love her.’ And I burst into tears.”
Contrary to the reaction of Pole, Stuhlmann, and others in the inner Nin circle, both Joaquín Nin-Culmell and Gayle Nin Rosenkrantz (Nin’s brother and niece and her closest living relatives at the time) found the Bair biography to be sensitive and fair. Gayle said recently, “The problem with some is that they will say, ‘If I understand Anaïs Nin and you disagree with me, then you don’t understand her.’ Deirdre Bair didn’t paint a gallant, romantic picture of Anaïs, but overall I thought she did a very professional and sympathetic job. Perhaps Rupert felt upset because the book did not whitewash Anaïs’s life and did not sanctify his role in it.”
The entire interview will be published in A Cafe in Space, Vol. 7