One of Anaïs Nin’s most recognizable titles, A Spy in the House of Love, comes closer to the psychological truth of Nin’s tormented life during the 1940s, a life of conflicting passions and identities, and sexual adventures, than any other publication, including her Diary.
Sabina, the lead character in this novel, is sometimes considered a composite of Nin and June Miller, Henry Miller’s wife—or she could be looked upon as a certain facet of Nin’s personality that was mirrored by the mysterious bohemian June, with whom Nin became emotionally involved in the early 1930s. It can be said that June helped “awaken” Nin to her own subterranean longings for sexual power and freedom, which she first lived out with the voracious and lusty Henry, who “taught her things,” some of which she’d only imagined were possible, and others she never dreamt of.
As Nin’s sexual identity developed, honed by Miller’s tutelage, she began to realize that it, like her persona, was multi-dimensional, and she began to experiment with other men, psychoanalyst Otto Rank and the Peruvian Gonzalo Moré among them. By the time she’d returned to New York at the onset of World War II, partly inspired by her sense of rootlessness and her sexually stifled marriage, she began to seek love and security in increasingly younger and more diverse men. Seeking the one man with whom she could feel secure and be loved completely was a tumultuous journey, leaving Nin feeling at times desperately alone and even suicidal.
A Spy in the House of Love does in a concise, distilled sense what Anaïs Nin was unable to do in any other form—to reveal the torn, fragmented, conflicted life she was experiencing at the time, the fragments mirrored by five very different men: Alan, Sabina’s stolid husband (based on Nin’s husband Hugh Guiler); Philip, an exuberant and sexually charged Viennese singer (based on Edward Graeff, with whom Nin had a sporadic but prolonged affair); Mambo, an exotic black islander (inspired by Albert Mangones, a Haitian with whom Nin had a torrid sexual relationship); John, a wartime rear gunner who’d been grounded (based on the young ex-soldier John Paanecker, whom Nin met on a hellish, lonely holiday in East Hampton, Long Island); and Jay, a painter with whom Sabina had an affair some years earlier in Paris (based on Henry Miller).
Sabina despairs at only being able to live out a piece of herself with each man, and yearns for unity—which is exactly what Nin was vainly seeking—and a man who could love all parts of her. Like Nin, Sabina, in spite of her very complicated life which required monumental lies and deception to maintain, finds the resolve and strength to not give up, to continue the struggle.
The prose in A Spy in the House of Love alternates wonderfully between realism and surrealism, and is always verbally economic and poetic. Consider this passage, which describes Sabina and Philip escaping a nightclub to make love:
“They fled from the eyes of the world, the singer’s prophetic, harsh, ovarian prologues. Down the rusty bars of ladders to the undergrounds of the night propitious to the first man and woman at the beginning of the world, where there were no words by which to possess each other, no music for serenades, no presents to court with, no tournaments to impress and force a yielding, no secondary instruments, no adornments, necklaces, crowns to subdue, but only one ritual, a joyous, joyous, joyous, joyous impaling of woman on man’s sensual mast.”
A Spy in the House of Love was first published in 1954 by the British Book Centre and was republished by Avon Publications in 1957; Bantam Books in 1968; Penguin in 1973; Swallow Press, who has the current print edition in the USA; and Sky Blue Press, 2010, in a Kindle edition, the first time this title has been made available in digital form. It was Nin’s first commercially successful novel, the Avon edition having sold over 100,000 copies during the 1950s, more than a half decade before the Diary was published.