Children of the Albatross, which has just been published on Kindle, is considered by many to be one of Anaïs Nin’s most beautiful books; it is also a groundbreaker in that it eloquently addresses androgyny and homosexuality, which few literary works dared to do in 1940s America. What follows is an “unprofessional” analysis of the book, in which we are introduced to three of Nin’s most iconic characters: Djuna, Lillian, and Sabina, all of whom represent different aspects of Nin’s character—serenity, earthiness, and the femme fatale, respectively.
This new authoritative edition includes an introduction by Nin, character sketches drawn from Benjamin Franklin’s Nin Character Dictionary, and a complete publishing history of the title.
The novel is divided into two sections, “The Sealed Room,” in which we follow Djuna’s developing perception of sexuality, and “The Café,” in which the nature of each of the three female characters’ relationships with the powerful, omnipotent painter Jay, whom Nin fashioned after Henry Miller.
In “The Sealed Room,” young Djuna is in an orphanage, perhaps a metaphor for Nin’s sense of abandonment by her father at the age of ten, and is confronted by the “watchman,” a vile man who trades freedom for sexual favors. Later she is molested by her dance teacher. Symbolic of Nin’s own struggle to free herself of overly powerful, masculine men (Paco Miralles—dance teacher who tried to seduce her; her father—incest; Henry Miller—emotional betrayal), Djuna’s quest for freedom was for Michael, a young effeminate man (based on her cousin Eduardo Sánchez), with whom she seeks a complete love but fails because of his homosexuality. Djuna encounters Donald (after Robert Duncan), Lawrence (“Pablo” of the diary), and the seventeen year old Paul (Bill Pinckard) with whom she shares a nurturing (and sexual) relationship.
“The Café” brings together the three female characters (Sabina, Lillian and Djuna) with Jay (after Miller), who is a painter with whom all three woman have had a relationship. In this segment of the novel we find out, through the characters, how Nin’s relationship with Miller had different stages and levels. Just as the female characters have conflicts in their approach to Jay, Nin’s internal conflicts regarding Miller ultimately resulted in estrangement. The book concludes after Michael and Donald appear at the café, in effect bringing relationships from various times and places together as Jay drags Djuna from her “cities of the interior” into life.
It is interesting to note that the title “The Sealed Room” is a reference to Anaïs Nin’s house in Louveciennes, France, which had one window that was eternally shuttered and appeared to be present for symmetry alone. The “room” which didn’t exist behind this window became an important metaphor for Nin’s interior vision. She also compared the sealed room to her diary, which was the repository that fed her fiction. This reminds us of the fact that Nin was criticized (and indeed she criticized herself at times) for not being able to invent, to compose fiction purely from the imagination. But what she did was to use the components of the diary as an ingredient in what can be considered a sort of “alchemy,” what she termed a “distillation” that became a unique type of fiction that was, unfortunately, almost totally incompatible with the times (1930s to 1950s) during which it was published.
There are several levels at which her fiction can be read—there is the remarkable and distinct prose, which some compare to French surrealism and which uses words in unique ways (consider the word “ensorcell,” for example); there is the psychological aspect of her writing, in which there is a constant search for identity, the understanding of the dynamics of relationships, and the impact of the past on the present; there is the struggle for self-awareness and self-evolution, which makes her writing relevant to this day. We see ourselves, our struggles, our pain, our hell, in Nin’s work, and when her characters somehow survive and grow, we are inspired. Her work can be considered a mirror in which we see ourselves, which gives it a sort of secret personal touch that is sometimes missing in contemporary fiction. It is also why few can agree on the particulars of Anaïs Nin’s body of work, because we all see it in our own way.
When Children of the Albatross was first released by Dutton in 1947, it met with mixed reviews—one of the usual complaints was that Nin’s fiction is light on plot and heavy in the sorts of things that, although they wouldn’t admit it, the critics simply didn’t understand. In the 1940s, literary critics were looking for realism, sequence, solid characters with solid descriptions. Nin offered none of these characteristics in her fiction and therefore it was difficult to get a decent review or to sell many copies to middle American readers.
Today, because it offers deep insight into Nin’s inner life within its beautifully written passages, it is considered one of her most effective works, and it is also recognized as one of the first American titles by a female author to consider male homosexuality.