The Characters of Anaïs Nin’s Collages: Jean Tinguely

Anaïs Nin’s last novel, Collages, is populated with several characters taken from real life. We are beginning a series of posts based on these personages, and we begin with the Swiss “kinetic artist” Jean Tinguely. In Collages, some of Nin’s characters attend Tinguely’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Anaïs Nin met Jean Tinguely in 1960, just before his “Homage to New York,” perhaps better known as “The Machine that Destroys Itself” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In her Diary, she says:

Billy Kluver, a young Swedish scientist who worked for Bell Laboratories, and his wife drove me to their home in New Jersey. There I met Jean Tinguely and hear about his motion sculptures. They were constructed of objects from the junk yards of Paris where Tinguely loves to live. Their activities are animated by cast-off electric motors. The ultimate effect is one of chaos, humor, perversity… It is a mockery of the machine. The one which is designed to make bottles, breaks them… Some of the machines look so threatening and dangerous that when he dragged them through the streets of Paris to the gallery he was arrested on suspicion of possessing death-dealing instruments. For Americans, who believe in and admire the efficiency of machines, these machines which fell apart, jumped, exploded, shook with Dadaist humor, produced a startling shock and often gave them a feeling of sacrilege. (Diary 6 284-5).

Tinguely’s philosophy was expressed in a manifesto entitled “For Statics,” which was printed onto 150,000 fliers that were released from an airplane over Düsseldorf, Germany before an exhibition:

Everything moves continuously. Immobility does not exist. Don’t be subject to the influence of out-of-date concepts. Forget hours, seconds, and minutes. Accept instability. Live in time. Be static—with movement. For a static of the present moment. Resist the anxious wish to fix the instantaneous, to kill that which is living. Stop insisting on “value” which cannot but break down. Be free, live. Stop painting time. Stop evoking movement and gesture. You are movement and gesture. Stop building cathedrals and pyramids which are doomed to fall into ruin. Live in the present; live once more in Time and by Time—for a wonderful and absolute reality.

(After reading this manifesto, one has to wonder what Tinguely would have thought about the “machine that destroyed itself” in the Gulf of Mexico, and how America is about to drown in the very oil that sustains it.)

Nin continues in her diary:

Billy Kluver was taking Tinguely to the New Jersey dumps. They brought back balloons, bassinets, baby carriages, bicycle wheels, an old piano. Billy was working day and night at the wiring. They were preparing “The Machine that Destroys Itself” for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Diary 6 284).

Jean Tinguely and The Machine that Destroys Itself

Jean Tinguely and The Machine that Destroys Itself

Nin closes Collages with a detailed account of the event, an excerpt of which follows:

The whole structure rattled erratically, in counter-rhythms, steaming senselessly, all motions in reverse, each interfering with another, negating it, inverted activity, bending and twisting and tearing at itself, introverted activity ending sometimes in a deadlock so that the fire was allowed to spread more quickly. The ladder trembled, lost a few rungs, fell. The balloon at the very tip of the structure, a huge orange balloon, gasped and burst. The chemicals smoked green, orange and blue. The paper with the names of artists unrolled again, a few more names were added, and then it swallowed them all again, finally catching fire. It seemed at times like an infernal factory in which every operation had gone mad, in which the levers and buttons did the opposite of what they were designed to do, all the mechanisms reversed. The fire devoured one more note of the piano, and only three notes were left playing. Then two. Then one which would not die.

The Fire Chief interfered with the exhibition, out of fear of a catastrophe, and began to extinguish the fire. Tinguely then had to “help” his machine collapse by kicking and tugging at it. The crowd was angered by the interference and heckled the fireman.

Click here to see a video of an interview with Tinguely before the event, and a part of the event itself. It is fascinating to read Nin’s account and then to see what actually occurred—it gives us a glimpse into her writing process. One could watch the destruction and walk away bemused, or one could turn it into poetry.

Click here to read Tinguely’s thoughts on the 1960 exhibition.

Jean Tinguely died in 1991 in Bern, Switzerland.

Collages has been published as an e-book on Kindle. It will join several other Nin titles on Kindle: The Winter of Artifice, Under a Glass Bell, Ladders to Fire, Children of the Albatross, A Spy in the House of Love, and Seduction of the Minotaur, and The Four-Chambered Heart, with others to follow. 

The Story Behind Anaïs Nin’s The Four-Chambered Heart

 In 1948, when Anaïs Nin first began writing her novel The Four-Chambered Heart, she described it as her “last act of love” for Gonzalo Moré, the Peruvian radical and bohemian with whom she’d been locked in a torturous, doomed relationship for more than a decade. “It is the monument that he will not be able to destroy as he destroyed our life,” she says in her unpublished diary.

In the novel, the character Djuna falls in love with Rango and becomes entangled in his chaotic life. She is introduced to Zora, Rango’s wife, a former dancer who has fallen into a morass of hypochondria and self-centered manipulation. These characters, of course, are modeled after Nin, Moré, and his wife Helba Huara.

Helba Huara in costume

Helba Huara in costume

When Nin first met Gonzalo in Paris in 1936, she astutely recognized him as a “tiger who dreams. A tiger without claws.” Helba was “the woman whose dance without arms inspired the dancer in House of Incest” (Fire243). Henry Miller, during his first visit to Nin in Louveciennes in 1931, said he’d seen Helba dance, but that “her husband is the interesting one.” Indeed, Gonzalo knew and was the intellectual equal of literary figures such as Antonin Artaud, Pablo Neruda, and César Vallejo. In 1931, Nin had “walked out of Helba’s first small recital, disgusted with her grotesque exaggerations, and Gonzalo was on the stage as accompanist and I did not see him—five years before we met.” But years later, Nin “saw the monstrous quality of the demon in Helba and was interested—not repulsed” (unpublished diary). Indeed, for a time during the 1920s and early 1930s, Helba was acclaimed as an exotic dancer embodying Incan culture who performed all over Europe and on Broadway.

By 1936, however, Helba had become a self-created invalid, using imaginary illness to manipulate Gonzalo and anyone with whom they associated, and she and Gonzalo were impoverished, living in the squalor of a dungeon-like basement room.

Nin’s love affair with Gonzalo was unlike her concurrent affair with Henry Miller—waves of sexual fury and romance, violence followed by serenity, and above all a Latin emotional connectedness, which she lacked with Miller. The words Nin records in her diary reflect the passion she and Gonzalo shared, as he whispers to her while dancing: “Anaïs, Anaïs, you are so strong, so strong and so fragile, such strength. I fear you…the most beautiful music your father ever produced was your voice…you’re all sensitiveness…the perfume of all things, how unique you are, Anaïs.” She continues: “All this in Spanish. My blood hears Spanish…through dark subterranean channels” (Fire 247).

Acting on a dream she’d once had, Nin rented a houseboat on the Seine, which she and Gonzalo used as a setting for their explosive amorous rendezvous. The houseboat became a key symbol in Nin’s fiction, appearing in some of the stories from Under a Glass Bell, as well as The Four-Chambered Heart.

Because she truly loved Gonzalo, the revolutionary too lazy take up arms, the artist without creations, the worker without a clock, the intellectual mind dimmed by drugs and alcohol, Nin fought against impossible odds to rehabilitate him. She overlooked the obvious flaws and recognized his keen intelligence, charisma, fiery passion, and humor. However, the inertia of his personality, his uncontrolable jealousy, and Helba’s constant meddling slowly began to drag Nin into their hell.

After fleeing France for New York when the war began, Nin set up her own printing press and employed Gonzalo to work with her. She even named the business after him—Gemor Press—and felt she’d finally helped him develop a craft and a sense of self-worth. However, by the mid-1940s, she was the one doing most of the work, and anything left to Gonzalo was usually left unfinished or poorly done. Not only was she disillusioned by Gonzalo, she grew to hate Helba. In late 1943, she writes in her unpublished diary: “I meditated for two days how to kill Helba to save Gonzalo, to free him—calling it to myself a mercy killing. This is insanity.

Gonzalo Moré

Gonzalo Moré

The relationship continued to wither until Nin collapsed under the ever-growing burden. By 1947, Nin asked herself “how I turned to this sick sick sick primitive for fire, and who had this useless, raging, blind, destructive fire in the center of his being…this fire leading nowhere, a wasted, destructive fire.

Hugh Guiler, Nin’s husband, after years of knowingly (and often unknowingly) supporting Gonzalo financially, finally cut him off, but not before setting him up with Social Services, in order to give him time to find a job, which, characteristically, he never did.

Nin says in her 1948 diary: “The Gonzalo I loved is dead. The one I knew at the end, without illusion, I did not love. People create an illusion together and then it is disintegrated by reality.

The relationship, after many cataclysms, was finished.

Nin sought to distill hundreds of diary pages into a highly concentrated document, to tell “the story of Gonzalo without its sordid, degrading end, for Gonzalo, like June [Miller], had the power to descend to the greatest vulgarities and I cannot even transcribe the slime into which our love dissolved.” What resulted is a book that truly does stand as a shrine to Anaïs Nin’s powerful love for Gonzalo Moré, and has been described by critics as comparable to the works of D.H. Lawrence and Carson McCullers. In the following passage, for example, Nin explains how an exterior force (Rango’s jealousy of Djuna’s former lover Paul) affects the interior, a familiar Lawrencian theme:

“[Rango] was driving the image of Paul into another chamber of her heart, an isolated chamber without communicating passage into the one inhabited by Rango. A place in some obscure recess, where flows eternal love, in a realm so different from the one inhabited by Rango that they would never meet or collide, in these vast cities of the interior.”

The Four-Chambered Heartwas published by Duell, Sloane and Pearce in 1950. It was later published by Swallow Press and then incorporated into Nin’s “roman fleuve,” Cities of the Interior.

Now, Sky Blue Press has published The Four-Chambered Heart on Amazon’s Kindle as an e-book for the first time. It joins several other Nin titles on Kindle: The Winter of Artifice, Under a Glass Bell, Ladders to Fire, Children of the Albatross, A Spy in the House of Love, and Seduction of the Minotaur, with others to follow. 

Anais Nin’s Ladders to Fire on Kindle


Ladders to Fire (Dutton)

Anaïs Nin’s first full-length novel, Ladders to Fire, has undergone many incarnations and has a history that includes several key Nin titles. When the original version of The Winter of Artifice (Paris, Obelisk Press, 1939) was gutted for reasons of censorship in America, the lost story “Djuna” was reconstituted in Ladders to Fire, parts of it reappearing in radically different form throughout the text. The rewrite of “Djuna” illustrates not only the change in Nin’s writing style, but also in her attitude towards the inspiration of its central male character (Hans in Winter and Jay in )—Henry Miller. When Nin wrote The Winter of Artifice, which Miller helped her edit, she was still his lover and in need of his guidance in both personal and professional matters. By the time she rewrote “Djuna,” in the early to mid-1940s, her affair with Miller had ended with bitterness and disappointment. She felt he was weak and had lost his lust for life and writing, and this attitude is reflected in the sharp contrast of “Djuna” and its rewritten counterpart in Ladders to Fire. It makes for a fascinating comparison when one is read in conjunction with the other.

Ladders to Fire was first published by Nin’s Gemor Press in 1945 as This Hunger, which today comprises the first half of the novel. Nin’s famous character collage was taken to promote This Hunger (this is mentioned in “L’homme Fatal,” which is an excerpt from Nin’s unpublished diary found in A Café in Space, Vol. 7, 2010. When Nin signed a contract with E.P. Dutton, she expanded the book by adding the story “Stella” and the last half of the present-day version entitled “Bread and the Wafer.” “Stella,” which some critics consider a sequel to the story “Winter of Artifice” (from the book of the same name) and not compatible with the rest of Ladders to Fire, was cut from later editions and can be found in the current Swallow Press version of Winter of Artifice.
Promo shot for This Hunger

Promo shot for This Hunger

So, today’s version of Ladders to Fire consists of two parts: “This Hunger,” and “Bread and the Wafer.” “This Hunger” introduces us to one of Nin’s key characters throughout the five novels of the Cities of the Interior series, Lillian, a concert pianist, who, after going through several broken relationships, is married with two children, a family that she largely ignores in favor of self-realization. When she realizes the disconnect between her and her husband, she meets another famous Nin character, Djuna, who, as an orphan, was starved for love and affections but has developed a strong and compassionate personality. Djuna recognizes the “orphan” in Lillian and takes a strong interest in her well-being. Both women are involved with Jay, a bohemian painter. It would not be rash to say that the two female characters represent aspects of Nin that reacted to Henry Miller in very different ways.

In the second portion of the novel, “Bread and the Wafer,” Nin further explores the Jay character and introduces Sabina, who one could view as either based on June Miller or the part of Nin that had affinity with her. Sabina here is the counterpart of Johanna from “Djuna” in the original The Winter of Artifice, and the storyline is altered in one very significant way: in “Djuna,” when Johanna and Djuna (Sabina and Lillian respectively in Ladders) contemplate consummating their intense feelings for each other sexually, it is Johanna who rebels and rejects Djuna after accusing her of loving Hans; in Ladders, it is Lillian who subjects Sabina to the same treatment. This marks a very shift in approach and severely changes the balance between the characters. It also could mean that Nin had changed her feelings towards June Miller a decade after their famous blow-up (recorded in Henry and June).

“Bread and the Wafer” finishes famously with Nin’s surrealistic treatment of “The Party,” based on real events and people, many of whom are represented by the characters of Ladders to Fire.

Critics in the 1940s were largely split over the book, Edmund Wilson considering it a big step forward in Nin’s writing, and others branding her as not fit for mass consumption. Today, when seen as part of the mosaic that makes up Cities of the Interior, Ladders to Fire takes its place alongside Nin’s best prose.

The new Kindle version of Ladders to Fire correctly retains the present day version of the novel and is available from It joins other Nin titles on Kindle: The Winter of Artifice, Under a Glass Bell, Children of the Albatross, A Spy in the House of Love, and Seduction of the Minotaur.