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.
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 Amazon.com. 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.