When Dutton published Anaïs Nin’s first full-length novel, Ladders to Fire, in 1946 (which then contained a section entitled “Stella”), the critics railed against Nin’s use of language in general and her distillation of characters in particular. Nin had revolted against America’s tradition of detailed and realistic descriptions in favor of symbolism, striving to describe the events occurring beneath the surface. 1940s America was not, perhaps, ready for her work, which scholars agree today was far ahead of its time, and thus began the war between Nin and her critics.
One critic in particular raised Nin’s hackles: The New York Times’ Herbert Lyons, whose review was entitled “Surrealistic Soap Opera.” In it, Lyons not only stated that Nin’s male characters were “pale, weak young men,” but also said,
Insomuch as the “avant garde” may not listen to the radio, it is perhaps worth noting that numerous daytime serials are almost exclusively devoted to less fancy variations on this same theme of woman’s struggle to understand her own nature… As in much of modern music, there is little originality. The novel contains traces of Djuna Barnes, Henry Miller, and Edmund Wilson and a large deposit of French surrealism. These days many things get by under the banner of complexity and super-sensitivity; artiness and obscurantism, as always, are sometimes disguises for second-rate talents. But Miss Nin’s novel has a certain interest as a pastiche of contemporary preciousness.—The New York Times, October 20, 1946
Nin’s response in a letter dated shortly thereafter:
Dear Mr. Lyons: When it comes to modern literature you show yourself to be almost totally illiterate. You cannot decipher the simplest facts and resort to distortions.
You see a book full of pale, weak young men when there is only one of them and he plays a minor role. The rest of the men are more than full length, ruddy, lusty characters.
Number One: Bruno. An able bodied and most satisfactory lover whose only handicap in Stella’s eyes lies in his loyalty to his wife and children which is clearly described in the book as being only a problem to Stella’s lack of confidence.
Philip: also a healthy, humorous, confident character, guilty of merely liking too many women.
Stella’s father. Equally powerful and dominant.
Lillian has a perfectly adequate husband.
Jay is big, healthy, joyous. “He sat like a workman before his drinks, he talked like a cart driver to the whores at the bar; they were all at ease with him.”
Djuna, you say, also has trouble with various men, but Djuna has no relationship to any man in the book.
No pale weak men appear at the party. Nowhere in the book can you find that Sabina represents modern woman.
The men in the book are in fact powerful and self confident. You must be one of the pale weak young men of our times to identify so exaggeratedly with one of the minor characters.
Not only did Nin berate Lyons, but Gore Vidal (who was an editor for Dutton at the time, and, since he promoted Nin to his superiors, may have had self-interest in mind) lambasted him with his own diatribe:
I have just finished reading Herbert Lyons’ review of Anais Nin’s new novel LADDERS TO FIRE. I consider his attack on her work absurd, irresponsible, and an excellent example of sloppy reviewing. Since Anais Nin is a literary figure of considerable stature, I wish to come to her defense and to examine the Lyons review.
After making his case, he sums up with:
It is certainly healthy to disagree on the merits of a writer. Mr. Lyons might very well be on the right side, but he has not, certainly, proven his case. He has written an emotional and inaccurate review, bristling with antagonism and not much else. It is sad for authors to read reviews like his; one has the feeling that books can be reviewed by anyone, that reputations can stand or fall on the opinion of some near-illiterate with an axe in need of grinding.
Of course, Nin’s and Vidal’s responses fell upon deaf ears, and for most of her life, until the Diaries were published in 1966 when she was 63 years of age, she would endure the harshness of the New York literary establishment.
Anaïs Nin’s Under a Glass Bell is now being offered in mulitple formats on Smashwords. Other Nin titles on Kindle are: Collages, 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 more to follow.