Myth #16: Anais Nin didn’t have a sense of humor.
Fact: In his 1969 interview with Nin, Duane Schneider asked: “Do you have a sense of humor?” Nin was surprised by the question, but said: “I think the Diary is humorous; I think Collages is humorous… I don’t think I have what is called humor in the American sense. I have playfulness, and fantasy. But my humor is quieter; it’s more like the Japanese. I don’t like farce, broad humor” (A Cafe in Space, Vol. 5, p. 111).
What follows are some examples of Nin’s brand of humor:
“I telephoned the fire department. But the man who answered heard my French accent, and the gaiety in my voice, and believed it was a student hoax. I called out to Kendall: ‘You talk to him. He does not believe there is a fire because of my accent.’ We were laughing, uncontrollably, because we could not really believe the fire, because it seemed so absurd, because Jimmy stood there with his manuscripts, and because he said: ‘Oh, Anaïs, this is a publicity stunt, of course. On the occasion of Ladders to Fire, we set fire to the house and we will have to come down a ladder.’ We opened the windows. The house was only two floors high and we would fall on the grass and bushes, if the ladders to fire did not arrive soon. We heard the sirens. A huge fireman opened Jimmy’s door, ready to rescue us. How do you rescue people taken with uncontrollable laughter? ‘It was a publicity stunt,’ we said. He thought it was the champagne. There was a lot of noise around. Neighbors had come to watch. Two engines were standing there. And the climax came when the fireman said: ‘No danger. It was the lady downstairs, who left a cake in the oven, and that made all the smoke’” (Diary 4, pp. 171-172)
In a letter to Rupert Pole, dated Nov. 20, 1961, Nin, who was in New York, had their dog, Piccolo, “write” an addendum:
“Dear Rupert—there is a serious shortage of dog psychiatrists. Nobody understands I only pee at the United Nations just to be polite and international, I pee on the 57th St. corner of Tiffany’s just to be fashionable, but I reserve my fullest pee for my temporary home, to assert my temporary ownership, and each time the old German elevator man comes out and grumbles. It’s true I’m not paying any rent—but he should know dog psychology. Cold rainy day—Anaïs tells me you had the same. She hangs on that phone—I don’t feel I own her whole heart! But she brought me a leftover meal from her dinner with rich cousins. Love Piccolo” (A Cafe in Space, Vol. 5, p. 89).
In the novel Collages, which, in her dedication, she calls her “humorous book,” Nin describes a scene with her characters Renate and Bruce, based on her friends Renate Druks and Paul Mathiesen:
“And then one day at Christmas, the terrified animals ran down from the mountains. Renate saw them running before she heard the sound of crackling wood or saw the flames leaping from hill to hill, across roads, exploding the dry brush, driving people and animals down the canyons and pursuing them satanically down to the very edge of the sea. The fire attacked houses and cars, lit bonfires above the trees, thundered like burning oil wells.
Planes dived and dropped chemicals. Huge tractors cut wide gashes through the forest to cut off the spreading fire. Firefighters climbed up with hoses, and vanished into the smoke.
Somewhere, a firebug rejoiced in the spectacle.
Around Renate’s house there was no brush, so she hoped to escape the flames. She wrapped herself in a wet blanket and stood on the roof watering it down. But she could feel the heat approaching, and watch its capricious somersaults, unexpected twists and devouring rages.
Bruce helped her for a while and then climbed down. She was still holding the hose and soaking the house when she looked down and saw what first appeared to be the portrait of Bruce walking. The large, life size painting was moving away from the house and two feet showed below the frame, two feet in shoes just below the naked feet of the painting.
The first thing he had asked of her was to stop painting animals and women and to paint a portrait of him. He had shown her the long hairs which grew on his ear lobes and said: ‘You know that I am Pan, and I want you to paint me as Pan.’ He had posed nude, in the red-gold afternoon sun of Mexico, always showing the same half-smile, the pleasure loving, non-human smile of Pan. He loved the painting, admired it every day. It was the god of the household. When they traveled, it was he who had packed it lovingly. He would say: ‘If any injury came to this painting, it would damage me, something fatal would happen to Pan.’
And so today this was Bruce rescuing Bruce, or Bruce rescuing Pan in himself. At first the painting turned its luminous face to her, but as he proceeded down the hill she saw him behind the painting in dungarees and a thick white sweater. She saw a group of firefighters below; she saw the expression on their faces as the painting walked towards them, as they saw first of all a naked Pan with faunish ears, a walking painting with feet, and then the apparition of the same figure dressed in everyday costume upholding its twin, duplicate half-smile, duplicate hands; and they looked startled and puzzled, as if it were superfluous to rescue a mere reproduction of an original.
So Bruce saved Pan, and Renate saved the house but the fire seemed to have finally consumed their relationship” (Collages, pp. 27-28).
Nin’s relationship with her Peruvian lover, Gonzalo Moré, while fiery and chaotic, was also one in which humor thrived in their conversations. In the unpublished diaries from the 1940s, there are several examples of their discourse:
During a romantic tryst:
“Gonzalo unfastening my new panties with the garters attached and saying: ‘It looks like a pulpo (octopus)—how many pulpos do I have to unfasten?’”
A lazy conversation on a summer evening in New York:
“I said to Gonzalo how strange it is that the spermatozoa sometimes lingers in the womb before fecundating the egg. Gonzalo said: Yes, it’s slumming!'”
I said to Gonzalo: “Janet saw a hermaphrodite, half of her body a man’s, half a woman.” “And the sex,” said Gonzalo, “was it a banana split?”
He talked to me for a whole evening about the activity of the microbes. Coming home we saw lovers sitting in Washington Square. Gonzalo said: “I wonder what makes people fall in love!”
“Don’t tell me it’s microbes,” I said.
After one of their many quarrels:
“I said: ‘Last night I was enmerdé (bored stiff), and I was looking for you in the rain, and I was out for a fight, in fact all ready to throw lightning around and you must have felt it and you ran, off to the movies. You escaped a big scene!’
‘What was it,’ said Gonzalo, laughing.
‘I wrote about it and so it’s all in a book, and you’re safe.’
‘Estoy contento,’ he said. And slept with his hand on my leg.”
From a Spanish newspaper Nin and Moré read together:
“A man has to deliver a coffin. He takes it on the bus as soon as the deliveries are paralyzed after the Spanish revolution. There is no room in the crowded bus. He is sent up to the top. It is raining hard. He is getting soaked. He decides to get into the coffin and cover himself. More people come to sit on the top of the bus. They sit with their backs against the coffin. The man inside of the coffin listens to their conversation, gets bored, lifts the top of the coffin, sits up and says: ‘Is it still raining?’ The people threw themselves off the bus with fright, broke their legs.”
In the 1940s diary, Nin describes going to the staid home of Virginia Admiral:
“At Virginia’s house Hugo said: ‘It looks like the House of Crime and Punishment.’ I answered: ‘But it’s the House of Punishment without Crime.’”
A conversation with Robert Duncan in the 1940s diary:
“Wrote an article on astrology to order. Was nervous about it, being told it might be for Vogue. Wrote it lightly but Robert and Hugo thought it was not light enough. Robert took it up to make it humorous. I was sad…not to be able to be flippant.
I said: ‘I can’t flip!’
Robert said: ‘You must flip! Start on me if you wish. Make fun of me.’”
Special thanks goes to Rebecca (@anaisnin on Twitter) for inspiring this post.