After Anaïs Nin self-published the revised Winter of Artifice (1942) and Under a Glass Bell and Other Stories (1944), she was faced with a formidable dilemma: to begin writing new material—the two previous publications were largely written before 1939, the year Nin fled Paris for New York because of the war, and they were both described as ethereal and dreamlike, neither of which interested the big publishers.
In New York, Nin’s life was in upheaval as she tried in vain to adjust to the indifference her work received and the arid climate in which she did not feel creative. Her personal life, too, was in tatters, and she often confessed to her unpublished diary that she was suicidal. Her relationship with Henry Miller was finished, bitterly, and Gonzalo Moré, her lover of some seven years, was weighing Nin down with his shiftlessness, his suffocating dependency, and the burden presented by his neurotic wife, Helba Huara. Because of these glaring and harsh realities, Nin, for the first time, was forced to face the true nature of her situation and those to whom she’d allied herself. She said often that she created those in her life by seeing them through the eyes of a dreamer, a mystic, which filtered out everything except what she found endearing, beautiful, miraculous.
At first, Nin’s forced awakening put her in unfamiliar territory—the real world, reality, unfiltered, undistilled, in all its ugliness and toxicity. She foundered, not able to find the footing, the philosophy, on which to create her new fiction. On a vacation at the beach house of her friend, Irina Alexander, where Nin went to recuperate from her severe bouts of depression, she was to find the symbol of her new direction:
July 23, 1943
The image which has supported, inspired me, upheld me, put me to shame, is strangely that of the woman Captain Soviet Valentina Orlikova with whom Irina had a friendship. Her photograph gave me the same shock I felt when I first saw it in a magazine cover and heard about her life. A shock of admiration, of love, of identification.
She is born February 22.
La vie frappe. Il faut y faire face, recevoir le coup, et continuer… [Life beats you down. One must face it, receive the blow, and continue…] Every day Valentina faces death, separation from her husband and child, the great tragedy of war, greater catastrophes, universal tragedies. Il y a une self-indulgence dans la souffrance. [There is self-indulgence in suffering.]
Nin became inspired to emulate this “woman of action,” and she found herself buying a coat she would call “Harper’s Bazaar elegance,” rather than her now old and somewhat tattered (but exotically unique) clothing from her Paris years.
Sept. 21, 1943
Symbolically, I fell I love with a Coat—a coat that represents the great change in me. It is not the coat of fire-fish or peacock, but of the woman captain. It is a very beautiful, masculine-material, tailored coat, fitted, with a velvet collar
and cuffs. It is expensive, aristocratic, simple, very pure, for action—and far from mirages or Byzance or the dream! I shall wear it a long time. It is enduring, of good quality. I chose it boldly, in an expensive shop. Then I hesitated because of the high price. But Hugo then insisted I should make him feel like a man of power able to get such a coat for his wife, and when I saw it was a symbol for him too then I yielded. The coat for a new life…
Armed with new inspiration came the excitement of designing an entirely new philosophy of writing, that of selflessness, like the woman captain’s. The seeds just begin to sprout in the following passage:
Sept. 14, 1943
I cannot begin a work casually. Have a concept of something big. Cannot begin—select, eliminate. Feel whatever I do will have to be all encompassing.
What happens if I leave myself out? Then everyone will be restored to his natural value, not mythical, not romantic, not enlarged—not symbolic.
With me absent and only the other characters present, I shall be in a human world, purely of feeling, which is my link with all the world. Irina [Alexander, Nin’s friend] said she always understood my emotions, not my interpretations or analysis of these emotions. Possibly if I eliminated myself as representing the legend, the vision, the far reaching and the cosmic, I might get into direct contact with the natural aspect of human beings. It is only in relation to me that they become “poetized” or translated into a dream. […] No one will see the poetic Gonzalo—only the fêtard [reveler] and the masochist, the adventurer and the masochist. It will be a diminished world. A natural world, not an intensified one. Me absent, passion and intensity will be removed, [as well as] the mirror reflecting people’s potential selves. It might be a way into the human. While I am there it will be mystical and mythical.
It might be good to begin writing about characters as unrelated to me. For example, I see […] the impossible woman, my mother, the extension of her. In a state of destructive revolution—the black anima.
If I disappeared as a character and became merely the vision—if I disappeared as an ego and used myself as the chemical which brought certain elements to light, I might accomplish the objective work of human dimensions which might relate me to the present. For the dream and the myth situate one in the past or the future but not in the present. They cause tragedy and not happiness. They destroy life in favor of the eternal.
These early thoughts laid the groundwork for Nin’s greatest volume of fiction, the novels which would make up the Cities of the Interior series, beginning with This Hunger, which would be published in 1945.
Stay tuned for other posts examining the development of Nin’s writing philosophy.