In 1939, after publishing two works of fiction in Paris—The House of Incest (1936) and The Winter of Artifice (1939)—Anaïs Nin was forced by war to flee to New York, thus tearing her away from France at a time when she felt herself maturing as a writer and as a woman. Suddenly, she was thrust into the hostile world of New York publishing, not to mention a dreary literary atmosphere heavily influenced by “realism” and “puritanism.” Nin purged much of Artifice, including an entire novella, partly because of the fear of U.S. censors, and partly as a rebellion against Henry Miller’s heavy influence on the text. No publisher wanted the revised book, so Nin purchased her own press and published it herself in 1942, with the help of her Peruvian lover, Gonzalo Moré. She then collected a series of short stories begun in Paris and self-published it under the title Under a Glass Bell (1944). The commercial failure of these two titles and the increasing chaotic nature of her personal life left Nin in such a depressed state that she contemplated suicide on several occasions.
In spite of the tragic nature of her New York life, or perhaps in part because of it, she turned to writing like never before, perhaps as a form of salvation. She began to develop the characters and themes for what she called Cities of the Interior, a continuing series of novels that were intended to explore psychological realities, something Nin was quite familiar with. She self-published the first installment of these novels in 1945 under the title of This Hunger, which was later revised and expanded into Ladders to Fire (Dutton, 1946). In Ladders to Fire, Nin introduces and develops the main characters of her continuous novel: Lillian, Djuna, Sabina, and Jay, all based on real-life personages found in her diary. Neither This Hunger or Ladders to Fire were critical or commercial successes, and Nin had to face the fact that neither critics nor readers could grasp the essence of her work. So, she sought to explain her writing to the masses in two different publications—Realism and Reality (1946, Alicat Bookshop) and On Writing (April 1947, Daniel Oliver Associates; August 1947, Alicat Bookshop).
Realism and Reality, a pamphlet published in a limited edition of 750 copies, begins by explaining that the reason Nin’s writing was misunderstood came from “the fact that I write as a poet in the framework of prose…” She continues by saying that there was a “purpose and form behind my partial, impressionistic, truncated characters.” She compares her writing to modern art, in which “a column can signify more than a whole house, and that one eye can convey more than two at times.” Arguably, a key to understanding her work is as follows: because her “books take place in the unconscious, and hardly ever outside of it, they differ from poetry not in tone, language or rhythm, but merely by the fact that they contain both the symbol and the interpretation of the symbol.”
After the failure of her next novel, Children of the Albatross (1947, Dutton), Nin felt compelled to expand her thoughts in On Writing, another pamphlet, the Alicat edition of which had a run of 1000 copies, 750 of which were for sale. This title includes an essay by a young scholar, William Burford, with whom, Nin says in her unpublished diary, she had a strong affinity in terms of writing philosophy. Because Nin focused on the psychological aspects of her characters, critics were quick to judge her as a chronicler of neurosis, which prompted her to respond in On Writing: “…on the contrary, I not only believe that we are suffering from a collective neurosis, but that this is precisely one of the most urgent themes for the novel today: the struggle between the forces of nature in us and our repressive and consequently destructive treatment of those forces.” This was cutting-edge thinking during the 1940s, a time when the country was preoccupied by the war and its aftermath. As one of the editors who rejected her said, these were not times for “morbid introspection.” Nin’s fiction was doomed to either misinterpretation or out-and-out thrashing, and, worst of all, indifference.
Naturally, perhaps partly because Nin’s two pamphlets were printed in small editions, her audience did not grow beyond a coterie, nor did critics cease to pummel or ignore her work. By the mid-1950s, she felt defeated as a writer, on the verge of giving up hope. It wasn’t until 1966 and the amazing success of her Diary of Anaïs Nin that she was finally vindicated. The immediate and warm response to the diary gave Nin the desire to revisit her long-ignored fiction in The Novel of the Future (1968, Swallow Press), in which much of the contents of Realism and Reality and On Writing appeared. Fittingly, the first line contains Jung’s quotation, “Proceed from the dream outward,” which symbolizes Nin’s approach not only to writing, but to life.
In retrospect, it may seem that having to explain one’s fiction in what amounts to “user’s guides” is problematic. One could argue that asking the reader to look upon fiction in an entirely new way is too great a demand. James Joyce, for example, inspired too many “how to read Joyce” publications to note here, but none of them were by Joyce himself. Anaïs Nin, because of frustration and the terrible notion of being misunderstood, left us such guides, explaining her work as no one else could.
One could also argue that Anaïs Nin’s fiction was the only way she could somehow express the contents of her diary, her chef d’oeuvre, which was unpublishable at the time (mainly because its characters were living). But there is another way to look at the fiction—it was created in a crucible of secrecy, desperation, upheaval, and chaos. All of these factors gave birth to what some Nin critics today believe are among the most unique creations by any novelist—the “distilled” scenarios, the fleshless characters, the dreamlike prose and images, the symbols which, if we sensitize ourselves to them, are universal.
How fortunate we readers are that Nin’s life did not permit her to publish her diary immediately, and how fortunate we are that she felt forced to explain her writing theory.