Remnants of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller at Shakespeare & Co.

In the summer of 2008, the Lawrence Durrell Society held its biannual conference at Université Paris X at Nanterre, France, at which I was scheduled to speak about the lost book of the Villa Seurat Series—Anaïs Nin’s The Winter of Artifice. We stayed in Vincennes, outside of Paris…you couldn’t visually tell it wasn’t Paris, except it was outside the périphérique, the freeway that encircles the city. But once you walked the streets and went into the first fruit stand or café, you realized you were in a place with a definite and unique identity. First, no one speaks English. Second, people don’t treat you as an inconvenience because they are not overrun by tourists—instead you are welcomed with a warmth that arises from curiosity. The first person I talked to was a drunk. I was buying ingredients for lunch (wine, cheese and fruit, basically) and he asked if he could cut in front of me with his two bottles of cheap liquor. When I let him go ahead, he thanked me profusely, and then struck up a hilarious conversation, including the clerk, whom he knew well for obvious reasons, in his banter. When I get into this sort of conversation, I feel warmth throughout my entire body. I get loose, relaxed, and the blood flows. I get emotional (not weepy, but exalted). On the way back to the apartment we’d rented, there was a man leaning on the rail from his first floor room smoking a cigarette. He hung out so far there was barely room to walk around him, in his white singlet, a long black page boy haircut, huge dark eyes and a well-worn face. I saw him there every day, and he would talk to the woman with a baby carriage, want to see the baby, talk to the postman, talk to anyone he recognized. The street was his café; he was a fixture that added character to the entire neighborhood.

I became cozy with the fruit stand people, the Turkish guy who served up the best lamb I’ve ever gotten on the street (that’s not fair, because how often do you get your lamb on the street?)…the proprietor at the bistro, etc., etc. We got familiar with the haunts there, and our apartment windows overlooked the streets, which were in the shadow of the ancient Chateau of Vincennes, where Marquis de Sade was held prisoner for a while.

Thus, going to Paris, as great as the city is, almost was a letdown. Suddenly you are surrounded by the tourists and all those who prey upon them. Accosted so many times by opportunists who want something from you, trying to trick you, make a fool of you if you let them. How many times can a woman pick up a gold-colored ring from the street, vainly try to fit it on her finger, then give it to you for good luck, and demand money from you if you’re gullible enough to take it, before you decide to cuss them all out? One woman I met in Louveciennes told me that she took such a ring, put it in her handbag and ran away, laughing. I suppose that is a better response. But I do love going to the bookstores and trying to sell my books, as well as finding a few rare treasures on the way, such as Christopher Isherwood’s diary  or a worn Henry Miller novel.

Shakespeare & Company

The last bookstore we visited was Shakespeare & Company. I’d given up years ago trying to sell them anything—it’s the sort of place where you feel honored if they sell a book you’ve given them. So, with this in mind, I asked to see George Whitman, who was 94 years old at the time and has owned the place for decades. He used to be omnipresent in the store (see the video, which runs about an hour), but he doesn’t see many people now. He no longer runs things—his daughter has taken over the daily operations. A very suspicious woman at the cash register told me his health is bad, that he sleeps most of the day, only comes down (he lives upstairs) on occasion, and, like a relic, sits in a special chair and reads while people come to pay their respects. But I told her I had a gift for George. She reluctantly referred me to George’s daughter, who agreed, after scrutinizing me carefully, that I would be allowed upstairs to his living quarters to visit. I was accompanied by a young woman who was my “chaperone”—in other words, to make sure I wasn’t some sort of opportunist or maniac. I was led to a room I’d seen many times previously, but I barely recognized it. It once was crammed with bookshelves and stacks of books so tall they looked as though they were defying the laws of physics. Now, it was cleaned out. There was a table and a bed. Beyond the door was George’s room.

When the door opened, dozens of strange insects came flying out, hovering like tiny silent helicopters. George came out in his pajamas, unshaven, disheveled, but, in a way only he can master, hauntingly handsome, proud, with an air of noble defiance. He recognized me from my previous visits. We sat down at the table, and the chaperone, satisfied nothing terrible was about to occur, left us alone. George told me that ever since he ceased running things he has lost his sense of purpose. “I felt alive when I was on my hands and knees scrubbing the floors,” he told me, “but now all I want to do is to sleep. I never should have given up the store.” He still has a spring to his walk, his voice is still strong, and he was impressed with the book (The Winter of Artifice) I gave him. He told me he was going to put it into the reading room, where patrons can sit all day and read for nothing. This, to me, was even better than selling it. He asked me if I was a writer. I said yes, I’ve written things. He patted the bed and said if I ever need a place to stay, I could stay there for as long as I like, gratis. He told me people have written entire novels in his store. I’ve had this offer each time I’ve visited, and I regret not having taken him up on it—but a friend of mine told me that there were insects in the bed and in the breakfast, and if I didn’t mind that sort of thing, perhaps I’d enjoy the stay. He also added that Shakespeare and Company is perhaps the one place left in which you can experience the Paris Henry Miller describes in Tropic of Cancer, a place where, “In America…you wouldn’t dream of living in a joint like this. Even when I was on the bum I slept in better rooms than this. But here it seems natural—it’s like the books you read” (Tropic of Cancer  117).

To read more on Nin’s and Miller’s Paris, get Britt Arenander’s Anais Nin’s Lost World: Paris in Words and Pictures, 1924-1939, which contains vintage photos, maps, and historical context of the many places they inhabited and frequented.

To see a sample or to purchase Anaïs Nin’s Lost World, click here.

To view a sample interactive map drawn from the book, click here.

Visit our Anaïs Nin e-bookstore here.
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Adventures in Louveciennes: entry to Anaïs Nin’s house of incest

Two years after my last visit to Louveciennes in 1994, the Anaïs Nin house was finally sold to someone who not only restored the main building, where he lived, but also developed the grounds to include a few maisons particulaires, which were to serve as apartments. My friend Jacques, who kept tabs on developments there for me during my absence, told me the house had been repainted in a burnt orange color, which he termed affreux (hideous), but that it was finally, after decades of neglect, habitable once again. This was wonderful news, for I had spent an inordinate amount of time fearing the place would eventually be demolished. I was told, however, that the new owner had no interest in Anaïs Nin and did not particularly care that she once lived there—therefore, he had no inclination to entertain Nin fans who occasionally stopped by to take pictures or to sit at the gate with her Diaries in hand. During the several years away from Louveciennes, although I was still heavily involved with Nin’s work, I had lost hope of ever seeing the house from the inside.

But in 2002, Jacques wrote me an exuberant e-mail, telling me that it had been sold once again, this time to an academy award nominated French actor, Jean-Hugues Anglade. Jacques, through the Director of Culture in Louveciennes, managed to secure a rendezvous at the Nin house on February 21, 2003, Anaïs’s 100th birthday. Not only would we finally gain entry to the house, but on Anaïs Nin’s centennial. This was too good to be true, I thought, but did not hesitate to book a flight to Paris. I kept waiting for something awful to happen, such as an airline or rail strike, but nothing did.

While in Paris, a woman who’d once romanced Lawrence Durrell, Claudine, took me on a wonderful tour of Durrell’s and Miller’s Montparnasse, walking the same routes they took, stopping at the same haunts, and the result was an article in the premier A Café In Space: The Anaïs Nin Literary Journal (2003). I invited her to attend the rendezvous in Louveciennes, thinking it would have special meaning for her, since Nin, Miller, and Durrell were linked by their budding artistry in the Paris of the 1930s. I found out that a famous actress from the Comédie-Française would be in attendance, as well the Director of Culture, and other actors and actresses from the theater. Of course, Claudine couldn’t resist the idea of visiting the house of one of Durrell’s friends and collaborators.

On the train to Louveciennes, we reacquainted ourselves with Anaïs’s descriptions of her house:

My house is two hundred years old. It has walls a yard thick, a big garden, a very large green iron gate for cars, flanked by a smaller gate for people. The big garden is in the back of the house... (Diary 1 3)

We had lunch at Jacques’ house, devouring a meal that was traditionnelement français, washed down with wine, topped off with cheeses of every sort. Jacques then pointed to his watch: it was time to leave, first to the Director of Culture’s house, where we would meet the other guests before going on to the Nin house. After a light-hearted gathering, we set out for the ultimate: the laboratory of the soul, some seventy years after its most famous resident had lived there.

We parked on the narrow rue de Monbuisson, and Jean-Hugues Anglade met us at the pedestrian gate of the Nin house. Handsome, soft-spoken, and dressed casually, he shook everyone’s hand, and we entered into the courtyard where we all stood in awe. The grounds were well-kept, and the flowers were already beginning to bud. It was a fine day: sunny, warm, still. Jean showed us the outbuilding which once served as a garage for Hugh Guiler’s car—he been reading the Diary to discover the significance of each feature of the house and garden from Nin’s point of view. He expressed a desire to find the now-buried fountain and pool and to restore them. He’d located the same garden furniture Nin had used and displayed it prominently in the front of the house. There was a massive tree in the garden that looked as though it had been severely pruned at some point—Jean-Hugues told us that during World War II, much of it had been cut up for firewood.

All this was proving to be too much—the front door was ajar, beckoning us, and my mind was racing. Was this actually happening? “Entrez,” Jean-Hugues said musically… “Entrez, entrez…”

louveciennesfoyer

Interior 1st floor

I could not feel my feet touch the floor in the foyer. I looked to the left, ahead, and to the right. Everything looked clean and fresh, hardly like the photos Noel Riley Fitch had taken 13 years earlier. The room to the left of the entrance, which once contained the pool table Henry Miller referred to in his entry in Nin’s diary (Incest 80-85), now housed a mini-stage with rock band equipment. The chandelier was gone, and the fireplace was restored, but not as it was when Nin lived there. The old mosaic tile had been replaced. I kept thinking about how silent it must have been in this room during the years when the house was empty—and now it would be filled with music. Alive, I felt. The house was alive again. Someone lived here again, created here again. Voices, music, the sounds of life filled the void again.

Nin said:

I chose the house for many reasons. Because it seemed to have sprouted out of the earth like a tree, so deeply grooved it was within the old garden. It had no cellar and the rooms rested right on the ground. Below the rug, I felt, was the earth. I could take root here… (Diary 1 4)

Jean-Hugues opened what appeared to be a closet door near the front entrance. Inside was a cool, dank room lined with solid stone, gravel on the floor—the earth. “In here,” he said, “you can see all the way back to the revolution.” Here were the guts of the house, a place no one, not even time, had touched since the beginning. The air smelled of antiquity. To the right of the entrance was a parlor, and behind it was a large kitchen. The kitchen was modern, clean, airy, well-lit. A door led out to the garden. The parlor was large with one window through which the afternoon sun poured, creating a silhouette of every person in the room. Suddenly they all became timeless…they could have been anyone, from any time. It could have been Anaïs leaning on the doorway and not the actress…they could’ve been Miller, Hugo, Anaïs’s father, June…

Once we were all seated and enjoying fruit punch and sweets, Jacques began to tell his stories about the history of Louveciennes, acquainting its newest resident with information he could have gotten nowhere else. We raised a toast to Anaïs and fell silent for a few moments. I noticed the actress had a copy of Incest with her, with a place marked in the book, as if she were going to read aloud some passages…but she didn’t. I wasn’t sure why not. We took the grand tour of the house. I had been dying to get upstairs. The narrow, winding staircase was not made for someone of my height—I’m certain Hugo must have had to duck just as I did to avoid crushing his skull on the ceiling. I then recalled reading on the train the passage from Diary 1:

There are eleven windows showing between the wooden trellis covered with ivy. One shutter in the middle was put there for symmetry only, but I often dream about this mysterious room which does not exist behind the closed shutter. (4)

In House of Incest, Nin evokes the imagery of one of her dreams:

In the house of incest there was a room which could not be found, a room without a window, the fortress of their love, a room without window where the mind and blood coalesced in a union without orgasm and rootless like those of fishes. (52)

louveciennes-room-that-doesnt-exist1

Space which is “room that doesn’t exist”

I sought this “room,” the place behind the shutter. Today, all the windows are open, but I came upon a narrow space in which the ceiling slanted severely, the ancient wooden beams making it impossible to pass by. On the wall was a window. Had I found the “room which could not be found”? It seemed to be in the right place, in the middle of the house.

We passed from room to room, as in a dream. The dimension of time seemed to be missing. All the modern trappings—a computer, a child’s toys, modern furniture—seemed to drop away, leaving only the essence of a dreamscape.

Nin said in her Diary:

Every room is painted a different color. As if there were one room for every separate mood: lacquer red for vehemence, pale turquoise for reveries, peach color for gentleness, green for repose, grey for work at the typewriter. (5)

We found reverie: a portion of the paint on one wall had been peeled back, layer by layer, and beneath was turquoise. In the bathroom was an antique bathtub, the porcelain worn off around the edges from the hands of all those who’d lifted themselves in and out. From one of the upstairs windows, we looked out at the massive green gate, which Nin had described as a prison gate, keeping her locked in and away from the artistic and bohemian Paris she was just beginning to discover.

louveciennespaint

The color of reverie

The shadows in the room began to lengthen and the day was growing old. The conversations in the parlor were scattering. It was time to leave. This dream of mine, to enter this house, had finally been realized. I still believe that I was incapable of understanding fully the significance of the moment, to feel it fully. My gratitude to Jacques is eternal.

Claudine, knowing French architecture well, felt the house was not built for aristocracy, citing the bare beams on the ceilings and inexpensive building materials. She noted that the many small rooms and their layout suggested that the house was perhaps built as lodging for workmen on a plantation or a vineyard (and history tells us that wine was once produced in the region). There is no documentation of the house from before 1803, which would make it seventy years newer than what Nin was led to believe. The house’s origins are still mysterious.

A in-depth article on the 2003 Louveciennes visit (as well as Neuilly) with more photos can be found in A Café In Space: The Anaïs Nin Literary Journal Vol. 1.

Epilogue: Only a year or two after our visit, Jean-Hugues Anglade sold the house for reasons unknown to me. At the time of this posting, it is once again on the market for 1.65 million Euros.

To read more about Louveciennes, get Britt Arenander’s Anais Nin’s Lost World: Paris in Words and Pictures, 1924-1939, which has descriptions and an interactive map that includes the house on rue de Montbuisson.

To see a sample or to purchase Anaïs Nin’s Lost World, click here.

To view a sample interactive map drawn from the book, click here.

Visit our Anaïs Nin e-bookstore here.
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