Anais Nin Reads: Lillian, Djuna, and Sabina

Promotional photo for This Hunger

Promotional photo for This Hunger

Beginning with the novel This Hunger, which was later incorporated into Ladders to Fire, Anaïs Nin expressed herself through three key female characters: Lillian, Djuna, and Sabina.

These female characters (as well as certain male characters, such as Jay) appear throughout the five novels in the Cities of the Interior collection: Ladders to Fire, Children of the Albatross, The Four-Chambered Heart, A Spy in the House of Love, and Seduction of the Minotaur. While all three female characters appear in Nin’s earlier fiction (see Benjamin Franklin V’s Anaïs Nin Character Dictionary), they were redefined and reintroduced in Ladders to Fire. As Nin sought acceptance in New York’s harsh literary climate in the 1940s, she ran into criticism about the lack of realism and plot in her stories, and her characters were declared “nebulous.” Nin’s response to this broad misunderstanding of her work was expressed in two works about her theories on writing fiction: Realism and Reality (1946) and On Writing (1947), both of which were, in part, incorporated into The Novel of the Future (1968).

In this reading, held in Washington, D.C. (the date is uncertain, but it is most likely pre-1966), Nin reads passages from Ladders to Fire and A Spy in the House of Love that serve as introductions to her female characters. Nin also mentions that each of them appear in the “party section” of Ladders to Fire.

Note how Nin never skips a beat (except for a giggle) when someone apparently trips over some furniture while she is reading.

To listen to the nine minute sound clip, click here. (Recording courtesy of The Anais Nin Trust)

For information on each of the novels from Cities of the Interior, see the links below:

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Anais Nin’s Ladders to Fire on Kindle


Ladders to Fire (Dutton)

Anaïs Nin’s first full-length novel, Ladders to Fire, has undergone many incarnations and has a history that includes several key Nin titles. When the original version of The Winter of Artifice (Paris, Obelisk Press, 1939) was gutted for reasons of censorship in America, the lost story “Djuna” was reconstituted in Ladders to Fire, parts of it reappearing in radically different form throughout the text. The rewrite of “Djuna” illustrates not only the change in Nin’s writing style, but also in her attitude towards the inspiration of its central male character (Hans in Winter and Jay in )—Henry Miller. When Nin wrote The Winter of Artifice, which Miller helped her edit, she was still his lover and in need of his guidance in both personal and professional matters. By the time she rewrote “Djuna,” in the early to mid-1940s, her affair with Miller had ended with bitterness and disappointment. She felt he was weak and had lost his lust for life and writing, and this attitude is reflected in the sharp contrast of “Djuna” and its rewritten counterpart in Ladders to Fire. It makes for a fascinating comparison when one is read in conjunction with the other.

Ladders to Fire was first published by Nin’s Gemor Press in 1945 as This Hunger, which today comprises the first half of the novel. Nin’s famous character collage was taken to promote This Hunger (this is mentioned in “L’homme Fatal,” which is an excerpt from Nin’s unpublished diary found in A Café in Space, Vol. 7, 2010. When Nin signed a contract with E.P. Dutton, she expanded the book by adding the story “Stella” and the last half of the present-day version entitled “Bread and the Wafer.” “Stella,” which some critics consider a sequel to the story “Winter of Artifice” (from the book of the same name) and not compatible with the rest of Ladders to Fire, was cut from later editions and can be found in the current Swallow Press version of Winter of Artifice.
Promo shot for This Hunger

Promo shot for This Hunger

So, today’s version of Ladders to Fire consists of two parts: “This Hunger,” and “Bread and the Wafer.” “This Hunger” introduces us to one of Nin’s key characters throughout the five novels of the Cities of the Interior series, Lillian, a concert pianist, who, after going through several broken relationships, is married with two children, a family that she largely ignores in favor of self-realization. When she realizes the disconnect between her and her husband, she meets another famous Nin character, Djuna, who, as an orphan, was starved for love and affections but has developed a strong and compassionate personality. Djuna recognizes the “orphan” in Lillian and takes a strong interest in her well-being. Both women are involved with Jay, a bohemian painter. It would not be rash to say that the two female characters represent aspects of Nin that reacted to Henry Miller in very different ways.

In the second portion of the novel, “Bread and the Wafer,” Nin further explores the Jay character and introduces Sabina, who one could view as either based on June Miller or the part of Nin that had affinity with her. Sabina here is the counterpart of Johanna from “Djuna” in the original The Winter of Artifice, and the storyline is altered in one very significant way: in “Djuna,” when Johanna and Djuna (Sabina and Lillian respectively in Ladders) contemplate consummating their intense feelings for each other sexually, it is Johanna who rebels and rejects Djuna after accusing her of loving Hans; in Ladders, it is Lillian who subjects Sabina to the same treatment. This marks a very shift in approach and severely changes the balance between the characters. It also could mean that Nin had changed her feelings towards June Miller a decade after their famous blow-up (recorded in Henry and June).

“Bread and the Wafer” finishes famously with Nin’s surrealistic treatment of “The Party,” based on real events and people, many of whom are represented by the characters of Ladders to Fire.

Critics in the 1940s were largely split over the book, Edmund Wilson considering it a big step forward in Nin’s writing, and others branding her as not fit for mass consumption. Today, when seen as part of the mosaic that makes up Cities of the Interior, Ladders to Fire takes its place alongside Nin’s best prose.

The new Kindle version of Ladders to Fire correctly retains the present day version of the novel and is available from It joins other Nin titles on Kindle: The Winter of Artifice, Under a Glass Bell, Children of the Albatross, A Spy in the House of Love, and Seduction of the Minotaur.

New Edition of Anais Nin’s Children of the Albatross

Children of the Albatross, which has just been published on Kindle, is considered by many to be one of Anaïs Nin’s most beautiful books; it is also a groundbreaker in that it eloquently addresses androgyny and homosexuality, which few literary works dared to do in 1940s America. What follows is an “unprofessional” analysis of the book, in which we are introduced to three of Nin’s most iconic characters: Djuna, Lillian, and Sabina, all of whom represent different aspects of Nin’s character—serenity, earthiness, and the femme fatale, respectively.

This new authoritative edition includes an introduction by Nin, character sketches drawn from Benjamin Franklin’s Nin Character Dictionary, and a complete publishing history of the title.

AlbatrossThe novel is divided into two sections, “The Sealed Room,” in which we follow Djuna’s developing perception of sexuality, and “The Café,” in which the nature of each of the three female characters’ relationships with the powerful, omnipotent painter Jay, whom Nin fashioned after Henry Miller.

In “The Sealed Room,” young Djuna is in an orphanage, perhaps a metaphor for Nin’s sense of abandonment by her father at the age of ten, and is confronted by the “watchman,” a vile man who trades freedom for sexual favors. Later she is molested by her dance teacher. Symbolic of Nin’s own struggle to free herself of overly powerful, masculine men (Paco Miralles—dance teacher who tried to seduce her; her fatherincest; Henry Miller—emotional betrayal), Djuna’s quest for freedom was for Michael, a young effeminate man (based on her cousin Eduardo Sánchez), with whom she seeks a complete love but fails because of his homosexuality. Djuna encounters Donald (after Robert Duncan), Lawrence (“Pablo” of the diary), and the seventeen year old Paul (Bill Pinckard) with whom she shares a nurturing (and sexual) relationship.


Eduardo Sanchez

“The Café” brings together the three female characters (Sabina, Lillian and Djuna) with Jay (after Miller), who is a painter with whom all three woman have had a relationship. In this segment of the novel we find out, through the characters, how Nin’s relationship with Miller had different stages and levels. Just as the female characters have conflicts in their approach to Jay, Nin’s internal conflicts regarding Miller ultimately resulted in estrangement. The book concludes after Michael and Donald appear at the café, in effect bringing relationships from various times and places together as Jay drags Djuna from her “cities of the interior” into life.

It is interesting to note that the title “The Sealed Room” is a reference to Anaïs Nin’s house in Louveciennes, France, which had one window that was eternally shuttered and appeared to be present for symmetry alone. The “room” which didn’t exist behind this window became an important metaphor for Nin’s interior vision. She also compared the sealed room to her diary, which was the repository that fed her fiction. This reminds us of the fact that Nin was criticized (and indeed she criticized herself at times) for not being able to invent, to compose fiction purely from the imagination. But what she did was to use the components of the diary as an ingredient in what can be considered a sort of “alchemy,” what she termed a “distillation” that became a unique type of fiction that was, unfortunately, almost totally incompatible with the times (1930s to 1950s) during which it was published.

There are several levels at which her fiction can be read—there is the remarkable and distinct prose, which some compare to French surrealism and which uses words in unique ways (consider the word “ensorcell,” for example); there is the psychological aspect of her writing, in which there is a constant search for identity, the understanding of the dynamics of relationships, and the impact of the past on the present; there is the struggle for self-awareness and self-evolution, which makes her writing relevant to this day. We see ourselves, our struggles, our pain, our hell, in Nin’s work, and when her characters somehow survive and grow, we are inspired. Her work can be considered a mirror in which we see ourselves, which gives it a sort of secret personal touch that is sometimes missing in contemporary fiction. It is also why few can agree on the particulars of Anaïs Nin’s body of work, because we all see it in our own way.

When Children of the Albatross was first released by Dutton in 1947, it met with mixed reviews—one of the usual complaints was that Nin’s fiction is light on plot and heavy in the sorts of things that, although they wouldn’t admit it, the critics simply didn’t understand. In the 1940s, literary critics were looking for realism, sequence, solid characters with solid descriptions. Nin offered none of these characteristics in her fiction and therefore it was difficult to get a decent review or to sell many copies to middle American readers.

Today, because it offers deep insight into Nin’s inner life within its beautifully written passages, it is considered one of her most effective works, and it is also recognized as one of the first American titles by a female author to consider male homosexuality.

Children of the Albatross joins The Winter of Artifice, Under a Glass Bell, and A Spy in the House of Love on Kindle.