21st Feb 2011
Bookish Birthdays: Anaïs Nin
Born on this day in France over a decade ago, Anaïs Nin is perhaps best-known for her diaries, which as well as chronicling the eventful lives she had in New York, Havana and Paris, also detail the scandalous exploits of her numerous famous friends and acquaintances, including Tropic of Cancer author Henry Miller.
Started when she was just eleven years old, her diaries spanned almost her entire life, and by the time of her death in 1977, these epic handwritten memoirs numbered 150 volumes and around 35,000 pages.
Spanning seven decades from 1914 to 1974, Nin’s diaries are an illuminating source of changing society and culture, but since their publication, they have also come to be viewed as significant for the contradictions between her descriptions and the reality as remembered by her colleagues and contemporaries.
Frequently blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction in her diaries, Nin has since become seen as forerunner of recent literary trends for fictionalised memoir, with recent examples that we’ve featured including The True Memoirs of Little K and In Pursuit.
Nin’s career as an erotica writer came about by accident. She already “had a degree in erotic lore” after finding and devouring stash of smutty French books in a rented apartment during her teens, and put it to use in the 1930s as a way of supplementing her income.
The manuscripts were sent twice a week to an anonymous collector in Oklahoma for a dollar a page. Her most well-known erotic works, Delta of Venus and Little Birds, were both released posthumously; collated from Nin’s copies of these stories.
(The Oklahoma collector, Roy Melisander Johnson, had an unrivalled treasure trove of pornography and erotica and was the source of the flood of lewd books into the mainstream market during the sixties, when his private stash was disbanded after his death.)
In her later years Nin, was seen in some circles as something of a feminist icon; her unashamed recording of her voracious sexual appetite was lauded for championing gender equality.
Erica Jong, author of the seminal 1973 novel Fear of Flying, believes that no writer has ever told “the story of women’s sexuality more honestly” than Anaïs Nin.
Critics claimed that she was reinforcing cultural expectations of female sexual passivity, while in the Anaïs Nin literary journal, A Cafe in Space, it has been argued that she used her erotica to highlight and question the suppression of female sexuality, rather than reinforce it.
In this and in almost every other aspect of her life and writing, Nin continues to divide opinion among obsessives, academics and readers around the world. And for that, we salute her.