My lovely sister-in-law-to-be is currently studying at UCLA, and she recently had access to their archives for research. She chose to look at the diaries and correspondence of Anais Nin and was extremely excited about having the chance to look at these documents, to touch the pages Anais had touched, to see her words as they were written. As I sat here in gloomy grey England she sent me a quick snapshot of one of the pages – the writing was neat and stretched long, but it was the words that amazed me:
‘There was a bottle on the floor and talk which did not climb like a Gothic spire, but broke and splashed like a kaleidoscope in the febrile hands of Fred whose moods are like a string orchestra playing Debussy…
From the diary of Anais Nin
Such a glorious use of simile, and this was just one part of one page in her diaries. I think I would have been stuck in the archive room for weeks, immersed in the beauty of her words. And this was no significant event, just a diary entry noting an evening spent with Henry and Fred (Henry Miller and Fred Perles, his roommate). They drank together and talked, and at one point made a salad. She describes Fred preparing ‘the savouries for the salad with ritualistic fervour.’ I mean, it’s just making salad, but she imbues it with so much more. You can almost hear the knife chopping down, staccato beat on wood.
For me this was fascinating. Here is a woman known mainly for her erotic stories, but whose everyday diary entries prove the fact that she was also a damn good writer. These days, diary keeping is a largely forgotten art. Instead we have Facebook and Twitter in which to record our hours, short phrases dashed out in the few moments we may have between one thing and another, hardly conducive to creating great prose. Yet writing every day is the best way to improve our craft, so perhaps those diary keepers of yore had an advantage that we do not, something that explains why some of today’s popular novels seems to lack a richness of language, erotica dumbed down to repeated exclamations and muddy inner monologues, style sacrificed to pace.
I hope one day I can learn to write about making salad like she did.
The beauty of her words, the ones she chose and the way she wove them together often makes me emotional. And that she could do this with such ordinary subjects, like salad, or conversation. It both inspires me, and makes me realize that I will reach for that ideal until the day I stop writing, but I will never quite catch it…
I know, it’s quite extraordinary isn’t it? When I saw the photo of her diary page I started to read it and was just amazed by it. She also describes someone’s letters as ‘powdered and crystallised’ – I mean, this is just one page! I could go on for days 🙂 And yes, it’s something I’ll always aspire to as a writer, though I don’t know that I’ll ever get there…
I’m currently reading the love letters exchanged between her and Henry… though the language is different from today, both of them were so skilled at putting down the emotion. And you realize, nearly a century may have passed, but as humans, we’re still the same. I find it fascinating. Love is, and always has been, love.
Absolutely – the language of love sits outside time, doesn’t it? Love letters from a thousand years ago can still stir emotions. I’d like to read those letters as well, better add it to my giant list of ‘things to read.’ 🙂
I highly recommend it! Not an easy read, but very worth the effort 🙂
Reblogged this on The Dark Night Chronicles and commented:
Thank you, Helen, for a beautiful post on this cold Saturday…
“These days, diary keeping is a largely forgotten art.”
Indeed. The last diary I had was one of those Lisa Frank ones with a lock and key. I was around seven and kept it until I was nine. Everything after that was typed. Sadly, I can’t do much with a pen and paper, although it’s amazing to see that there are people who still write letters and journals.
What an opportunity! It’s always so mind blowing when you learn that there’s so much more to someone, even if we already know she’s good writer, painter, etc. Sounds like a truly vivid read.
I so agree – I have a basket under my bed with lovely journals and notebooks that people have given me over the years – I feel they are too good to just scribble notes in, so they sit there mostly blank. Perhaps it’s time to start writing in them again. And all I got to see was a single page from Anais’ diary! It was vivid, that’s absolutely the right word for how she created images with her writing 🙂
Of course, penmanship in any style is also fascinating in itself, I think. 🙂
Indeed, it is an art form as well 🙂
I try to write three pages in my journal every day, but I can assure you my prose is nothing like that! It’s more, ‘I’m really worried about …’!
Oh Louise 🙂 I’m impressed – I couldn’t do that if I tried!
Anais Nin was such an extraordinary writer and special person. Thank you for posting this; it adds color and personality to an author who we tend to see only through the lens of her erotica.
Thank you Gail, I’m so glad you enjoyed it 🙂 It was an eye-opener for me as well.
What a lovely post, Helen! I suspect that Anaïs Nin is hugely underrated nowadays as a writer of anything but erotica. I was actually inspired to read her diaries recently after coming across her in “Amateurs of Eden”, a biography of Lawrence Durrell and his first wife, Nancy, by Joanna Hodgkin. Lawrence reputedly had an affair with Anaïs but Anaïs also tried, and largely failed, to befriend Nancy, describing her as a “puma” who had a wonderful gift for talking “with her eyes, her fingers, her hair, her cheeks…”
Hi Louise 🙂 Thanks so much – I’m also inspired to read her diaries as well. I still can’t believe she managed to fit so much beauty into a single page – it was amazing to see. I love what you’ve added about her description of Nancy as well – you can just see her, can’t you?
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This was lovely! I’ve kept a diary since the age of 9 until now (25 next week!) although admittedly there have been times where it has lain abandoned for long periods of time. I love looking back and seeing how parts of myself have changed over the years. Don’t think I have ever written anything as beautiful as that though.
Thank you 🙂 I’ve tried from time to time to keep a diary but it’s never really taken. I wonder if now FB etc have replaced the idea of a diary, which makes me kind of sad – I can’t imagine people a century from now trawling through someone’s old FB posts or tweets and getting the same sort of feeling. x
I can’t either! I was thinking about this the other day. My husband’s family found so old letters that his grandparents had sent each other and they were so lovely. I can’t imagine the same thing happening with emails and facebook comments somehow. Plus none of these things capture the privacy of a diary to my mind!
One of my favourite books, A Venetian Affair, is based on a bundle of old letters someone found in the attic of their Venetian Palazzo, and details a love affair between a high born Venetian and not so high born young woman. It’s a true story and is so very poignant to read, and that I think is the magic of old letters and diaries. I still have letters my husband sent me when we first met – I don’t have any of his emails though. Your husband’s grandparent’s letter sound like a real treasure – what a lovely thing to find 🙂
I think they are! That sounds like a lovely book – i’ll have to give it a look.
Oh do, if you get the chance – it’s by Andrea De Robilant and I think the nobleman was an ancestor of his – Casanova makes an appearance too 🙂
Anais Nin was a fascinating woman and a very gifted writer. I enjoyed this post about her.
Thanks Kate! And thank you for dropping by 🙂
My pleasure – I like joining in on the blog parties and meeting new bloggers and reading their work.
It’s funny how people used to keep diaries and would be mortified if people read them. Now, everyone puts everything on facebook and are annoyed if no one reads it. Thanks for sharing this at my blog party!
Thanks for having me at your blog party – it was lots of fun 🙂 And I agree about Facebook – it amazes me some of the things people share on there! These are strange times we live in, that’s for sure.
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