Anais Nin is a name I have been familiar with for years, but an author I knew very little about. I only knew her to be a writer from the early 20th century, whose novels were often very erotic. I had always heard of A Spy in the House of Love and was always intrigued by the title, as it sounded like a poem rather than a novel, or perhaps a painting; it is somehow very evocative, but at the same time does not tell much of itself to its audience. Its symbolic imagery conjures a story of secrets and betrayal – evocative, yes, but rather vague. The cover of the Penguin Modern Classics version that I own depicts a woman, though we cannot see her eyes, holding her finger to her lips in a ‘shush’ gesture. Though the image is black and white and grainy, we can see she is wearing lipstick, has very neat hair, and her fingernails have recently been manicured. She is clearly a well polished woman, keeping secrets from someone who must not hear them. Whoever chose this image for the cover knew what they were doing.
The novel opens with a strange and abstracted scene depicting a man, referred to as the ‘lie detector’, answering the phone in the middle of the night to a woman who calls random numbers when she cannot sleep. They talk for a minute or two, but when he begins talking about how we are the harshest judges of our own actions, she hangs up on him. He calls the operator and traces the number to a bar. He gets out of bed and goes down to this bar to try and find her.
He does not look at anyone, but recognises her by the sound of her voice. He watches her for the entire night and follows her when she leaves the bar at dawn. At this point the narration changes (though still in the third person) to a depiction of a woman, Sabina, waking up. From then we follow her through New York and Long Island as she conducts three separate affairs and yet still returns to her patient and fatherly husband, Alan. Sabina has been married to Alan for ten years and returns to him when she feels lost and helpless, and it seems she does love him; but more as father-protector figure than a husband. She is an unsuccessful actress – or has dreams of being an actress – and uses this as an excuse for being away from Alan for days at a time. She tells him that she is away doing a play, but really she is sometimes only a few blocks away in New York, conducting an affair with a man she met at the beach.
Initially she appears to conduct these affairs simply because she can, and because it boosts her ego and self-esteem that men find her so sexually attractive. She is very calm and composed – outwardly at least – and she is mysterious to her lovers. They are drawn to her beauty and her strange aloofness. Nin employs marvellous imagery to convey how Sabina feels as she meets and develops relationships with her lovers. The text is often surreal and jumps through time and to different locations – at times we appear to be witnessing Sabina’s thoughts and memories passing through her head. She remembers going home to Alan and how sweet and kind he is; but sometimes there are days when even though she is feeling sad and vulnerable, she cannot bring herself to go to him. She refers to their home as ‘his house’ and declares herself to be most comfortable ‘where no one can find her’, preferring hotel rooms to anything else. Even better if they have the room number scratched off the door.
In this image of a lost girl drifting through a city, trying to cling to any relationship she can but never finding one that satisfies her, we are reminded of Sasha in Jean Rhys‘ Good Morning, Midnight. Sasha also exists in hotel rooms, going through life in a half-daze, constantly feeling lost and trapped at the same time. Rhys’ Sasha changes her name after the tragedy of a miscarriage and divorce; Sabina does not change her name but strongly feels a division of self. Towards the end of the book she focusses in on the idea of multiple Sabinas, each one sleeping with a different man, each one the product of a different year or situation. With each man she loves, she is a different woman; none of them want the same Sabina. A wonderful moment occurs (for the reader at least) when Sabina realises just how guilty she feels about all her secrecy and lies. She knew she felt guilty, but here she realises just how much that guilt has penetrated her sense of self, and she is a divided woman.
Sabina suddenly understands a painting she has seen by Marcel Duchamp, entitled ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ (see right), in which the cubist figure leaves a sort of trail of selves as it descends the staircase. She sees herself this way, a fractured person with multiple selves, all held inside one body and none of them quite the ‘real her’. Though she never claims to know who the real Sabina is, she feels she is a spy in the ‘house of love’ because she is never really who her lovers think she is; how can she be, if she herself does not know who she is?
There is no conventional conclusion to this story. It ends with Sabina meeting the lie detector and talking about her affairs with him and her friend Djuna. It has been proposed that Sabina is based on Anais Nin herself as a way to tell the stories of her affairs without claiming they are the actual truth. Sabina’s uncertainty of self and her need to ‘discover’ something about life and herself through sexual encounter has seen critics point to Nin as the inspiration for her. This is backed up by the significance of the character of Djuna, who though familiar to Sabina only appears at the end of the novel, and seems to know all about Sabina’s affairs and issues with herself. Nin was influenced by and very admiring of the writer Djuna Barnes, and the character of Djuna is clearly named for her.
To me the most significant affair Sabina has is with a young man named John, a former fighter pilot now ‘grounded’ and feeling endlessly trapped and frustrated by civilian life on the ground. He longs for the excitement and adrenaline of war, ‘sleeping in the desert’ and not knowing if you were going to live til tomorrow. He feels guilty for hating normal life and is simultaneously tormented and excited by his gruesome memories of war. He and Sabina have a very intense connection, though they only spend one night together, and for a long time after they part she sees his face in other men and ignores anyone who does not remind her of him. The section depicting her affair with John ends with her remembering him with a sort of ‘madness’ and stating that:
No trace of it was revealed except when she was taunted:
‘Aren’t you interested in the war news, don’t you read the papers?’
‘I know war, I know all about war.’
‘You never seem very close to it.’
(I slept with war, all night I slept with war once. I received deep war wounds into my body, as you never did, a feat of arms for which I shall never be decorated!)
Sabina absorbs all the pain John feels into herself and feels a deep connection with him because they both ‘hate’ all the same things – the fake-ness of the Long Island beach community, the way one is expected to behave in society and what one is supposed to like and want.
In the end Sabina does not find solace with Alan, but with Djuna in a room above a bar, with the lie detector telling her about her own life. She lies on the floor, listening to their voices and letting the music from the gramophone wash over her.
Originally published in Paris and New York in 1954 and reprinted in Penguin Modern Classics in 2001.