As those who read my review of Nin’s novel A Spy in the House of Love will know, I have always heard of this strange and exotic writer but have never known much about her. This edition of a section of her unexpurgated (uncensored) diary therefore promised to teach me more about the elusive Anais. Henry and June is made up of extensive diary excerpts covering what was in the end only the start of Nin’s relationship with the American writer Henry Miller and his wife June. It is unclear whether Nin’s relationship with June ever became sexual, but her relationship with Henry certainly was. If you’re at all prudish or shocked by talk of ‘juices’ and ‘penis sucking’ then it might be best to stay away. Nin does not write about these things in a sensationalist or lewd manner, however. It is more a frank discussion of her feelings towards and issues with her sexual relationships: here with Henry, her husband Hugo and her cousin Eduardo (though the physicality of that is discussed very little). Being a diary it can of course at times become a little self-indulgent, but the beauty and fluidity of Nin’s writing stops the reader from rolling their eyes.
Nin’s discussions of sexuality and love are just brilliant. Asking carefully thought-out questions and being as honest as she can be at the time, Nin examines and analyses her relationships with the men in her life, and with the most significant woman, June. She meets June after Henry, but before her relationship with him has become physical. Anais is instantly transfixed by June’s beauty and feel she is ‘drowned’ by it. Initially her attraction to June seems only physical, though she states she is not a lesbian. Rather she is drawn to June’s beauty is a worshipful sort of way, wanting to look at her and marvel at how one person can be so perfect. Outwardly, at least.
Anais is overwhelmed by June’s beauty while she is overwhelmed by Henry’s intellect and literary skill. He wants her, persists, and wins her. Anais states more than once beforehand that she is simply not interested in Henry physically, but she continues to meet with him alone and seems to be drawn in to his personality and charm. She finds him interesting. Eventually it seems only logical that the development of their relationship should be sexual. By the time Anais enters analysis with Dr Allendy (about two thirds of the way through the book), it is clear to the reader that she cannot help but see men as sexual in some way. As she gets to know them and examines their characters in her mind, she naturally wonders about the sexual side of them and wants to know more. That is not to say that she sleeps with every man she meets but if a man intrigues her it seems likely – in this section of the diary at least – that she will then be intrigued by them sexually as well as intellectually.
Much of the book is about analysis. The opening paragraph, read again once the book is finished, seems to sum up Anais’ frame of mind throughout it:
My cousin Eduardo came to Louveciennes [Nin’s house] yesterday. We talked for six hours. He reached the conclusion I had come to also: that I need an older man, a father, a man stronger than me, a lover who will lead me in love, because all the rest is too much a self-created thing. The impetus to grow and live intensely is so profound in me that I cannot resist it. I will work, I will love my husband, but I will fulfill myself.
This paragraph sets the tone for the book, sets Anais’ intentions over the months the diary was written. As with anyone having an extramarital affair, her actions are selfish and unethical, but she does consider these things. She sees her relationship with her husband Hugo as completely and utterly separate to her relationship with Henry. Only when the two men meet does she feel any sort of worry at being ‘found out’. Mostly she worries about hurting either of her lovers, and so ethics are considered in some respect but it is more to do with being fair. If she hides her affair with Henry from Hugo, she is not hurting him. Eventually she comes to dislike lying, but still admits it is the best thing to do in the situation, if she does not want Hugo to get hurt. It is fair.
Through her analysis with Allendy, Anais comes to realise that her doubt about her relationship with Henry stems from a deep insecurity about her attractiveness and ‘worthiness’. She adorns herself in her ‘costumes’ of ornate Spanish dress, with complicated hairstyles, jewellery and make up. She learns to shed these things and present herself in a more natural state as her confidence grows, and the reader is genuinely pleased she is making this progress. And yet she is unable to resist sexual advances. Her cousin Eduardo has a great physical desire for her that seems a little obsessive, and more than once she succumbs and spends the night with him, knowing all the while that she must reject him and hurt his feelings. She also does not resist the ardent kisses of Allendy, though she seems to only be fascinated by rather than attracted to him. She reveres and respects him as the man who has unveiled her inner insecurities, and her acceptance of his advances therefore seems only natural to her. As in the opening paragraph quoted above, she needs ‘a father, a man stronger than [her]’. She, her sister and mother were abandoned by her father and, as explored in Nin’s prose poem House of Incest, she later engaged in a sexual relationship with him. Allendy recognises her continuing need to please her father and be loved and praised by him; to Anais this is equivalent to receiving that praise. She dutifully kisses him back.
This is an intense and emotional book. Even if some things are left out, they are brought up again later. Anais is determined to analyse and try to understand every aspect of her emotional life. She possesses a remarkable self awareness that allows her to view herself almost as a separate person (though this usually takes place in the past tense, with her analysing her behaviour from earlier in the day or last week) that the reader cannot help but admire. Her relationship with Henry is truly fascinating. It changes subtly over time and Anais dissects her feelings for him sporadically, as if to check whether she should still be engaged in their affair. If the reader is to take away only one thing from this small section of a much larger work, it is that love is the most complicated of emotions and can be analysed to death, but sometimes you just have to go with it, and deal with what happens as best you can.
Originally published in the US in 1986 and the UK in 1987, and reprinted by Penguin Modern Classics in 2001.