Anais Nin on Printing Her Own Books

“The relation to handicraft is nourishing, beautiful. Related bodily to a solid block of lead letters, to the weight of the composition tray, to the adroitness of spacing, the tempo and temper of the machine – you acquire some of the weight of the lead, the strength and power of the machine, the bodily conquests and triumphs. You live in the hands, in physical deftness, in the development of your faculties pitted against concrete enemies. The victories are complete, concrete, definite and proved. How much greater than abstraction and theories. Eduardo says: ‘I don’t want to think – I just want to do some typesetting.’ “

From Mirages: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anais Nin, 1939-1947, entry dated January 28th, 1942.



55 Reading Questions

I saw these questions on Follow The Thread, and liked the way they approached reading, and the fact they were just for bloggers – so I thought I’d give them a go!

1. Favourite childhood book?

When I was very young it was The Worst Witch, and then Lord of the Flies when I was slightly older. That was the book that made me really love literature.

2. What are you reading right now? 

The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams. Just started and already really enjoying it. Lots to discover. I also just received a copy of The Forbidden by F. R. Tallis, so I’m going to start that as well.

3. What books do you have on request at the library? 


4. Bad book habit? 

Buying/requesting too many books in one go and taking ages to read them all.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library? 

Nothing. My local library is very small and doesn’t have much from this century that isn’t Twilight.

6. Do you have an e-reader? 

No. My boyfriend told me that my dad asked him last Christmas whether I would like a Kindle – thank god he said no! I like the idea of them, but I don’t think I could ever bring myself to use one.

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once? 

I try to read two books at once to save time, I think that’s all I can manage. Sometimes though it’s nice to concentrate on one book at a time so you can devote yourself to it and get the most out of it.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?

If anything I’m more cautious about which books I read. I consider how I might be able to write about a book, whether the readers of my blog will find it interesting. That said, I won’t read something I don’t want to just because it’s new or popular.

9. Least favourite book you read this year (so far)? 

Definitely The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. It just had so many things that were wrong with it.

10. Favourite book you’ve read this year? 

Probably Henry and June by Anais Nin, or The Fever Tree by Jennifer McVeigh.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?

I like to try new things, so maybe every few books I’ll try something different.

 12. What is your reading comfort zone?

Somewhere between Jane Austen and Donna Tartt.

13. Can you read on the bus? 

Not at all, I get car sick if I read on the bus or in the car, though I can usually read on the train.

14. Favourite place to read? 

The sofa or an armchair. I find it uncomfortable to read at a table or in bed, sadly.

15. What is your policy on book lending? 

I’m happy to lend books to people I know will read them, take care of them, and return them promptly. I’m a bit fussy.

16. Do you ever dog-ear books? 

I used to fold over pages and I used to refuse to break spines – now I use book marks and like breaking the spines!

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books? 

No. I used to underline passages, but that got a bit pointless. Now I’ll sometimes pop in a post-it or something to mark out quotes I might use for a review.

18. Not even with text books? 

At uni I would write in textbooks but as I’m no longer a student I don’t use textbooks anymore.

19. What is your favourite language to read in? 

English. I don’t know any other languages.

20. What makes you love a book? 

Engaging, believable characters; genuinely artful writing; a sense of pace and destination; a display of intelligence, emotion and empathy on the part of the author; subtlety; genuine feeling and sincerity.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book? 

I particularly recommend books that have moved me or that I related to in some way. I find books quite emotional so there has to be some kind of connection. I will also recommend something that is just really beautifully written.

22. Favourite genre? 

Sounds like a cop out to say literary fiction, but it really is my favourite. I like a bit of thriller and history too.

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did)? 

Historical biography.

24. Favourite biography? 

I really loved Byron: Life and Legend by Fiona MacCarthy. It read like a novel and was really detailed, but not so much that you got bored.

25. Have you ever read a self-help book? 

No. I think they’re bullshit.

26. Favourite cookbook? 

I’m not much of a cook. The only one I own is The Big Book of One Pot Meals my mum gave to me.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)? 

I have very mixed feelings about the word ‘inspirational’ but I guess it would be Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson. Her life story is very dramatic, but I really related to her feelings about books and reading.

28. Favorite reading snack? 

I don’t really eat when I’m reading. I love food, so it distracts me! I like a nice cup of tea instead.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience. 

It was a while ago now, but The Lovely Bones wasn’t as good as the hype suggested. The whole time I was reading it I was waiting for the good bit to begin. And even though I was given a copy for my birthday, I just could not bring myself to read The Tiger’s Wife. The hype did not convince me.

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book? 

It depends – critics in newspapers etc often review things long before I read them, so then I forget what they said; with other bloggers, reviews are so personal that I will often disagree on small points.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews? 

I have no problem with it really. I’m not going to be outright rude about something that the author has worked hard on, but I am going to be honest. If a book is sent to me by a publisher it’s a little harder to say you really didn’t like something, but I still try to be honest to my opinion.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose? 

French, German or Russian – the three languages I wish I spoke!

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read? 

Probably Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann. He has a reputation as some sort of genius and there is so much respect and reverence for the Faust/Faustus story. His style was very dense and longwinded, but after 50 or so pages it got a lot easier.

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin? 

The Kindly Ones by Jonathon Littell. I did a module on Literatures of the Holocaust at uni and read so many fantastic books. My boyfriend read The Kindly Ones after discovering it through the course, and I bought a copy, but I’m scared of it. It’s HUGE and I know it will take me ages to read and be very emotional. I desperately want to read it though.

35. Favourite poet? 

John Keats every time. Though I also love Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time? 

None – my local library isn’t very good and I never think to go. Bad, I know.

37. How often have you returned books to the library unread?

Never. I’d have to get them out first.

38. Favourite fictional character? 

Anne Elliot from Persuasion; Elinor from Sense and Sensibility; Richard from The Secret History; and Tintin.

39. Favourite fictional villain? 

‘Villain’ makes me think of Disney films. In that case, Ursula from ‘The Little Mermaid’. From literature, Jack in Lord of the Flies. Absolutely brilliant.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation? 

Something that isn’t depressing or sad. Probably an Austen I haven’t read yet.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading

Two or three weeks. If I get caught up in work or just can’t decide what to read, it can take me a while to choose my next book.

 42. Name a book that you could/would not finish. 

I abandoned Nicholas and Alexandra halfway through because it was dragging terribly, but I would like to finish it one day.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading? 

The dog, the fridge or my phone.

 44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel? 

It’s a TV series, but ‘Game of Thrones‘ has been really excellent.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation? 

The Keira Knightley version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Absolute travesty.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time? 

At least £30.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it? 

I read the blurb, the reviews at the front, the first couple of pages, to try and get a feel for the story.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through? 

Boredom mostly. If it’s dragging and there’s been no development, or if the writing is really bad, I’ll give up – especially if it’s really long. If it’s short I might just read it to the end for the sake of it.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized? 

I used to alphabetise them, but this was too much hassle. Now they go in the bookshelf anywhere they’ll fit!

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them? 

I always keep books. I would only give away a book if I hadn’t enjoyed it.

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding? 

There are some books that I have absolutely no desire to read, like 50 Shades of Grey, Twilight, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter… I don’t care if everyone thinks they’re great, they don’t appeal to me.

52. Name a book that made you angry

The Cellist of Sarajevo was very disappointing, and it had a ‘Richard & Judy Book Club’ logo on the front – that annoyed me. Mostly it would be anything that was supposed to be great but was a load of rubbish.

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did? 

A Game of Thrones. I’ve never read much fantasy and was worried I wouldn’t like it as so many people I knew did like it; but I really enjoyed it! Great characters, great writing, an exciting plot – though there are some very cringy sex scenes.

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t? 

Wish Her Safe At Home by Stephen Benatar. I’d heard a lot of good things and the premise appealed to me, but it didn’t quite work.

55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading? 

Tintin! I grew up reading it and still really love it.


All book title links lead to GoodReads or my reviews. All titles widely available.

Thanks to David at Follow the Thread for answering these questions first, and to other bloggers: I would love to read your answers too!

Henry and June: The Unexpurgated Diary of Anais Nin

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.

Anais Nin

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.


Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

2007 Faber cover. Image:
2007 Faber cover. Image:

I came to hear of Djuna Barnes when I started reading Anais Nin, who was influenced by her. I read a little about Barnes and liked what I read – she was an American in Paris in the 1920s, wrapped up in the Modernist scene. I read recommendations from TS Eliot. This was enough to sell her to me, and I purchased Nightwood. I knew nothing about it except that it was set in Europe in the 1920s. I went with Eliot’s recommendation and dived in.

From the start, it is odd. It is an odd book. That is the word I would choose to describe it if I was allowed only one. Do not misunderstand me, it is not a bad book – it is just odd. But then Modernism is odd. When first encountering it in AS English Literature, most people in my class just thought ‘What the heck is this?’ Barnes goes for the more surrealist approach (if there is such a thing) and quite literally seems to ‘paint’ her story across the pages with rambling speeches and memories from before the war, abstract descriptions of personalities and making everything more extravagant than is necessary.

First we hear about the birth of Felix. The opening paragraph is one long sentence describing this, detailing his mother’s heritage and strength, as well as the elaborate bed in which the child enters the world. She dies after she has named him and ‘thrust him from her’, and we are told his father died six months earlier. Felix grows up with an obsession with his dead father and shares his obsession with the past, with heritage and legend, with maintaining the family of Volkbein. Felix’s father more or less created his own ‘legend’ of aristocracy and nobility, and Felix does his best to keep this alive. He appears sporadically throughout the book, lamenting what has changed or ended, worrying about the future of his son, Guido (named for his grandfather – how fitting!), and his failing marriage. He is married to one of the two central figures in the book, a girl named Robin. They meet through the other central figure, the doctor, and seem to get married simply because they get on well and Felix wants an heir. Soon after little Guido grows into a child, Robin vanishes and is never reunited with her little family. Then begins the saga, the drama, the love triangle that provides the rambling prose for the rest of this odd book.

Robin forms a relationship with Nora, and they create a sort of married life, living together in Paris. Robin, however, starts to spend all night, every night, out of the house, driving Nora to distraction. Obviously she is having it off with other girls, but to Nora it is so much more complicated than that. There are two sections in the book, during which one yearns for the simplicity of Eliot, that Nora sits with the doctor and drives herself round the bend dissecting her and Robin’s relationship and trying to explain how she cannot live without her. Meanwhile the doctor philosophises on just about everything and more than once proclaims himself to be a woman. In this odd book, he is the oddest thing of all. Only about halfway through do we begin to learn bits of his actual name, and only at the end do we know that he is in fact called Dr Matthew O’Connor. He is a medical man but acts more as a sort of agony uncle-therapist-philosopher type figure, listening to Felix and Nora as they prattle on about Robin, and taking the opportunity to ramble to a rapt audience.

There are some moments in Nightwood when Barnes seems to be making an actual point, but they are few and far between. There are quotable lines – such as ‘The unendurable is the beginning of the curve of joy’ and ‘Don’t you know your holding on is her only happiness and so her sole misery’ – and there are interesting speeches about the blurring of the genders, but the rest of this novel seems to be Barnes taking the opportunity to, well, ramble to a rapt audience. Modernism was dominated by men and was sometimes quite clearly misogynistic, so it is a marvel that Barnes’ novel about a lesbian love triangle was praised so highly be male modernists (Eliot being the key one) and many others after. To me it seems that Nightwood is a novel of its time. She was adored by many female authors, including Nin, Carson McCullers and Bertha Harris, though she does not seem to have been very receptive to this praise. Though Nightwood was initially edited by Eliot to make it less controversial (in regards to sex and religion) Barnes takes advantage of being able to write anything she wants and does not adhere to any particular set of literary rules, not even really those of Modernism. However the book is certainly Modernist, as the prose is quite poetic and abstract, and of course it is set in the 1920s. It is a sort of rampant Modernism that employs every theme and device, spanning location and time, flitting between reality and memory; or imagination. Nightwood is more interesting than it is enjoyable. There are moments when Barnes has gone on too long on one topic and the reader wishes to skip ahead a few pages; but there is some really wonderful writing in those pages, and a real beauty and sadness and tragic understanding of the world. To one familiar with Modernism and intrigued by Barnes as a character, this is well worth the effort.


Originally published by Faber and Faber in 1936, and reprinted in 2007 with a new introduction by Jeanette Winterson.

A Spy in the House of Love by Anais Nin

Penguin Modern Classics cover. Image:
Penguin Modern Classics cover. Image:

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 RhysGood 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.

Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912. Image:
Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912. Image:

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.