Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Henry and June

Today, I'm taking a complete 180 from the pre-teen novels this site has been reviewing in order to talk about another, but very adult book that has a place in my heart. I first became aware of Anaïs Nin as a university student in my early 20s when I found a copy of the well-written but uncomfortably erotic Delta of Venus. At the time, I wondered why an author of such talent was interested in erotica, though there was something wonderfully feminine and imaginative about the tales. At the time I also had other, more pressing questions on my mind, most of them about religion and whether  my application to do Honours in Legal Studies would be successful. (For the record, the Legal Studies department did knock back my application, which I had spent close to a year working on. By a strange twist of fate, another letter from the university arrived in my mailbox the following day, informing that I had qualified for automatic entry for Honours in English Literature. I never looked back.) Anyway, Nin and her work was largely forgotten until one idle lunchtime, when I stopped in at the Angus & Robertson store in the Central Markets. Browsing through the shelves, I found two titles by Nin. A Spy in the House of Love and Henry and June. From the moment that I read the blurb of Henry and June, I knew two things. First that identified quite strongly with the themes of inner conflict. And second, there was probably a lot more to Nin than what her most famous book might suggest at face value. There would be another surprise for me before I left the store. When I took the book to the front counter, the sales person offered me a smile, and informed me that this was her favourite book. "You'll love it," she told me. And in a funny way, I did.

Henry and June is taken from the unexpurgated diaries of Anaïs Nin. During the latter years of her life, the author was a celebrated diarist, having published heavily edited extracts of her diary in the United States, which spanned over forty years and told of her life in Paris, New York and Los Angeles, as well as numerous holidays abroad. She had worked as a model and later, a dancer and was the daughter of a narcissistic musician who left her mother for a much younger woman when Nin was just eleven. She knew a great number of writers, including John Erskine and Henry Miller. However, a close examination of the diaries suggest that readers never really get the full story. It clear that Nin is married, however at the request of her husband, Hugh Guiler, all mention of him are removed from the diaries. And so to was mention of Nin's affair with Henry Miller and her obsession with his worldly wife June. In the 1980s, after the deaths of Nin and Guiler, Rupert Pole, the executor of her estate and second husband (Nin married Pole in the 1950s, despite still being legally married to Guiler, the marriage to Pole was later annulled,) began to release unexpurgated versions of her diary. The first four volumes were released as The Early Diaries of Anaïs Nin and detailed her growth from child to woman and her marriage to Guiler. The fourth volume depicts her unsuccessful marriage to Guiler and an affair with John Erskine, which falls just short of being consummated. And then comes the fifth unexpurgated diary, Henry and June.

The diary opens in Paris in the early 1930s. The depression has hit and the Nin-Guiler's have found themselves in greatly reduced circumstances. Nin's husband, Hugh (or Hugo as he is affectionately known,) is a banker. Previously, the pair had lived a comfortable existence in Paris. Nin soon becomes acquainted with the then-unknown writer Henry Miller (and she may, quite possibly have been the inspiration for 'Tania' in Miller's book Tropic of Cancer that was set in 1930s Paris,) and develops an obsession with Miller and his wife June, to the point where she would slavishly put her own needs second in order to satisfy their whims. Nin considers June to be the most beautiful woman that she has ever met. When June eventually leaves, Nin begins an affair with Henry that leads to a sexual awakening and a lifelong friendship between the pair. The diary is interesting as it chronicles Nin's transformation into from a mousy girl to a flamboyant artist who would have numerous extra-marital affairs throughout her lifetime with little thought of the consequences to both herself and the people around her. (And who would become more famous for the imaginative erotica that she wrote for one dollar a page than for any of her novels, diaries and short stories.) Nin believes that she can love others fully, and without asking for a thing in return and that should be compensation enough. It is also interesting to note that she adores June, rather than feeling any kind of competition with her, a common (but sometimes false) stereotype between wives and mistresses. In later unexpurgated diaries, she often becomes friends with the wives of the men she has affairs with.

It is difficult to say why I love this book. Certainly, I'm not interested in affairs with married (or in this day and age, taken,) men, or adopting any part of Nin's lifestyle. The prose is surprisingly good, though not her best (keep in mind it was never edited, or intended for publication.) There is, however, something wonderful about the inner-conflict that the author details. She knows that she has a comfortable, respectable life with her husband. Hugh Guiler can not only offer her financial stability, and not only does he love her, but he is a good enough man to be able to turn a blind eye to her affair with Miller. What Hugh lacks is a passion for the arts (Nin more or less worshipped artists,) or sexual compatibility. These also happen to be the two things that the egotistical and brutish Henry Miller can offer her. Henry can never match Hugh in terms of respectability, but sexually the pair are a good match.

I think what is wonderful about the book is the way the author details her inner-conflict without demanding sympathy. Through her vivid, passionate prose, the reader gets the sense that she truly loves Henry. She makes the decision to stay with her husband and continue her affair with Henry so that she can get the best of both worlds. It's difficult to say whether Nin was simply out for all she could get and damn the consequences, or if she truly was a romantic, who was capable of loving many different men. My guess is that she is a little of both.