How One Thing Leads to Another

Denise Hamilton is a Times staff writer who is spending this fall on a Fullbright Fellowship in Macedonia

Anais Nin and I first crossed paths in the early 1980s. She was dead and I was pretty miserable too, working for a Century City firm that manufactured scratch-off-and-win game cards. After a day spent obscuring the real odds of winning that glorious Hawaii vacation, I left the concrete canyons starved for intellectual stimulation.

One day a friend suggested I check out "The Diaries." Nin struck a faint chord with me. Hadn't she written erotica and hobnobbed with Bohemians? So I went to Gene de Chene, my favorite secondhand bookstore in West Los Angeles (it has since closed). Never a stickler for chronology, I scooped up volumes II, III and IV--all that was on the shelf.

Opening "The Diaries" one despondent night after work, I was immediately sucked into a bewitching 1930s world populated by Parisian artists, New York playwrights and Freudian analysts. Obsessive about her journal, maddeningly elliptical in her writing, given to ecstatic highs and contemplative lows, struggling to remain true to her creative vision, Nin had a quintessentially female sensibility I could relate to. She fed a part of me that had long been suffocated by left-brain activity. She showed me the importance of a vibrant inner life.

Nin had been intimate with Henry Miller, Antonin Artaud and Lawrence Durrell, to name just a few. Her diaries were filled with ruminations on Fyodor Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf, Christopher Isherwood, Arthur Rimbaud, Colette, Simone de Beauvoir, Andre Gide, Jean Cocteau. She had even written a book about D. H. Lawrence.

Now, these were all names I knew, but I had majored in economics at Loyola Marymount University and taken only one literature class my entire four years there. Here was Anais Nin, handing me a veritable road map to avant-garde literature. She introduced me to one writer, who handed me off to a second, who led me by some feat of free association to a third. After exhausting the literary trail, I would head back to read more of Nin. She became the touchstone. The more I read of her, the more I wanted to meet her friends and literary influences.

Nin devoted many pages to Henry Miller, whom she supported financially in Paris when he was an unknown rake who drank, whored and, in between, wrote. If Anais loved him, that was enough for me. I marched right over and bought "Tropic of Cancer" and "Tropic of Capricorn." I loved the descriptions of old Paris. I wanted to stroll those streets and drink a fine with the working girls. But I concluded that while the works shocked prissy 1930s America, they didn't do much for me. Henry Miller was not my absinthe.

Unwilling to abandon the genre entirely, I sought out a more contemporary bard of the streets, Charles Bukowski, and read "Post Office" and some short stories. Bukowski was funny enough, but I found his debauchery and depictions of women tedious. That trail cooled.

Nin referred to Rimbaud, the French poet who wrote most of his hallucinatory verse before the age of 20 and was dead by 37. I promptly ferreted out a book of his, which I adored. That lead me to his friend Paul Verlaine. Even my boyfriend the punk-rocker liked Verlaine, and he read me poems in bed, which I thought terribly romantic.

Languishing in my day job like a one of Kafka's clerks, my interest was next piqued by Nin's descriptions of Dostoevsky. She recalled meeting a Parisian who--in true Dostoevskian fashion--had been jailed for stealing a set of works by the Russian writer.

Settling down with "Crime and Punishment," I was immediately drawn to Raskolnikov and decided he was my soul mate in misanthropy. Over the years I sought out other Russians, new and old: Turgenev's "Father and Sons," "The Gulag Archipelago" by Alexander Solzhenitzyn, "Dead Souls" by Nikolai Gogol, "The Master and Margarita" by Mikhail Bulgakov, poems by Anna Akmatova and Osip Mandelstam.

Akmatova's poems seared themselves into my brain, especially this one from 1911: "Three things in this world he loved;/the choir at vespers, white peacocks,/and worn maps of America./He didn't like crying children,/or tea with raspberry jam,/or hysterical women./. . . and I was his wife."

The ethereal Nin stood poles apart from Simone de Beauvoir, the highly political French writer and companion of Jean Paul Sartre. But Nin admired De Beauvoir, "not because I believe in what she states but because she dramatizes the case so well, the tragic sacrifice of the individual to a political cause."

I was soon lost in postwar French intellectual life, reading "The Mandarins," De Beauvoir's fictionalized account of her liaisons with Sartre and Nelson Algren, whom Malcolm Cowley called "the poet of the Chicago slums." Here was another rich vein to mine. The volumes stacked up on my bedside table: Algren's picaresque "Man With the Golden Arm," which led to Damon Runyon's "The Bloodhounds of Broadway," then back to France with Sartre's slim but deadly "Nausea" and eventually de Beauvoir's early feminist manifesto "The Second Sex."

Nin also led me to Lawrence Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet," and in short order I devoured "Mountolive," "Cleo," "Justine" and "Balthazar." Later the Egyptian connection led me to Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Steinbeck, and nobody I knew had read him when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.

Nin's description of a 1950s Hollywood poetry reading introduced me to the Beats, including Alan Ginsberg's epic poem "Howl." "It was a great, long, desperate wail, a struggle to make poetry out of all the objects, surrounds and people he had known," Nin wrote.

During the time I lived under Nin's spell, I also read Jean Cocteau's journal, Andre Gide's "Strait is the Gate," Virginia Woolf's diaries and all of D. H. Lawrence. I learned about the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, the surrealism of Salvadore Dali, the experimental films of Maya Deren, the avant-garde compositions of Edgar Varese.

My obsession with Anais Nin eventually ebbed. The worn volumes sat on my shelf, receding over the years into a half-remembered guilty pleasure. Then last year I learned of the posthumous publication of Nin's new unexpurgated diaries and decided to give the past a whirl.

Getting reacquainted with Anais was disappointing. Now I found myself wanting to to reach across the half-century that divided us and wring her pale, scrawny Bohemian neck. I wanted to say: Stop sniveling. Can't you see how you keep repeating the same tortured liaisons with one narcissistic man after another--including her own father, a perfumed and fastidious lout who abandoned his wife and three children when Anais was 11. What had seemed alluring before now smacked of artifice, of a pathetic attempt to maintain a romantic illusion at all costs. I suppose some of the anger was also directed at myself, for having been mesmerized in the first place. Sadly, I realized that Anais Nin no longer inspired me.

Oh, I know it's fashionable to be an Anais-basher these days. It puts one on firm ground with the New York Times and the New Yorker, both of whom have run vicious attacks recently on "Bananas Ninny," as they called her.

And yet. There was a joie de vivre and curiosity in Anais that I still admire. Certainly she pushed the limits of convention throughout her life, and I marvel at the romantic resilience that kept her coming back for more wounding, despite the inevitable disappointments.

There was something else. Even as I cringed at her lack of self-awareness, I found Anais Nin still tantalizing me with descriptions of writers I shall have to get acquainted with someday, such as Antonin Artaud, the author, actor, homosexual and drug addict who declares his love for Nin in one tortured scene. And I still haven't read Proust, of whom Nin mused: "If what Proust says is true, that happiness is the absence of fever, then I will never know happiness. For I am possessed by a fever for knowledge, experiences and creation."

Me too. Next time I get an incredibly boring job, maybe I'll head for the bookstore and come out with all eight volumes of "Remembrance of Things Past." It's about time.

FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Sunday October 3, 1993 Home Edition Book Review Page 15 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction Contrary to our statement last week in "One Thing Leads to Another," Gene de Chene Booksellers is open for business at 11556 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Los Angeles, and is holding a 25th anniversary sale. Telephone (310) 477-8734.
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