Friday, 12 December 2014

Book Review: The Winter of Artifice by Anaïs Nin, I intended to close my cycle of reviews for the Books on France 2014 reading challenge only in two weeks with the novel Voyage d’hiver by Amélie Nothomb, but unfortunately it seems that this work of the Belgian author – unlike most others – hasn’t been translated into English yet. As a result, I had to change my plans and look for another France-related book with the word WINTER in the title (»»» see my post on the current special). In the end I picked a collection of three novellas of which two are set in France: The Winter of Artifice by Anaïs Nin, namely the original published in Paris in 1939 which is available as a facsimile edition. The author wrote her diary-style stories revolving around love and passion in English although her mother tongue was French.

Anaïs Nin was born Angela Anaïs Juana Antolina Rosa Edelmira Nin y Culmellin in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Paris, France, in February 1903. Her parents were a Spanish-Cuban pianist with a French grandfather and a French-Danish singer working in Cuba. The family moved around Europe for many years before they settled down in New York City where she became fluent in English, her later writing language, in addition to her mother’s French. With her first husband, Ian Hugo, Anaïs Nin she lived in Paris, France, from the early 1920s until the outbreak of World War II in 1939. By the time of her return to New York City, she had already published D. H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study (1932), House of Incest (1936) and The Winter of Artifice (1939). Needing money she turned to writing cheap erotic fiction in the 1940s. Only in the 1970s she allowed to publish the most notable of them Delta of Venus (1977) and Little Birds (1979). Anaïs Nin died in Los Angeles, California, USA, in January 1977. Only after her death her most famous work appeared in print, namely several volumes of her diaries, among them Henry and June.

The three novellas combined under the title The Winter of Artifice are Djuna, Lilith and The Voice. While the first two are set in France and for the greater part in Paris, the scene of the last is a big Northern American city, most likely New York. The title-giving protagonist of the first story, Djuna, is an aspiring author and the lover of Hans who is unhappily married to Johanna. At first it seems quite a usual affair, but as the story proceeds it becomes clear that Djuna is completely infatuated both to Hans the writer, to whom she is kind of a muse, and to Hans the man, who is a chronic philanderer and constantly slanders his absent wife. When Johanna returns, theirs becomes an unexpected kind of a love triangle because Djuna feels bodily attracted to beautiful Johanna. Also the title of the second story, Lilith, is the name of its protagonist. In the opening scene the thirty-year-old is waiting for her ageing father, a musician, whom she hasn’t seen in twenty years because he abandoned the family staying in war-raging Europe while her mother moved to America with ten-year-old Lilith and the other children. The wound is deep, but only spending time with her father she realises how much her disappointment and hurt feelings influence her behaviour and choices as an adult woman. The protagonist of the third story is a nameless psychotherapist or psychiatrist who is simply referred to as The Voice because in the consulting room his appearance and his personality are doomed to remain in the background. Among his patients are the two protagonists of the preceding novellas Djuna and Lilith who want to come to terms with their past at last, but also some others who seek relief from emotional turmoil complicating their relationships.

The first two novellas of The Winter of Artifice are first-person narratives, whereas the last one is mostly told in third person although the author wasn’t consequent there and included a passage in first person. All stories revolve around the central themes of the book: different kinds of love, passion and eventually sex between men and women as well as between women. In style above all Djuna and Lilith, but to a great extent also The Voice, remind strongly of entries that the protagonists could have made in their diaries. In fact, much of the novellas is drawn from the real diaries of the author which much later have been published in revised versions. The language of Anaïs Nin is clearly that of a foreigner who at the time of writing didn’t yet feel completely at home in English. One of its characteristics is the uncommonly frequent use of French expressions instead of their English equivalents as well as a sometimes awkward choice of words (probably from the dictionary) which made the text feel a bit crude even to me who am a non-native speaker of English myself. In addition the influence of Henry Miller on language and style of the novellas is obvious, though hardly surprising since he was kind of a mentor to the author. He and his wife also were close friends of Anaïs Nin and together with her own person they clearly served as models for the characters of The Winter of Artifice. Later the author thought the resemblance with the real Henry and June too great to bring the novellas on the American market without considerable revisions and supressing altogether the first novella titled Djuna.

I must admit that I hardly ever read books like The Winter of Artifice by Anaïs Nin because I quickly get tired of plots displaying obsessive love and erotic scenes along with all the more or less dramatic complications that blind passion usually brings about. Our modern world is so sexualised that I prefer being spared details about the sex life of the protagonists whose fates I follow. And I can easily do without bursts of jealousy, of self-denial and of all kinds of sexual complexes! All three novellas of Anaïs Nin are far from pornographic, but to my taste their focus is too much on love despite all since it almost seems as if the author’s world had nothing else to offer. Nonetheless this collection of novellas is certainly worth reading.

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