Dialing in on Nin, and why an SF/F guy is reading her

I’m reading Anaïs Nin this month, having started with Henry and June, her unexpurgated diary (review here), and now have read through more than half of the earlier (heavily edited) Diaries, Vol 1. One might wonder why a Sci Fi writer is diving back into the classics. It is to beef up my ability to deliver good characters, the lifeblood of any story, even of tech-driven genre fiction.

I’m finding in Nin a very complex character, and she fascinates with  statements like this: “I may be basically good, human, loving, but I am also more than that, imaginatively dual, complex, an illusionist.

I love this line because it so clearly states the duality faced by all of us, between the inner being and the outer persona. In the complexity of human emotion, we find not only duality but even dichotomy, and that fascinates me as a writer. I want to be able to reflect that in my characters. Basically ‘good’ characters will be driven to do dastardly things at times, or they will react badly until they discover the good in themselves. To me, that’s what character development is all about, and what should fascinate (and raise tension for) the reader. An early beta reader never liked my MC as I took too far my depictions of his prejudices (which were wiped out by the end of the book). In the present form, I’m careful to make him sympathetic, while still flawed — and growing throughout the book. Nin says of herself: “I have done the vilest things, foulest things, but I have done them superbly.” If one can capture that elan, one can deliver to the reader the essence of a gripping character.

The clear lens into the chaos of the mind Nin gives the reader serves also to illustrate how exceptional people think. And don’t we authors want to portray exceptional people? Making heroes accessible, to me, is a high art, and Nin provides great direction. She freely admits to a nature that partakes of life like a butterfly, or maybe a bee is more appropriate. Her flowers are the people in her life, primarily men of literature who were working in and around Paris at that time. The salons through which she passed held so many luminaries. How many of us would be so blasé about sitting in with known literary greats that we’d pass up visiting someone like D. H. Lawrence, who admittedly was living ‘close by,’ and yet never visited by Nin? Yet she absorbs her broad exposure with aplomb. Nothing astonishes her, since she herself is so astonishing. Do you ever wonder how famous people feel when they get up? When they’re hungry, grouchy? Nin gives her reader a vision of how exceptional people interact with the mundane, while maintaining a state higher, more intense than us ordinary folks. Here is another great line from the Diaries:

I too am interested in evil, and I want my Dionysian life, drunkenness and passion and chaos; and yet here I am, sitting at a kitchen table and working with Henry on the portrait of June, while Fred is making a stew.

There you go. The divine and the absurd coincide neatly together. Sometimes the divine is held in abeyance, but it is straining at the leash, always. That balance, if depicted in fiction, would be as effective as it is in this woman’s journals.

About H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.
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6 Responses to Dialing in on Nin, and why an SF/F guy is reading her

  1. I just love how you summarized it in the end. Her work is chock-full of this wonderful “divine coincides with absurd” moments. I especially love her descriptions of pre-to-post-coital situations; they’re all so much like hangovers, with blurred line between what really happened and what she remembers 🙂

    • Hi Derza, thanks for dropping by. A hangover — hat’s a good way to describe Nin’s afterglow…she certainly rode emotions like a wave and ended up all tumbled at the end.

  2. I’m reading this again, along some other posts, as the most recent one dropped me here through “Related” selection and I see I did not ask you yet have you watched Bleach anime? There is a most wonderful moment there between Ichigo and Hogyoku Aizen in which notion of exceptional is explored.

    • Thanks for stopping by. I wonder if you read the Shane post? That links to Nin. Talk about exceptional people. I have not seen Bleach, but will put it on the list, thanks for the recommendation.

      • Now I have 🙂 I see that you had a recommendation for me too and I can tell you my interest is piqued. It has been some time since I read de Sade but I smiled now reading she could have intimidated him, smiled like you smile when the cogs in your head start whirring wildly. I will look into this.

      • Ok let me know if you have trouble finding her books. She has her own imprint now, tigerbeepress. Not sure if any ebooks.

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