Friday, December 26, 2014
Anais Nin - "A Spy in the House of Love"
It's both easy and difficult to believe A Spy in the House of Love was written in 1954. On the one hand, for anyone to openly discuss aspects of sexuality that live well beyond the roles accepted in society (that's openly, not explicitly) without positioning it politically or for obvious media attention is very rare even today. On the other hand, the milieu of the novel is heavily steeped in the post-war bohemian world of blues, jazz, and modern art. Her writing and voice could easily be transplanted to today, but the artistic circle she moves in lacks the tepid angst or bloated self-consciousness of today's artiste.
I've come back this novel (or novella, perhaps?) several times over my life, as I never feel I fully grasp what Nin is getting at. Certainly there are themes of identity, but there is also an aspect of perception and how we view ourselves - even analyze ourselves - that is unique in modern literature I have read. Further, Nin seems to position Sabina as living 'life as art' (or, more accurately, 'sexual life as art') and this is woven into both the analysis of identity as well as the fevered flights of her sexual 'adventures'. Each time I come back to the novel I find something very different.
In Sabina's case, the multiple versions come to be through her experiences with her lovers. There are different aspects of herself that come to the surface with each one. Taking this to a logical extreme, it speaks to the importance of sexual identity and sexual exploration in truly understanding ourselves. More broadly, it suggests a way of looking at all our interpersonal relationships - sexual or otherwise. We show a different facet of ourselves to different people based on who they are and what they mean to us. This isn't a facade or a pretense; it's a legitimate but limited part of ourselves. A shard of us. Sabina's quest is to find a way to express her totality with one person or to be able to continually express all parts of herself (which requires more than one lover). It's an interesting way of depicting identity and interpersonal relations.
That said, the novel is kaleidoscopic enough to allow for many avenues of thought partially because it's not clear whether Nin has fully resolved her ideas or if she is still figuring them out as she's writing. Stylistically, the novel is inviting and crisp, barring one section with heavy-handed Freudisms and Nin becoming too 'talky' as a narrator in the last quarter of the novel. Otherwise, A Spy in the House of Love is a well-conceived, fascinating, and unique addition to a collection of modern literature. Temporally it fits with few of the modern writers I've covered on Zen Throw Down (e.g., Gide, Camus, Sartre), but intellectually it's definitely in the same vein. Written in the fifties, I classify it as part of a 'last gasp' of modernism before the 'idealism' of the Baby Boomers and 60's counterculture banged its rattle on the high chair.