Review of A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Miller

On the inside cover of the used copy of A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Miller 1932-1953 is an inscription that has been covered over with black permanent marker. Dated December 1987, it reads

Dear Thom,
In some ways we will always be together.
Love,
S.

Those familiar with the life and works of Anais Nin and Henry Miller would no doubt not be surprised by such a sentimental dedication being written into its pages, and made an amusing start to my reading this 395 page edited selection of these two literary luminaries letters. I chose to read these letters, which range in length from 1/2 to 33 pages, following a reflection on a discussion.

As you can see from the below photo from my library…

#Truestory: I #binge #books #henrymiller #litlife

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I’ve a long history of affection for Miller’s autobiographical oevre. Now that I’ve read enough of Art and Artist by Otto Rank, a psychologist who actually plays an short but important role both as an inspirer to both and lover of Nin’s, to know the word I’d even go so far as to say that he was, in Rank’s terms, the artist after which I’d apprenticed myself.

Missing from the picture are the journals of Nin’s that I’ve read from the same period when she was first introduced to Miller. I’d first read two of her multi-volume journals while in Copenhagen, Denmark, occupying time as rain made the wide city unwelcoming. My host, a family friend, had just smoked some buds from Christiania, put on some chaotic but oddly calming jazz music while writing a paper on import tariffs effects on the fishing industry of the country and then suggested I occupy myself with what was on his shelf since he had no television. I perused it, picked up her, and began literary journey of my own as the recordings of her inner life were so compelling and the man about which she felt so ecstatic about so intriguing that after that bingereading I knew I had to have more.

In the letters collected here they are at first merely two people with deep passions to be recognized as literary artists. The share the writings that they’ve been working on – in Miller’s case Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn while in Nin’s it was her early childhood journals – and give each other reams upon reams of feedback, discuss art, and a variety of topics from the banal to the esoteric. A note in the introduction, in fact, points out that the roughly 400 page collection is but a partial fragment as a number of the notes – sometimes two or three a day – were lost and that a sizeable amount of material was excluded so as to make this collection a “best of”. Anyways. Though both were married, Miller and Nin soon became lovers after meeting. Nin also explores lesbianism with Miller’s wife, June. Anais’ husband, well he’s oblivious to it all. A banker, he leaves for a short period and this gives the two of them a few weeks together. The time that they share during this brief affair become grist for more and a growing, profound appreciation for each other. Since Miller is too poor to afford to keep a home with Nin as he’s unwilling to take on non-literary work he is not able to ever “set them up” as he so wishes. Amusingly enough in fact, Miler relies on Hugh for money to live, though not directly but by that which is given to him  by Nin. Here, for example, is one of the many delightful passages that Miller writes:

Don’t expect me to be sane anymore. Don’t let’s be sensible. It was a marriage at Louveciennes – you can’t dispute it. I came away with pieces of you sticking to me; I am walking about, swimming, in an ocean of blood, your Andalusian blood, distilled and poisonous. Every thing I do and say related back to that… I say this is like a wild dream – but it is this dream I want to realize.

It’s not just as human expressions of love and longing that makes the collection pleasurable. Alongside the star-crossed love narrative are the reflections of two genius writers that struggle to find markets for their works. My book is peppered with underlines to mark great turns of phrase and insights into the human condition. No surprise given that this was a period when both were each producing significant works. One of those significant works, in fact, I learned about for the first time while reading this book. The World of Sex is a Penguin Modern Classic that despite having read all of those books from New Dimensions and Grove Press that I’d never heard of.

Those familiar with Henry literary work will be pleased to find a number of the kaleidoscopic collisions of thoughts in the form of beautiful flourishes of phrase and insight characteristic of Miller at his creative height.

The latter third of the book the romance has ceased to be described. Following a series of events – which I describe in the close their letters and lives turn from lovers to an exemplar friendship. Such a friendship does not come easy, however. A number of letters contains long and heart-rending accusations and cold, but insightful recriminations flow back and forth. The romantic love subtext fades from their exchanges, but they still clearly love each other.

Henry’s final break with Nin comes over her haven taken on Rank as a lover. While there is no direct statement of this by Henry, the pattern of behavior that he follows for a while hints at his pain. Had he the courage to admit the source of his pain, to overcome it and thus not keep distant from her is an interesting exercise in “what if”. While they both found professional acclaim and a financial stability form their work – I can’t but help wonder – a la La La Land’s lovely and yet heart-rending ending – whether or not they would have found greater happiness had pride not prevented it.