Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Spy in the House of Love by Anaïs Nin

Five or six years ago I read some of the diaries of Anaïs Nin, the 1931-34 volume of the expurgated diaries published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich and one of the unexpurgated volumes, I can't recall if it was Incest or Fire.  I remember enjoying them, but I can recall only very little of what went on in them. The only clear image left is of Nin at the psychoanalyst's office; having lived for years in New York apartments where you could always hear the televisions, arguments, and sexual escapades of other tenants, I admired the thick curtains in the head shrinker's office, which were said to be able to block out any outside sounds.

Anyway, while dusting my wife's bookshelves last week I came upon the 1994 paperback edition of Nin's 1959 novel, A Spy in the House of Love.  If the advertisements in the back are any indication, the book was marketed exclusively to women, but, I am, you know, open-minded like, and early this week I read the 166 page novel.

Sabina lives in New York City with her loving husband, Alan.  Sabina leads Alan to believe she is an actress, that she is with a theatre company that performs in New England.  In fact, during these absences, as well as at other times, Sabina is with one or another of her lovers, in Manhattan, up in Provincetown, or over in Long Island.  These lovers include Phillip, an opera singer, Mambo, an Afro-Caribbean mathematician and drummer, and John, an RAF war veteran who suffers from survivors' guilt.

Sabina is unable to find satisfaction with one man; she is driven by a desire to experience all the world has to offer, she aches to live more than one life, be more than one Sabina.  With each of her lovers, Sabina plays a different role, leads a different life, is a different Sabina.

Sabina is fundamentally restless; she can't settle for one life, but the lies and betrayals required to pursue many lives create terrible anxieties, make her feel like a spy in an enemy country. When she is with Alan in their apartment and hears the fog horn of a ship on the Hudson she wishes she could be on the ship; when they play records the music conjures in her mind visions of Paris, Germany, Haiti, all the many places she would rather be.  But when she is away from Alan, she often wishes she was back with him, and after enjoying a tryst with one of her lovers she often feels guilt over betraying Alan, and shame over arousing in her lovers a devotion she cannot reciprocate.  Sabina believes men (her philandering father, for example) have a freedom women lack, that they can enjoy sex without love, without guilt, and she aspires to achieve this freedom herself.

A Spy in the House of Love is more of a character study than a story; there isn't much plot. I sort of expected the ending to show Sabina either achieving her freedom, abandoning guilt and learning to enjoy her promiscuity, or, giving up the life of a "spy" and learning to love the man who loved her the most sincerely and generously, Alan. Instead, the ending of the book is surreal and I didn't quite get it; Sabina gets long-winded advice from two mysterious mentor characters, then she listens to Beethoven and then, apparently, keels over.  Maybe this is just a symbolic death?

I expected the novel to include explicit sex scenes, like, say, Henry Miller's Sexus.  There are in fact no such scenes.      

The book is full of metaphors; presumably some readers will embrace them while others find them ridiculous. Here is a sample, from pages 50-51, describing the aphrodisiac qualities of what Nin calls "Debussy's Ile Joyeuse" (apparently this is an unconventional spelling):
The model notes arrived charged like a caravan of spices, gold mitres, ciboriums and chalices bearing messages of delight setting the honey flowing between the thighs, erecting sensual minarets on men's bodies as they lay flat on the sand. 
There are lots of odd, clever bits that I liked.  Sabina's guilt drives her to talk, to confess, so she sits in bars and tells exotic stories to people for hours, leaving vague whether they are tales from her own life, or from the lives of friends, or just things she read.  She so needs to unburden herself that she will telephone random numbers late at night and talk to absolute strangers.  One of Phillip's hobbies is making his own telescope, even grinding his own lenses.  He hangs an open umbrella from the ceiling of his apartment over his half-finished telescope, because the running of the children who live upstairs rains plaster dust on his delicate lenses.  Sabina suspects the source of her behavior lies in her youth, when she eschewed sunbathing and instead "moon-bathed," laying naked in bed before open windows at night, letting the rays of the moon wash over her.  It seems that some people back then thought exposure to moon beams could have strange effects on the body and mind.  Sixteen-year old Sabina believed her moon-baths gave her skin a "different glow," and her friends asked what it was that had changed about her; was she using drugs?  Mom complained she looked like a consumptive.

Nin's peers according to Pocket Books' marketing people: Jackie Collins, Judy Blume, & Joan Collins
A Spy in the House of Live is an entertaining, interesting novel if you are willing to dispense with a traditional plot.  You academic types can get some additional mileage out of it by using it as a lens to examine womens' attitudes towards and perceptions of men, and whites' view of non-whites.  On page 54 we find Sabina, having taken off her wedding ring on the way to Phillip's, is walking "with her whole foot on the ground as the latins and the negroes do."  Mambo, on pages 67 and 74, bitterly complains that white women pursue him not for himself, but because of the "sensual power" of the black race.  "He felt that she embraced in him, kissed on his lips the music, the legends, the trees, the drums of the island he came from...."

A worthwhile read.

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