Anais Nin at the Grand Guignol – Robert Levy (Lethe Press)

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Anais Nin (1903-1977) was a woman writer ahead of her time. Born to Cuban parents in France, she was trilingual in her lifetime. She lived in Paris with her banker/filmmaker husband from 1924 to 1939, when she wisely escaped to New York in time to avoid the German occupation of France. She became known for her apparently tell-all journals, published in edited form while she was alive, which revealed her emotional sensitivity, her bohemian lifestyle, and her affairs with several famous men. She was persuaded to publish her erotic short stories, originally written for a mysterious private patron. Anais Nin has been a role model for erotic writers ever since.

After Nin’s death, the 1990 film Henry and June popularized one phase of her life in Paris, when she was in an erotic triangle with American writer Henry Miller and his wife June. In 1992, her diary from 1932-34 was republished with all the censored information restored, including her affair with her own father, a musician and composer.

Was Anais Nin drawn to Le Theatre Grand Guignol? This doesn’t seem clear from the existing records, but Robert Levy’s fictional version of one of Nin’s diaries from 1933 is uncannily plausible.

The “Grand Guignol” was a small theater in a former church in Paris where the gothic architecture perfectly suited the gruesome subject-matter of the plays performed there. Established in the fin-de-siecle (1897), it attracted a cult following into the 1930s, but attendance declined after the real-life atrocities of the Occupation and the Holocaust. The theater closed in 1962.

In Levy’s version, Anais Nin goes to the theater with her husband, Hugo, and both are aroused by a scene in which a doctor mutilates a female patient. Anais responds to her husband’s “squirming:”

“I bring his hand to my lips and kiss his knuckles, the room electrified with murmurs and movement as the patrons resettle in their seats. Like me, they are unsure how to feel, how best to absorb and respond to what has just taken place before them. Did they see their own objects of desire and longing in the patient, the way that I saw June? Did it make them feel the same exquisite satisfaction, the first twinge of a new and awakening pleasure inside?”

Between trysts with her lover, Henry Miller (after June’s departure from them both), writing sessions, and appointments with her real-life psychoanalyst, Dr. Allendy, Anais returns to the “Grand Guignol.” There she meets real-life lead actress Paula Maxa, an opium-addicted creature of the night who tries to protect Anais from her master, pimp, or stalker, Monsieur Guillard. “Maxa” apparently doesn’t know that Anais has already had a disturbing vision, or encounter, with Monsieur in Dr. Allendy’s office, in the dark box called an “isolation accumulator,” in which a patient is supposed to focus on dispersing negative emotions such as guilt and shame, and eventually feel herself “awash in positive light.”

Alone in the dark, Anais imagines herself on a beach when she sees a being with “silver-yellow eyes” emerging from the water. The being is strong and male, and Anais feels him dragging her by the ankles into the sea to drown.  At this point, the threatening male figure doesn’t introduce himself.

Soon afterward, however, the man with the penetrating gaze shows up everywhere in her life: at Paula Maxa’s door while Anais is visiting, and at a masquerade party that Anais attends with Hugo, where Monsieur Guillard accuses Anais of summoning him to find her. He echoes what Paula Maxa has already told her: once Monsieur claims you, there is no escape.

Is Monsieur a seductive, sadistic father-figure conjured from the depths of Anais’ masochistic hero-worship of powerful men? Is he a supernatural being? Is he the resident spirit of Le Theatre Grand Guignol?

“Maxa” suggests to Anais that Monsieur has given her the magical power to enact the fears and secret desires of every member of the audience, and that this power must be paid for. She lets Anais know that she can’t protect “Maxa” or any other woman but herself from Monsieur, and that this can only be done by staying away from him.

So far, this slim novel looks like a mildly erotic study in traditional feminine masochism and psychological horror.

However, Levy’s version of Anais is resourceful as well as curious. She comes to the profound realization that although a supernatural being or an archetype can never be killed, human flesh is mortal. The requirement of human flesh for lust to operate on not only makes Anais and other female victims vulnerable to physical violence, it also makes Monsieur vulnerable when he appears in human form. The Man is not all-powerful after all.

Many years before the advent of Second-Wave Feminism, Anais discovers the wisdom and strength in a group of women focused on a common purpose.

Not all the mysteries are resolved by the end of this book, and that is part of its charm. Levy persuasively imitates Anais Nin’s writing style, and his imagery fits the subject-matter. In the last scene, Anais writes: “I turn, and I face him [Dr. Allendy.] I face them all.” Fear, desire, surrender and resistance are shown to be inseparably connected.

Reviewed by Jean Roberta

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