I've spent months with the writings of Anaïs Nin collected in this book, reading much as she might have written them, at night in the hours winding down to sleep a page or two at a time. The writings come from her diaries, written in 1931 and 1932 when she came to know June Miller and her husband, the writer Henry Miller, culminating in a passionate affair with Henry.
The writing here can be fantastic, though as you might expect in a diary, it can also be uneven. There are transcendent passages, even more compelling in many cases than Henry's fictional(ish) accounts of the same world, and it tells in real time the story of a woman awakening to some knowledge in herself she's tried to ignore.
The Millers become a conduit for Nin's sexuality to open in a way she couldn't have imagined. Nin first finds herself enthralled with June then, after June leaves the country, gets drawn into a physical relationship with Henry and she lives the whole affair through her writing. There are entries full of rapture and passion, but there are many others about her doubts and fears. Nin, who was married at the time, struggled with her passion and how her actions could hurt her husband. What's more, she is haunted by the promise of June who holds a strange power over both Henry and Nin and will return at some point threatening their relationship.
If you are the type who reads one book at a time, Henry and June can feel tedious, as I learned during some periods when I was more consistent in my reading. It was not written as a self-contained story so it reflects the uneven way life actually moves. Nin has remarkable character shift in these years but it happens in fits and starts. On one page she may come to a declaration like, "I want passion and pleasure and noise and drunkenness and all evil." But an entry or two later she may again be convinced that Henry is cruel or she is.
If you're able to stick with it, Henry and June is a remarkable book both for Nin's honesty and her ability to charge the writing with such emotion without going over the top. Her cruel moments, her insecurities, her lust, her indiscretions, Nin spreads it all out on the page and we're lucky enough to get to read it.
Henry and June is a great read for this and for anyone who has been avoiding the big questions in their head, about a relationship or sex or work or even religion and politics. Nin's willingness to explore her passion — intellectually, physically and in writing — may embolden us to face the doubts and dark corners of our own minds honestly.