I was sixteen and had just learned to drive. This means I was progressively exploring in a widening circle outside my little bit of the west end of the Valley, pushing up against the seaward hills and searching east in my 1969 VW slapstick bug. I was a classically trained oil painter and a social recluse more comfortable with Prussian blue than with the prom. My first boyfriend had broken up with me, leaving me, to my chagrin, still disappointingly virginal. I was skinny and coltish but didn’t know it. I thought I was ugly. I lived in my books and my head and my classes, and as much as I was tentatively growing, I was terrified. Finding my first Anais Nin book wasn’t really about sex so much as it was about seeing the world lushly–and lifting a veil from historic, literary LA.
I found Collages in the Tower Records bookstore that was at Van Nuys and Ventura Boulevard, which for me at that time was scarily east and very far from home. Nin didn’t write so much about sex in it as she kinda brushed up against it with language like it was just another plant in a garden, a normal and natural descriptive element one should always include when writing about people in their fullness.
Collages doesn’t all take place in LA, and it doesn’t even have much in the way of sex. It’s a sensual book: colors bloom, music melts, fingers paint, language draws itself out into evanescent sheets like rain across a landscape, and laughter warmly suffuses rooms. When the book arrives in LA, the author writes about Los Angeles in the sixties as it swept from Beat lyricism to the cacophony of change that came after. But as grounded in that time as her places and names may be, many of the people in Los Angeles are still the same:
“Collages was inspired by seeing Varda [the collage artist] work with his little bits of material. I began to think about the people that I knew in Los Angeles and they suddenly formed a pattern of dreamers. They were all absolutely possessed by some myth or some dream so I put them all together with others not from Los Angeles, like Nina de la Primavera who was a sort of Ophelia and a woman who fabulated. I put them all together and that formed a collage of dreamers who couldn’t possibly talk to each other because each one was pursuing his own fantasy. So they were like little pieces in a collage. They never absolutely could meet each other, but each one was completely possessed by a different kind of fantasy. I had the Japanese woman, and Varda also was one of the characters, creating his own world. When I started I couldn’t see any design or pattern or anything. But then I suddenly realized that the pattern and theme was a collage.” (-A Woman Speaks)
That book illuminated the world around me, lit a candle, sparked the world into brilliant possibility, and I don’t know how. Where before I’d been painting like a technician, studying anatomy from a book, executing still-life after still-life and academic portrait after portrait, now I switched to watercolors, and it all ran together, and it still wasn’t simply sexual, it couldn’t be reduced to that. It was a lust for life. It changed what I wanted. I dove into Los Angeles. I went to Italy and came back. I charged into LA’s heart of darkness and dragged myself out again. Now I see around me the same brilliance, the same miraculous magic, that Anais did. The complex and lovely people in my life, in this city, as messy and wonderful as they were to her in the portraits she painted with words, and the hundred different shades of love she felt for them all. I am so lucky.
There’s no arguing when some of her detractors say Nin’s work was self-absorbed; a good percentage of her work is rife with narcissism. I can only be grateful for this, because it drove her to create such beautiful work. She was stricken with a hunger to communicate and was in love with the nuances and delicacy of language. She strung words together like pearls on string. She pioneered an expression of the feminine experience. There’s a countless back-catalog of men who write about fucking; Nin contributed to a robust foundation for women’s writing on sensuality, on intellect, on life experience. From the 1940s until her death, she lived in both LA (Silver Lake, I believe) and New York, a hybrid creature who found something to love in those very two disparate cities.
No, she wasn’t born here, but her lucid comprehension of the spirit of Los Angeles and its starstruck citizenry–whether they’re starstruck in the Hollywood sense or in the Wildean sense–“we are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”–makes her a creature of the City of Angels. Her ashes were sifted out of an airplane over the Santa Monica Bay. A month and a day after she died, I was born, and I hope some particulate matter got into my lungs with my first breath.
“If what Proust says is true, that happiness is the absence of fever, then I will never know happiness.
For I am possessed by a fever for knowledge, experience, and creation.” -Anais Nin