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  • Rose Higham-Stainton

(REVIEW) Stretching time: Dead Lovers: Anaïs Nin

Rose Higham-Stainton explores the labyrinthian second volume of Dead Lovers, dedicated to Anaïs Nin. (Sticky Fingers Publishing, 2021).

Words as worlds,’ write Sticky Fingers Publishing in their introduction to Dead Lovers: Anaïs Nin. Within Nin’s richly swathed, highly contentious and revered repertoire is ‘The Labyrinth’, a short story that embodies her diaristic mode of writing and suitably was self-published under Gemor Press. Reissued by Penguin, the story begins with ‘I was eleven when I walked into the labyrinth of my diary.’ For Nin, the labyrinth is not so much the subject as the process of writing—she walks the labyrinth across the page so that the act of walking and the act of writing fold in around themselves; the way in which for Sticky Fingers Publishing, feminisms are not so much the subject as methodology. It is therefore a perfect union—attending to the act of writing—or the act of becoming in writing.

The Dead Lovers series is dedicated to deceased feminist writers and for this second volume Evelyn Wh-ell, Natascha Nanji and Kate Morgan pay heed to Anaïs Nin in worlds labyrinthian, psychic and unbridled. Against the grain of hierarchical editorship, Sticky Fingers worked with the writers in critical workshops and editing sessions to produce texts that thought through the works of Nin and appreciated it not for but with its discomforts, diaristic intimacies, lusts, resistance and questions of consent.

Nin stretches the Jungian motif of labyrinth as psyche—a tortuous, serpentine path toward wholeness and authenticity—enveloping it in the material of her desire. If words are worlds, then bodies are what we do with those words—the weft of a sentence brushing against the skin and the enveloping arms of description and brittle forms of syntax.

The story begins with Nin, or her tender protagonist, impelled to move through the labyrinth of language—tentative, backtracking, uncertain of the future and concerned about finding her way back. Like a diary entry, she dotes on memory to find her way—as if it were the truth—as if anything other than this could be the truth. Nin writes I did not know exactly why I must return. I did not know that at the end I would find myself where I started. This reflective final sentence is a kind of hindsight and paves the way for what follows. The girl succumbs to uncertainty—when I ceased stepping firmly, the labyrinthian walk became enlarged, the silence became airy, the fur disintegrated, and I walked into a white city. Stone and mortar are mixed with sunlight and this white annihilating shift brings the narrator into her body, albeit an expanded body of abstraction: she writes, the white orifice of the endless cave opened.

Illuminated and revelatory, the story is about finding oneself, nowhere—of untethering. It is a coming of age story if we imagine age itself as an anachronism—and uncharted.

So how to respond? How to respond to a text in which body and time collapse in around each other and how to respond to those that respond to it? It is labyrinthian. There is something about syntax—Nin’s are circular in their intent. I was lost in the labyrinth of my confessions, among the veiled faces of my acts unveiled only in the diary she writes, spinning the confessionary and diaristic modes into one another. This circular form is extended to structure through the repetition of images in baskets (another structure that holds) and in children and spilled coffee that wrap around these three texts, marking beginnings and ends as inseparable, by which I mean, we start as mud and end as mud.

Wh-ell, Nanji and Morgan respond to ‘The Labyrinth’ by transgressing bodies, language, landscape, but each at a distance and scale specific to them.

In Wh-ell’s ‘The Labyrinth: Part One of A Case of Intrigue, A Tale Most Mysterious!’, the labyrinth is a deep orifice, a gleaming key-hole, a dungeon and centripetal system of data mining, filmic sketches and image streams that make up an absurdist science fiction centred around a solitary dungeon broadcaster, televising in stagnosus. For Nanji too, the labyrinth is solitary, but as in hermetic and outward reaching like the illusory end on a ream of thread. In ‘The Erotic to the Ecstatic’, we travel through her real time and real space in diaristic perambulations and across various topographies, not stymied by didactics. While her generous footnotes are a blended ‘movement across landscapes, architectures, emotions, desire’, forming a psychic space through which we ‘arrive at a body.’, her body is watery, translucent and abstract like truth and ‘truth is a series of vertebrae, interlocking pieces whipping through me, reptilian, falling off with the seasons to allow new truths to find a place.’ For Morgan, in ‘Select Anachronica’, bodies are plural—the labyrinth is like a single cloth enveloping two bodies—‘running parallel but not to the same meter because your meter is not their meter.’ They call this anachronism—to be out of sorts with chronos, the god of time, and off-kilter. Morgan employs anachronism as a mode of resistance and offsets the address between subject and narrator—you, says the subject, they says the narrator.

Dodie Bellamy asks 'how do you bring the body into the abstraction of language?’ [1] But what if the body, too, is abstract, as it is for Kate Morgan’s subject and Evelyn-Wh-ell’s queered narrative—a glitch in time and a protagonist disassociated from their image and voice through reams of data.

All three writers stretch the diaristic mode to degrees, but convene in its immediacy. They harbour it as humour and joy—underground televised broadcasting systems, the quotidian pleasure of postal deliveries, the speculation about undiscerning customers at the sex club Stunners. In the closing lines of ‘The Labyrinth’, Nin writes my feet were treading paper. They were the streets of my own diary, crossed with bars of black notes. Serpentines of walls without doorways, desires without issues. There is something sensual about this immediacy—she embodies the diaristic mode by travelling across language so that Morgan asks ‘can a phrase, an act, be tongued and written in synchronicity?’ Here Morgan refers not so much to real time, but Nin’s sense of time—walking on paper with ‘contemplative feet’. And yet, in Nin’s short story, we have no sense of time passing the way the way that Morgan’s time surpasses our physical realm— ‘their body’s presence exceeds the time you are together.’ This is anachronism.

Human residues, traces and quotidian matter reflect the material of Nin’s story. It is call and response. She expresses desire and appetite through a coterie of materials and body parts—windowless houses erupting at the tip, in flowered terraces, streets spiralling like seashells and the soft turning canals of a giant ear. While the enveloping nest of Ninji’s past—a studio laden with trinkets and mementos, art supplies and lively ephemera—, Morgan’s clothed body and Wh-ell’s message-board each evoke Nin’s holy transformation of labyrinth to fur-lined crib as the material of our desire—a desire—our desire—to be held.

These texts form a feedback loop, not as unison but stretched and undulating reverberations of Nin that, by speaking to each other, feed new notes into a salacious and steely mouth—resonance abstracted into drone. The loop knows no bounds. This volume, made public and consumed—and fed through this text on new pages—extends a lineage of recording that takes pleasure in the abstraction of memory.

[1] Taken from Devotion with Dodie Bellamy - a conversation via ZOOM on 1st December 2021.

You can buy a copy of Dead Lovers: Anaïs Nin from Sticky Fingers Publishing here.


Text: Rose Higham-Stainton

Image: Rose Higham-Stainton

Published: 25/01/22


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