I was heart-broken. That was how it felt. Time hadn’t come along yet, as of course it would, to put my sorrow neatly in perspective. Honey, you’ll get over him. Clearly it was the end of the world. And when the world is ending, well, time for a good book. The one I happened to carry with me that September afternoon—across the footbridge in the New England town where I was beginning my senior year of college; down the scrubby, steep riverbank; out, onto the admirable slabs of sun-warmed stone that jut into the water there below the falls—was Anaïs Nin’s House of Incest.
I’d never read any Nin. I didn’t know what to expect, aside from something sensual. Probably, I didn’t care. I needed company, that was all. I tucked myself into a concavity in the rock. Sounds were the brittle autumn leaves feeling the wind, the perpetual fall and flow of water, a few birds. I looked out at the river, wide and wild after its twenty-foot plunge. What would drowning feel like? In my mind, dying was an exquisite ritual. A return.
But, honey, you’ll get over him.
The book itself, the physical thing, was already something special. I’d found it in a local used bookshop, paid $3 for the slim, 72-page softcover. It was the 1958 edition (Nin’s first fiction, Incest originally appeared in ’36), a little worn. On its cover, a photomontage by Val Telberg: face and torso of a naked woman, her arms aloft in a pose evoking, I’d say, ecstatic surrender. And she, overlaid with clouds; merging with her hair, a house; a gate. More such nudes—juxtapositions of bodies with water, windows, the woods, brick walls—throughout the pages. Black and white.
I’ll never be able to separate that book from that day. The pleasure of what I would, then, have called anguish. The late afternoon light—a little melancholy, wasn’t it? The day’s fading warmth, a chill breeze. I hadn’t meant to, but I read the whole thing, growing slowly colder, and more and more enchanted by the text. Incest’s narrative is elusive. What Nin delivers is more an aura than a story. It’s a dream, like those photomontages, where strange and disparate elements—often women—coexist, their colliding energies the engine of the work.
I found phrases that said exactly what I felt: “Significance stares at me from everywhere, like a gigantic underlying ghostliness.” “I walk ahead of myself in perpetual expectancy of miracles.” “I kissed his shadow and this kiss did not touch him, this kiss was lost in the air and melted with the shadow.” “I cannot be certain of any event or place, only of my solitude.”
The more I read, though, the less alone I felt; the less desolate the evening seemed. And then, like a blessing, with no forewarning, I arrived at the image I was going to hold in my mind for years. The image that still stands as a pillar of my own philosophy. Look: “She danced, laughing and sighing and breathing all for herself. She danced her fears, stopping in the center of every dance to listen to reproaches that we could not hear, or bowing to applause that we did not make. She was listening to music we could not hear, moved by hallucinations we could not see.” Reading the words, I felt a bit like I’d been saved. Wasn’t this the way to live?
I turned to the last page; I turned to the dusky river, which had never faltered, which could and can do nothing but follow its own course.
A river, it’s true, is not unlike time.
I went back seven years later. I took the same book to the same rock and read it again in a single sitting. (Here you might want to revisit Danny Nowell’s meditation on Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer and the idea of “repetitions,” a notion that was certainly on my mind.) I’d forgotten the larger part of the plot, if plot it can be called. I was disappointed to find myself less engaged than I’d been the first go-round, to feel no sense of sudden rapture. Problem was, I was only half-listening to Nin. The other part of my mind was lost in a worried weighing of the years that had passed, a peeved scrutiny of the use I had made of them, or not. I had failed, for instance, to answer any of the big questions about life, even just my own—such as: what was I doing with it? I had imagined that I’d sort of grown up a bit (seven years!), but again I found myself camped on a little promontory of self-pity, watching the day run out, turning pages pretty much blindly.
Honey. It really is time to get over yourself.
Nin’s dancer, whom I love, dances “the dance of the woman without arms.” Her story-within-the-story is a parable that teaches the futility of angling to hold onto anything in this life. She tries. She wants to so much. But it’s just no good. At last she sees this. She opens her hands “completely…in a gesture of abandon and giving…permitting all things to flow away and beyond her.”
The winter after I graduated, a freshman boy went missing. For three months they didn’t stop searching. Dogs, aircraft, a private investigator. In May, they found his body caught below a raft of logs lodged in a backwater at the base of the falls, twenty yards or so from where I’d been reading. According to reports, he’d drunk eighteen shots of rum the night he died. One for every year of his life. The last entry in the police report’s time line reads, “Text Message from mother into que – phone is dead.” This at 6:42 a.m.
“I could not bear the passing of things. All flowing, all passing, all movement choked me with anguish.”
Nin prefaces her novella with the following anecdote:
The morning I got up to begin this book I coughed. Something was
coming out of my throat: it was strangling me. I broke the thread which held
it and yanked it out. I went back to bed and said: I have just spat out my
There is an instrument called the quena made of human bones. It owes
its origin to the worship of an Indian for his mistress. When she died he
made a flute out of her bones. The quena has a more penetrating, more
haunting sound than the ordinary flute.
Those who write know the process. I thought of it as I was spitting out
Only I do not wait for my love to die.
How we are here is a mystery. “Why?” is a useless question. There’s little we can do, really, but choose how to make use of our time, of the undetermined number of years we will have to wander this strange, miraculous planet.
Read a little Nin, I say, and learn how to dance “laughing and sighing and breathing all for [your]self.” The river will carry us all away. Before it does, spit out your heart and find out who you are.
Kate Brittain holds an MFA from NYU and lives in Brooklyn with her dog, her bicycle, and never enough books.