- Liz Publika
Anaïs Nin Printed Her Future in New York City: Assimilation and the letterpress
In the winter of 1939, Anaïs Nin (1903 — 1977) fled Paris ahead of the German invasion during World War II. She boarded a hydroplane in Lisbon with as much as she could fit into two briefcases — mostly the beginnings of the third volume in her now lauded series of diaries as well as letters from friends she’d never see again. Halfway into the trip, the hydroplane briefly landed in the Azores to refuel before continuing on its journey toward New York City. It was the last Anaïs Nin would ever see of Europe.
Before finally arriving in the United States, the hydroplane made one final stop in Bermuda to wait out bad weather. There, Nin joined a group of explorers who drove out to a stalactite cave that she described as “a scenery of dreams...safe from change… threatened only by the rough elements of the outside world.” This is much how Nin viewed her own internal world: subterranean, where delicate formations were safe from the rough elements of the outside world; where a great river, a source of life and creativity, flowed freely and infinitely underneath.
From an early age, some of which comprised the first period of her life spent living in New York with her mother and brother before returning to the continent, she discovered that writing was a way for her “to reach Europe” and to keep the people she loved from vanishing: “Writing against loss, against uprooting, against destruction. Writing against erasing. Time erases. Writing against the flaws of memory, the distortions of memory. Writing against death, separation.” Inside of herself and her stories, she could preserve all that she had left behind.
The stories she created from this period would become the collection, Under a Glass Bell (1944). Some stories are nothing more than fragments and images strung together, an inventory of what remains and what is lost. Others read like distillations, essences, of the experiences of Nin and her contemporaries — fellow creatives who had fled Europe for America. Many of the characters are haunted by an unnamed trauma, which seems to hover just over their shoulders or leaves them husks of their former selves.
To Nin’s sensibilities, Europe was mature, sophisticated, and respective of the arts. Culture was deeply rooted in its elaborate history and people invested time to contemplate and reflect on it. America, on the other hand, was young, rigid, and puritanical — “rejecting all European influences, like children who reject their parents.” The hard pragmatism, politics, and conventions she encountered in America seemed strange. Nin, much like her compatriots, felt largely unneeded and out-of-place in her new home and it reflected in her stories.
In “Ragtime,” written in 1938, a ragpicker walks the empty city streets at night, collecting broken and discarded things. “The scavengers understand that discarded things only migrate elsewhere. Exposed to this unlikely scenario in which detritus is valuable, Nin’s narrator wonders if it is possible at all to permanently dispose of something.” She concludes that “nothing is lost, but it changes.” Indeed, change would be something Nin underwent as well.
Nin — and some of her friends, like actress Luise Rainer (1910 — 2014) — vowed to minimize talk of Europe; she feared that not doing so would make her a ghost destined to haunt a continent across the ocean, like a grand decrepit manor, much like the characters in her work. The titular story in her collection describes three siblings living in their childhood mansion that “cottoned the sound from the world,” allowing them to shun life outside the manor. “Nin suggests, then, that life cannot be lived in a vacuum, no matter how attractive the inside or sordid the outside.”
As much as Nin missed Europe, she longed to connect with Americans and to create a life for herself in the new world. To achieve this, she needed to publish her work, but it was routinely rejected by American publishers; some thought it wasn’t commercial enough, others weren’t interested in anything Europe-related. “Let me be published,” she pleaded in her diary. “Books created my world. How will I create worlds without them? Without them my world is small and silent. Enclosed. Remote.”
Undeterred, she planned her next move. “I did not accept the verdict and decided to print my own books,” wrote Nin. “For seventy-five dollars I bought a second-hand press. It was foot powered like the old sewing machines, and one had to press the treadle very hard to develop sufficient power to turn the wheel.” She also borrowed 200 dollars from various acquaintances to buy her own type, remnants of paper, and orange crates to use as shelves. She and her lover Gonzalo More taught themselves the process via library books as well as by trial and error.
Before getting to work on Under a Glass Bell, Gemor Press — as Nin and More dubbed their enterprise — first resurrected Nin’s novel Winter of Artifice (1942), which had originally been published in Paris in 1939, but the work did not survive due to the death of the publisher and the devastation caused by WWII.
Of the process, Nin wrote:
“It was hard work. Patient work, to typeset prose, to lock the tray, to carry the heavy lead tray to the machine, to run the machine itself, which had to be inked by hand. Setting the copper plates (for the illustrations) on inch-thick wood supports in order to print them. Printing copper plates meant inking each plate separately, cleaning it after one printing, and starting the process over again. It took me months to typeset Under a Glass Bell and Winter of Artifice. Then there were the printed pages to be placed between blotters and later cut, put together for the binder and gathered into signatures. Then the type had to be redistributed in the boxes.”
While the printing press allowed Nin to publish her work on her own terms, the printing process — which involved setting each letter by hand — helped Nin refine the content of her stories and learn the economy of style: “After living with a page for a whole day I could detect the superfluous words. At the end of each line I thought: ‘Is this word, this phrase, absolutely necessary?’” Although Nin and More initially had trouble finding a book binder, they managed to resolve the problem and even found a distributor, who threw the writer a book launch party.
Although word of mouth allowed Nin to get attention, she still had trouble getting her work to go mainstream, but a favorable review of Under a Glass Bell in The New Yorker by Edmund Wilson changed everything: “It launched me. I owe him that and am only sorry that his acceptance did not extend to the rest of my work.” The entire first edition of Under a Glass Bell sold out in three weeks, gained her entree into literary society, and is considered by many to be her best work. Like its namesake, it preserved a delicate world under glass bell.
Eventually Nin became too overwhelmed to sustain a publishing enterprise and found a commercial publisher, but not before she was able to establish herself as a writer and find her place in America. “The universal quality in good writing which publishers claim to recognize is impossible to define. My books, which were not supposed to have this universal quality, were nevertheless bought and read by all kinds of people,” mused Anaïs Nin.