Anaïs Nin, The Four-Chambered Heart

“But love, the great narcotic, was the hothouse in which all the selves burst into their fullest bloom…
love the great narcotic was the revealer in the alchemist’s bottle rendering visible the most untraceable substances
love the great narcotic was the agent provocateur exposing all the secret selves to daylight
love the great narcotic lined fingertips with clairvoyance
pumped iridescence into the lungs for transcendental x-rays
printed new geographies in the lining of the eyes
adorned words with sails, ears with velvet mutes
and soon the balcony tipped their shadows into the river, too, so that the kiss might be baptised in the holy waters of continuity.”

Anaïs Nin’s The Four-Chambered Heart (1950) is a heart-wrenching tale of the anguish that accompanies a destructive and jealous love. An old barge in the Seine is the scene for Djuna and Rango’s steamy embraces, which the couple throw themselves into with unadulterated passion. But it is a precarious idyll that will all too soon be interrupted by the needs of the outside world – Rango’s invalid wife, Zora, for instance – but also the vicissitudes of human character.

“All the dangers… dangers to the love, they believed as all lovers believe, came from the outside, from the world, never suspecting the seed of death of love might lie within themselves.”

Part of Nin’s series Cities of the Interior, the author renounces the hardships of post-war France to delve into the human psyche as it meets another. The lovers go from perfect understanding and harmony to unrest and confusion. Related by an emotionally entangled narrator, the reader gains access to Djuna’s sorrowful protests as their love threatens to sour.

“They had reached a perfect moment of human love. They had created a moment of perfect understanding and accord. This highest moment would now remain as point of comparison to torment them later on when all natural imperfections would disintegrate it.

The dislocations were at first subtle and held no warning of future destruction. At first the vision was clear, like a perfect crystal. Each act, each word would be imprinted on it to shed light and warmth on the growing roots of love, or to distort it slowly and corrode its expansion.”

Nin, famed for her beautifully composed erotica, here dedicates her prose to a sophisticated psychology of a man and woman in love. The rather essentialist view of male and female ‘nature’ might sit uncomfortably with modern feminists, but Nin harks back to another generation of women’s empowerment. She was dedicated to writing women into text, giving a voice to the silenced, allowing a full and often painfully real portrait of those characters who had for centuries been tools or conquests for the male protagonist. Rango is a violent, unstable heir to the Byronic hero whose masterly portrait deprives Djuna of none of her own complexities.

The novel is said to be autobiographical, based on Nin’s own tumultuous relationship with Peruvian radical Gonzalo Moré. As she said in an unpublished diary: “it is the monument that he will not be able to destroy as he destroyed our life”. It straddles novella and testimonial, romance and spiritual Bildungsroman. The whole work is heartbreakingly honest.

“”Djuna, you’re taking me to the bottom of the sea to live, like a real mermaid.”

“I must be a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depths and a great fear of shallow living. But you, poor Rango, you’re from the mountain, water is not your element. You won’t be happy.”

“Men from the mountains always dream of the sea, and above all things I love to travel. Where are we sailing now?””

Anaïs Nin, The Four-Chambered Heart (Virago Press 1992)

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