‘Ragtime’ by Anaïs Nin

The ragpicker worked in silence and never looked at anything that was whole. His eyes sought the broken, the worn, the faded, the fragmented. A complete object made him sad. What could one do with a complete object? Put it in a museum. Not touch it. But a torn paper, a shoelace without its double, a cup without saucer, that was stirring. They could be transformed, melted into something else. A twisted piece of pipe. Wonderful, this basket without a handle. Wonderful, this bottle without a stopper. Wonderful, the box without a key. Wonderful, half a dress, the ribbon off a hat, a fan with a feather missing. Wonderful, the camera plate without the camera, the lone bicycle wheel, half a phonograph disk. Fragments, incomplete worlds, rags, detritus, the end of objects, and the beginning of transmutations.

Of the pieces in Under a Glass Bell, the collection ‘Ragtime’ comes from, Nin explained: “These stories represent the moment when many like myself had found only one answer to the suffering of the world: to dream, to tell fairytales, to elaborate and to follow the labyrinth of fantasy. All this I see now was the passive poet’s only answer to the torments he witnessed…” Adrift in a mostly plotless story, Nin’s narrator visits a ragpickers’ camp on the outskirts of Paris and catalogues the detritus. I fell in love with this surreal, ephemeral dream as a teen, and unlike many of my other teenage loves, it has stayed with me. There is a certain melancholic romance in seeking the broken, the worn, the faded, the fragmented, in recognizing that “Nothing is lost but it changes.” 

First published in Nin’s collection Under a Glass Bell, 1948, Swallow Press, and available in audio form, read by the author herself, on YouTube

‘Mandra’ by Anais Nin

I am including Nin’s erotic collection, as when Fifty Shades of Grey hit the world, supposedly revolutionizing literary female sexuality, many of us said, “Why the hell weren’t people reading the more exquisite, sensual words of Anais Nin?” ‘Mandra’, set in New York, where “the illuminated skyscrapers shine like Christmas trees” is the story of Mandra and her erotic adventures with Mary and Myriam, with and without their clothes on. 

Written in the 1940s. First formally published posthumously, in Little Birds, Harcourt Brace, 1979. Now available as a Penguin Modern Classic

‘The Woman on the Dunes’ by Anais Nin

I loved Nin when I was in my early twenties; as I’ve gotten older, I still have an abiding respect. 

For her bluntness, for her insistence on including the erotic in all things, in making it so central and complex. I still think she could have done more interesting things with adjectives, but this story of a horny man prowling a beach, the ensuing sex with a beautiful woman, and the unapologetically dark meta-fictive flourish at the end, is an example of Nin at her juicy best. I like that erectile dysfunction is handled with tenderness, not drama, that the limits of masculinity melt away in the kindness and the water. The repetition, the narrative of changing moods, the combat of it all, is so finely judged. Nin forensically collected and presented all those tiny, compulsive things that we need to get off. I truly think the world is a better place because of artists who take the textures of sex seriously. 

First published in Little Birds, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979. Currently available from Penguin Modern Classics, 2002. You can hear [a rather bad] reading of this story here