Atmospheric depictions and impressionistic wanderings run through the nocturnal urban labyrinth of the novella A Spy in the House of Love in the ‘continuous novel’ Cities of the Interior by Anais Nin. These are my own observations and interpretations of the text. Some embellishments added. “Quotes” are not official, and be warned of spoilers!
Nin’s Sabina is a beautiful woman lost in the labyrinth of her own lies. One desperate evening she calls a random number and begins to confess her crimes. The man who answers the phone is not only a stranger, but also a “lie detector”. She hangs up on him after learning this but he traces her call and leaves his bed to find her. The lie detector enters a small, darkly lit bar later on that evening and sits in the shadows, scanning the room for the strange woman’s voice. There, in the center of the bar, stands a beautiful woman, surrounded by captivated men as she tells them fantastical stories of her life in Marrakesh and of her theater days in London. The lie detector recognizes the woman’s voice and drinks in her body, her dark eyes and red and silver dress. Her hand motions are nervous and she keeps smiling during the serious parts of her tales. The lie detector knows she is lying. But he is certain he will find out the truth.
Sabina leaves the tiny Harlem bar and proceeds to hail a taxi home to Greenwich Village. Her husband does not expect her back from Provincetown, Massachusetts for another week, but she can no longer stand being in the city another night without him. She returns home and finds the apartment empty. She runs a bath but before she can clean off the scents of other men’s desires in the water she hears her husband’s key in the lock. It will be yet another evening of pretending to be someone else for Sabina. She is almost used to it now. She is an actress – but in real life and not on the stage. Earlier this evening she was a downtown seductress and a well traveled actress. In the midst of her performance she had almost lost her character when she called the lie detector. She had nearly told him the whole truth of her life. She had almost destroyed the varied fragments of her disjointed self that made her feel somehow whole. She had almost lost control – and she had never slipped up like that before.
Instead she lives out her role of doting, loving wife in her husband’s arms. She dresses in white chiffon and puts his feet up after work, cooking exotic meals for him and reading poetry to him by the fireplace. She is gripped by a love so fierce and consuming it lifts her soul whenever she is near him. But somehow it is still not enough – or it’s too much altogether.
She feels a childlike devotion to her husband which mirrors her complex girlhood worship of her Don Juan father. Like her own cosmopolitan and remote father, Sabina has become a “Donna Juana” of sorts; seducing countless men in an effort to transfer her father’s womanizing experiences onto her own sexual compulsions. Much like Nin’s other works exploring her lifelong obsession for her father and his abandonment of her, in another work, Winter of Artifice she writes of her father as a man who “…was offended that she had not died completely, that she had not spent the rest of her life yearning for him. He did not understand that she had continued to love him better by living than by dying for him. She had loved him in life, lived for him and created for him.” Sabina feels this way about her father and feels perhaps she has to “die” for him, to create an inner death of herself and to reincarnate as a mirror image of him in order to “win him back” and “seduce” him into “loving her once more” as she feels he ‘must’ have once upon a time.
Sabina moves through the streets of 1940’s New York in search of that insubstantial otherworldly mystical “something”. She feels an unknown presence watching her. The lie detector is following her everywhere. He is like the silent confessor who becomes obsessed with his once detached object of study. He is all at once omniscient god, father, priest, judge and psychoanalyst, but he is too far removed from her to make actual contact with her. He is merely a witness to her affairs with a beautiful Italian actor, an afro-Cuban drummer and a shell shocked English army pilot. He watches as Sabina becomes haunted by the pilot, who leaves her sleeping in her tiny rented bungalow on Long Island and disappears into the thick, seashore mist. Sabina searches the streets and all the burroughs for the mysterious pilot. She hunts in every corner, trying to trace his last footprints as the lie detector in turn follows hers. She looks into every new face for any sign of him, any reminder. She is obsessed with the “idea” of him and with the stories still lingering in her head of his tragic, vivid tales of W.W.II combat. In Spy she describes their union as a momentary escape from their exterior realities.
“They fled from the eyes of the world, the singer’s prophetic, harsh, ovarian prologues. Down the rusty bars of ladders to the undergrounds of the night propitious to the first man and woman at the beginning of the world, where there were no words by which to possess each other, no music for serenades, no presents to court with, no tournaments to impress, and force a yielding, no secondary instruments, no adornments, necklaces, crowns to subdue, but only one ritual, a joyous, joyous, joyous, joyous impaling of woman on man’s sensual mast.”
During their solitary night of passion he described the pungent smells of leaking airplane fluid and burning flesh. He spoke with an eerie calm of his shot down comrades and of the blood he shed in the heat of battle. He brought out the demons of war still raging within him underneath his deadly stillness and penetrates this chaos into Sabina’s body during violent lovemaking. She absorbs all his ghosts and hopeless feelings of death and darkness. Here is the vicious, invasive communion with man (god) she has waited for since her first sexual awakening, since the moment her father turned away from her with a cold goodbye. The pilots’ poison tastes sweet to Sabina. Instead of looking for an antidote she searches for another injection. She has found her true drug.
Walking aimlessly while her husband is away on another business trip and giving up her search for the pilot, Sabina’s childhood memories of her father flood back to her. The lie detector is close by but invisible. Her father’s last letter to her read in part that she was, “the only woman (her father) had not conquered” and he writes to her that, “God and society would never allow it. However we can still keep our dreams and share our most intimate secrets with each other… as the only two people who can truly understand each other and our many amours.” Her father offers her a relationship with ties, not a regular father-daughter bond but a closed off secret communion where Sabina is only one piece of herself with him… and nothing more.
Sabina’s idealized image of her father is slowly breaking into a thousand shards of shattered glass in her newfound disillusionment. The spell of sex and forgetting is not working anymore. She cannot simply have random interludes and re-emerge unscathed. She begins to see the little lies buried within each of her father’s stories and the subtle trickery within each one of his “professions of undying ‘fatherly’ love” for her. It slowly dawns on her she has not only become a warped caricature of her father, copying his own seductions not as an expression of her own desire but as an uninformed means of understanding him and winning his approval and affection – but she also realizes that her father is ultimately incapable of ever being really honest with her (or himself). Despite his recent attention he will forever be the impersonal egoist. He will never be conquered and won.
Sabina sought out the pilot in the ho
pes of relief from her lifelong suffering at the hands of her insatiable desire to be loved (transformed into a need for sexual and emotional possession in her adult years). She wishes to recapture again and again the intense pleasure and pain of their brief union because she felt near the brink of not only release of her own demons (by ingesting someone else’s) but also the possibility of being psychically jolted out of her own neuroses long enough to feel “alive” again.
She is at the point where she also senses the lie detectors’ presence strongly enough she begins to associate him as something of a slightly malevolent guardian angel. She cannot evade him, she cannot hide from herself, from her lies and from the outside world. She decides to face the lie detector (god, father, priest, judge, psychoanalyst). As the lie detector rests in the lobby of the hotel Sabina checks herself into he is startled as a hotel key drops into his lap from behind. He turns around to catch her but Sabina has already disappeared into a closing elevator. He stands up, disheveled, with a mixed look of uncertainty and determination on his face, and walks up the stairs to her room. This is the hour where he becomes a true confessor or he gives up forever and leaves her alone. He walks into the room through the door without knocking, using the key. He finds Sabina lying on the chaise lounge and he awkwardly enters, clearing his throat to make her aware of his presence.
“I’m an official.” He says quietly. “I mean you no harm.”
“I know.” She answers and motions for him to sit at a nearby chair.
“Do you break your own rules often?” She asks.
“No.” He answers and sits.
“It’s all right. I called you…” She replies and pauses a moment. “I think I understand why now.”
They sit in silence for several moments. It is not uncomfortable.
“You’re my conscience or my demonic guardian angel or my god or I don’t know what. I don’t care anymore.” She sighs. “You know what I want, don’t you?”
“I think…” He answers, looking out the window.
“Say it.” She commands.
“You have something to confess?” He asks as he did the first time they spoke.
She breathes deeply and clenches her fists before answering him.
“Yes. Yes, I do… I have many things to confess.”
“Are you ready Sabina?”