A Spy in the House of Love is the fourth novel in the Cities of the Interior collection. As in previous novels in the series, this one reintroduces several characters who have appeared in previous entries. In addition to main character Sabina, Jay and Djuna also appear in the latter part of the story. The story focuses on Sabina, her relationships and her need to understand her desires.
Sabina has been married to Alan for ten years, a calming presence in her life. He is tall, quiet and peaceful, not unlike a priest. (Sabina repeatedly seeks his absolution in her thoughts.) The only time Sabina can remember him being distraught is when his father died. Alan is kind and loving towards Sabina, and she appreciates him being a safe harbor for her to return to. Through the course of the story, Sabina has extramarital affairs with four men. The narrative primarily focuses on her reflections on her own behavior.
Since Sabina loves Alan and does not wish to hurt him, she engages in her affairs as covertly as possible. Sabina tells Alan that she is an actress, and pretends to leave town for performances with her acting troupe. I found it interesting that Sabina picked a profession where those included are sometimes referred to as “professional liars”. Instead of actually leaving town, Sabina stays at a hotel in New York. Since Alan is a businessman, she restricts her comings and goings to those times when Alan would not be on the street, as well as to parts of the city he doesn’t care to go. While Sabina thinks she is going to great lengths to hide her affairs, her actions speak otherwise. In the beginning of the novel, Sabina has an affair at a hotel only two blocks away from home. Later in the story, while staying in Long Island, waiting for her husband to arrive, Sabina becomes involved with two men, one before her husband arrives, and one after he leaves.
Sabina reflects at length to her being a spy in the house of love. In her mind, she has to operate as a spy would, by avoiding detection for her secretive behavior. There are similarities between her pseudo profession as an actress and her spy-like behavior. Sabina must adopt a personage whenever she must go out into the world. She also approaches all aspects of her appearance like an actress before going onstage. Just like an actress approaches a new role, Sabina carefully considers how she should style her hair, apply makeup and what outfit to wear before she steps outside. After an affair, Sabina leaves no trace of herself behind that would invite detection, just like a spy.
Sabina is clearly addicted to a lifestyle of extra-marital affairs. When she returns home to Alan, she appreciates the security, stability and calmness he provides. Before long, though, Sabina becomes restless and ventures out again in search of a new affair. While she does not want Alan to catch her, Sabina is addicted to the adrenaline that comes with the fear of being caught. The danger of her secret life being exposed gives Sabina the excitement and tension she does not get from her marriage. She sees herself as a female Don Juan, someone who can have affairs and feel no guilt or consequence. When out on the town, Sabina wears a cape, an accoutrement that accentuates her behavior with feelings of freedom and swagger.
While Sabina enjoys the secretive and physical aspects of her affairs, she is troubled by them. She wonders if she inherited the tendency to have affairs from her father, who cheated on her mother. She mentally keeps her distance with each man she is with, which ultimately leads to her feeling unfulfilled when the affair is over. Sabina doesn’t understand why she can’t compartmentalize her affairs like a man can, so that they don’t affect his marriage. Psychologically, Sabina feels that she has multiple personalities. She behaves differently with each man she is with, which she doesn’t understand. At thirty, Sabina seeks to understand herself through her intimate affairs with men, but the results only provide insights that she does not want to acknowledge.
In addition to seeking psychological explanations for her feelings and behavior, Sabina looks to the arts, artists and musicians she is familiar with. She name-drops many of her influences throughout the story, including: Debussey, Chirico, Madame Bovary, Duchamp, Baron Munchausen, Isadora Duncan, Paul Klee.
Throughout the story, Sabina feels that she becomes a different person within each extramarital relationship she enters into. While she gains insight into herself, the knowledge doesn’t alleviate herself of the guilt she feels. Over the course of the story, Sabina has relationships with five men:
- Philip is an opera singer. He is tall, muscular and very European in his manners. Acquaintances have nicknamed him “Vienna-before-the-war”. He confesses that women don’t leave him alone, and that he typically only engages in one-night stands, so that women won’t be able to lay claims to his affection. Sabina learns that he has given his heart to a singer, and that music was their unbreakable bond. Sabina is proud of her conquest, but knows that she will never be able to break the bond Philip has with his soul mate.
- Mambo is a singer and bongo player from Africa. His sensual nature and otherness draws Sabina to him. Initially Mambo resists having an affair with Sabina, but he cannot resist her desire. He tells her that he regrets the affair because she is only attracted to his otherness, not to him as a person. Because Sabina only wants a physical relationship, Mambo distrusts her. She pretends that she only loves him, all the while using a mental facade to protect herself from his accusations. Ultimately, Sabina decides to stop seeing him because she fears that Alan will see her when she and Mambo are out together in the city.
- John is a former pilot from the Air Force. He is unable to trust anyone completely due to what he saw during wartime. He hates being grounded and feels guilty about having an affair with a married woman. Sabina wants to free him of his guilt, because it has infected her. After their affair, John avoids Sabina, later telling her that he had a bout of malaria after drinking too much, and that his father is taking care of him now.
- Donald is a man who adopts the mannerisms of other people to disguise his vulnerability. Sabina sees his behavior as extended adolescence, where his play-acting is done for his amusement. With his performance art, he mocks various women he has met. The source of Donald’s antipathy towards women is his mother, who ignored him when he was younger and mocked his sensitivity. Being older than Donald, Sabina tries to play the mother-figure in the relationship. Their relationship ultimately fails because Donald cannot be completely vulnerable with anyone.
Each relationship brings out different feelings and emotions in Sabina, but she is no closer to understanding herself when they are over. Instead she feels like the subject of Duchamp’s painting, Nude Descending a Staircase:
Eight or ten outlines of the same woman, like many multiple exposures of a woman’s personality, neatly divided into many layers, walking down the stairs in unison.
In her references to Don Juan, Sabina seems to acknowledge that the guilt she feels is societal. In western society, a man’s conquest of many women is romanticized, while a woman’s conquest of many men is shameful. Only men are permitted to be polyamorous. Only men are comfortable with enjoying sex as a physical act, within none of the emotional trappings. Unfortunately, these insights do not alleviate Sabina of her guilt. She is able to adopt a man’s desire for sex and affairs, but the lies she tells to protect her husband prevent her from fully enjoying her experiences.
A Spy in the House of Love introduces the character of the lie detector in the beginning. Based on his actions, he seems more like a detective. Initially, he follows Sabina and writes observations in a notebook. He is named-dropped a bit afterwards, but is forgotten until the end of the story. Sabina feels she needs to confess her guilt to someone, because as she puts it, “Guilt is the one burden human beings cannot bear alone.” Ironically enough, Djuna, her friend, acts as her confessor, telling her that she is only guilty of divided loves. The lie detector gives her a sobering taste of reality, telling her that her actions were only the first stages of love. As he succinctly puts it, love requires more than just sex and intimacy; it also means chosing to be with someone when they are at their weakest and most vulnerable.
Nin’s writing style is extremely intricate and layered. Instead of using just one reference, she includes several, creating a dense, poetic style that creates a dizzying effect. Here she describes Sabina’s practice of taking moon baths as a young woman:
By this ritual it seemed to her that her skin acquired a different glow, a night glow, and artificial luminousness which showed its fullest effulgence only at night, in artificial light.
Drawing on her background as a writer for a private collector of erotica, Nin utilizes her flair for writing extremely sensual passages throughout the story. Here Sabina relates her feelings after an encounter with Philip:
And then it happened like a miracle, this pulsation of pleasure unequaled by the most exalted musicians, the summits of perfection in art or science or wars, unequaled by the most regal beauties of nature, this pleasure which transformed the body into a high tower of fireworks gradually exploding into fountains of delight through the senses.
Nin’s complex writing style can be difficult to understand at times. I confess that I needed to reread several passages to make sure I understood the meaning being conveyed. Nin’s work is similar to prose poetry, with its lyrical richness, descriptive qualities, dense passages and intimate revelations. Nin’s work doesn’t fit neatly into the category of fiction. A Spy in the House of Love doesn’t really have a plot, and the action wraps up with circular references to the beginning. The story is based on Sabina’s desire for self-awareness and discovery, the outcome of which she may or many not accept.
A Spy in the House of Love is the fourth novel of Nin’s I’ve read. In the category of modern English literature, she has a distinct voice that everyone should experience. You can enjoy the novel even if you haven’t read the three preceding entries in the series. At only 140 pages (including drawings), A Spy in the House of Love doesn’t require a significant time commitment to experience. If you are new to her work, I definitely recommend A Spy in the House of Love. If you are already a fan, then I’m preaching to the converted.