A LITERATE PASSION The Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Miller, 1932-1953 Edited and with an introduction By Gunther Stuhlmann Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 422 pp. $19.95

The woman will sit eternally in the tall black armchair. I will be the one woman you will never have . . . excessive living weighs down the imagination; we will only write and talk to swell the sails.

IT IS MARCH 2, 1932 when Anais Nin writes this note to Henry Miller. I picture her, pen in hand (because she has lent Henry her typewriter) in one of those Moorish/Bohemian rooms painted apricot in her villa at Louveciennes. Perhaps the sheet of paper has been slipped between the pages of a leather-bound book. Numerous art nouveau glass objects surround the writer, refracting, reflecting, like so many Nabokovian mirrors, the room, the woman curled up on cushions on the Persian rug, her quiet husband home from his day at the bank, the fire of branches from the garden, the silk curtains drawn against the night. "What are you doing, Pussywillow?" asks Hugh Guiler, the man to whom Nin will remain married her entire life. "Writing in my journal," she answers serenely.

Tomorrow she will post the letter. Two days later, she and Henry Miller, a penniless expatriate writer, no stranger to bedbugs and hunger, will declare their love for each other in a Montparnasse cafe. Two more days, and they will consummate it on a bed in a wretched hotel where Miller is embarrassed to bring her. "The blinding splendor of your room," she writes him later from one of those apricot rooms in Louveciennes. "How can a moment be at once so unreal and so warm -- so warm." Teasingly, she reminds him of his phrase, "Only whores appreciate me," and tells him, "you can only have blood-consciousness with whores, there is too much mind between us, too much literature, too much illusion -- but then you denied there had been only mind."

Whatever the vicissitudes, the permutations of their relationship, they will write each other for the next two decades. Destroy this letter, they sometimes advise. But they hardly ever do. Most of the dangerous, incriminating correspondence will be carefully preserved. Even in obscurity, these are writers with an eye on posterity, each convinced of the greatness of the other.

Anais Nin met Henry Miller soon after she had found the courage to take her own writing seriously, to believe that the journal she had been keeping ever since her childhood could be something important. She was 28, recovering from an abortive extramarital affair with the writer John Erskine, who had been her husband's mentor at college. The affair had been half-confessed to Hugh -- everything but the precise physical fact of it. And Nin had made a surprising discovery: the confession had only strengthened and intensified their love for each other. "What I give to others does not impoverish Hugh -- up to a certain point," she wrote in her journal in January 1929. Apparently Hugh must have realized this as well, for even though he had suffered, the couple arrived at a delicate, not entirely honest pact: Each gave the other permission to stray, at least spiritually, while promising to maintain secrecy and remain sexually faithful. Even as Nin promised, she knew she would break this rule. "I love Hugh -- I also love life," she had written that same year. By 1931, she no longer shared her journal with her husband.

Life was Henry Miller. Life was also Miller's wife June, a former Broadway taxi dancer, who had supported Miller for years with money dubiously acquired from various men. A voracious, amoral, mythomaniacal figure, June had a compelling energy that Anais found irresistible. The two women had a brief, passionate affair -- unconcealed from Henry -- before June sailed back to America in January 1932. It was their mutual obsession with June, which they dissected endlessly in true writerly fashion, that constituted the first strong bond between Miller and Nin.

"We have lost our minds -- to June," Nin wrote Miller in February 1932. "She invents her life as she goes along -- she sees no difference between fiction and reality. How we love that in her. . ." In another letter she admitted to a "fear of being like June exactly -- I have a feeling against complete chaos. I want to be able to live with June in utter madness, but I also want to be able to understand afterwards, to grasp what I have lived through."

June would remain a central figure in Miller's imagination and in his fiction, but when she returned to Paris in December their marriage effectively ended. By then Anais -- an even more masterful and subtle practitioner of artifice -- had replaced June as the queen of his obsessions.

Can one "review" a love affair?

In a sense, all published letters are objets trouve's; their value or their art are assessments the reader must confer upon them. If art is truth, the letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo, for example, move one profoundly, not only by their expressiveness but by their almost unbearable honesty. One is of course tempted to read the Nin/Miller correspondence as a kind of epistolary novel. But whether one is reading these letters as "a lost fiction" or as documents of biographical interest, this collection -- isolated from the context of the whole lives of the correspondents -- is maddeningly unsatisfying, for all its fascination. Here is chaos, untreated, unshaped by reflection. One will never know the truth about this affair, because the truth -- like the personalities, even the voices, of the two writers -- is constantly in flux. And because love letters, by their very nature, may be the most dishonest form of the written word. Lovers can't help being lobbyists -- cajoling, persuading, holding back vital or disturbing information, presenting images of themselves tailored to fit the perceived illusions of the loved one, and even believing their own fictions. No one was better at this game than Anais Nin. Truth was reserved for the secret pages of her journal, where it would wound no one. Life was the stage upon which fantasy could be played out, where a toad could be loved into a prince.

"Love?" Miller writes her. "You buy it in paper packages from the Japanese, you drop it into a glass of water. Love is something that goes on only in H2O," He tells her he will be brutally frank with her because they are equals. "When I see women with lying eyes I adore them. What right has a woman to look at you with faithful eyes? Woman brings pain. Woman is evil." These peculiar, nonsensical ideas about women did not especially trouble Nin: her own narcissism shielded her -- the notion that she alone had found the "tenderness" in Miller. THROUGHOUT her life, the role Nin would play to perfection with various difficult, challenging men was muse (eventually she would even transform the banker Hugh Guiler into the experimental filmmaker Ian Hugo). These relationships provided the adventure, risk and self-dramatization she craved. As a married muse, however, she was always protected from being sucked too deeply into "life," or from being dominated or possessed by a man like Miller -- a man with an insatiable ego whose neediness, or woundedness, aroused all her maternal instincts. Such a man never would have allowed her the liberties granted by Hugh.

As mortal woman, Nin was often neurotically self-involved and self-preening -- this preciosity mars her work, especially when it masquerades as candor in the pages of her journal. As muse, she was valiant, devoted, unselfish, indefatigable. Even before they became lovers, she took on the support of the unrecognized genius Henry Miller -- sharing with him the freedom to create that Hugh Guiler had given her. The checks she sent Miller were sometimes Hugh's money, sometimes her own hardwon earnings, but they continued to come until the mid -- 1940s, when he was finally able to live on the income from his work. At times, Miller's dream of "life and literature combined, love the dynamo, you with your chameleon's soul giving me a thousand loves" may have strongly tempted her, but she remained far less driven than he by such romantic fantasies. "What I want to remember," she once wrote him, "is that I can make you much happier and give you much more and enrich you in every way far more deeply by staying here and giving you nothing to worry about except your work."

She really ended up with the arrangement that suited her -- the best of Guiler and the best of Miller. If Miller was an atavistic lover, a self-confessed misogynist, a man she often criticized for being cold and uncaring, he responded to Nin as a fellow writer with total generosity and unfeigned admiration, at a time when few men took women's literary efforts seriously. He read her journals without a trace of lover's jealousy, helped her edit and even type them and urged her to get them published. He identified them rightly as her best work, finding in them a power and directness absent from her novels, where the effort to cast veils over reality led her into vagueness and over-elaborate prose. He was the best kind of reader a writer could have -- always on the side of the work, but never afraid to be critical. The same could be said of her response to the manuscripts he showed her.

Around 1942, the affair ended -- worn out by too much secrecy and the jealousy it inspired and Miller's growing resentment of his dependency on Nin. As writers, though, they remained excellent friends.

For years there were rumors, Anais and Henry. . . . She wrote about Henry and simultaneous affairs with other men, about Hugh, about the labyrinthine convolutions of her sexuality, in volumes of her journal that she longed and feared to publish in her lifetime. She circulated them discreetly and collected letters of praise that she pasted into her notebooks. Fifteen thousand pages accumulated in a bank vault in Paris. In her sixties, she hired an expurgator to help her disembowel the book of her life. She burned to be recognized, but wanted no one to be hurt, especially Hugh. For him she made the writer's greatest sacrifice: silence. And perhaps Hugh Guiler's greatest gift to his wife was allowing her to believe that for so many years she had successfully deceived him.

Perhaps. Who knows? The story is still in shards of colored glass. The letters tell those lies that are part of the truth about human love.

Joyce Johnson is the author of the memoir "Minor Characters" and co-winner of this year's first prize in the O. Henry short story awards.