Archives For henry miller

The Genius of Henry Miller

Photo by David S. Wills

Big Sur


Henry Miller’s books are like a bowl of French onion soup; overwhelmingly rich, intimidatingly dense, and always served with class. Each sentence then becomes a thick, cheesy bite, and shortly after you infiltrate the crust to begin pecking away at the center, you’ve had enough. At least for now.

Luckily, unlike soup, Miller’s writing doesn’t lose steam. You may have to set the work down for an hour, a day, a week or a month, but it rests in your mental den like a fine memory.

His narrative diction is absolutely remarkable, splattering gorgeous images across the page with unrelenting force. He’s also delightfully filthy, which may explain why his most acclaimed work, Tropic of Cancer, was banned in the United States for 27 years after its initial publication in 1934.

Let’s take a look at some of Miller’s vibrant passages and perhaps you’ll find him as brilliant as I do.



From Tropic of Cancer:


             As I say, the day began gloriously. It was only this morning that I became conscious again of this physical Paris of which I have been unaware for weeks. Perhaps it is because the book has begun to grow inside me. I am carrying it around with me everywhere. I walk through the streets big with child and the cops escort me across the street. Women get up to offer me their seats. Nobody pushes me rudely any more. I am pregnant. I waddle awkwardly, my big stomach pressed against the weight of the world.


             The notion that you, as a writer, are one against the world has always appealed to me. It’s a sense of motivation that grows from ego, but it can sustain you for a lifetime and push you to create things you never thought yourself capable of. And the image of his book being his child, something he is literally pregnant with, is fantastic. It shows both how much he cares about his work and how much he’s willing to exploit his authorship. “I am a writer, a great writer, and you must respect me, you must bow down to me.” Again– it’s heavy self-absorption, but most of it’s merely inside the brain.



An example of his extreme, exaggerated foulness, also from TOC:


At night when I look at Boris’ goatee lying on the pillow I get hysterical. O Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out. Your Sylvester! Yes, he knows how to build a fire, but I know how to inflame a cunt. I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent. Your Sylvester is a little jealous now? He feels something, does he? He feels the remnants of my big prick. I have set the shores a little wider, I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your navel. I am fucking you, Tania, so that you’ll stay fucked. And if you are afraid of being fucked publicly I will fuck you privately. I will tear off a few hairs from your cunt and paste them on Boris’ chin. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces…


             This is comically graphic, but written with such purpose and anger I can’t help but love it. He continues to say her name, which to me, points to his infatuation with her and not simply the act of fucking. And also, in a way, this can be seen as another attack against the page and those who stand in his way. His need to emerge victorious spreads across each and every desire in his head.

If you don’t take his “threats” too seriously here, you’ve got to laugh. The absurdity is outrageous.



Two selections from The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, published in 1959:


He whipped himself into such a frenzy of impatience that when he emerged into the spotlight, accompanied by a few thin squeaks from the violin, he was cavorting like a crazy goat. From the moment his feet touched the sawdust it was sheer improvisation. Not one of these wild, senseless capers have ever thought of before, much less rehearsed. He had given himself a clean slate and on it he was writing Antoine’s name in indelible letters. If only Antoine were there, could witness his own debut as a world figure!


The following day, emotionally exhausted by the ravages of his dream, Auguste decided to remain in his room. It was only towards the evening that he bestirred himself. He had spent the whole day in bed, listlessly toying with the throngs of memory which for some inexplicable reason had descended upon him like a plague of locusts. Finally, weary of being buffeted about in this vast cauldron of reminiscence, he dressed himself and sauntered out to lose himself in the crowd. It was with some difficultly that he managed to recall the name of the town through whose streets he was strolling.


             This book, or long short story (a mere 40 pages), recounts the story of a clown regaining his glory on stage. Although brief, it’s marvelously written and if anything, is more lavish than anything else Miller has done.

Much of the protagonist reminds me of John Fante’s character Arturo Bandini and his incessant, introspective battle. The imagery is always beautiful and the ordinary is magnified, focusing on insecurity and the necessity of approval.

A definite light read, but as the paragraphs show, it’s not one ounce short on imagination and ability. I highly recommend this story.



From the short story collection Nights of Love and Laughter, published in (I believe) 1939:


             The men at the helm, who were spared the horrors of combat, now play their ignominious role in which greed and hatred rival one another for mastery. The men who bore the brunt of the struggle are too sickened and disgusted to show any desire to participate in the rearrangement of the world. All they ask is to be left alone to enjoy the luxury of the petty, workday rhythm which once seemed so dull and barren.


             That passage is from the first story entitled The Alcoholic Veteran with the Washboard Cranium. The title alone is magnificent and the selection is a great account of post-war apathy/disillusionment. Again, there’s the dichotomy of good vs. evil, hero vs. enemy, lucky vs. unfortunate. He consistently writes with confrontational intent, keeping the narrative accelerator floored which allows him to guide you through his words with precise control.


From The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, published in 1945, after Miller returned to America to live in Big Sur (home of the famous Henry Miller Memorial Library):


A heavy mist had descended. I walked cautiously in my bare feet for the old bricks were slippery with moss. As I got to the far corner of the rectangle the light of the moon broke full and clear on the serene face of the goddess there enshrined. I leaned over impulsively and kissed the marble lips. It was a strange sensation. I went to each of them in turn and kissed their cold, chaste lips. Then I strolled back to the trellised garden house which lies on the banks of the Bayou Teche. The scene before my eyes was that of a Chinese painting. Sky and water had become one: the whole world was floating in a nebular mist. It was indescribably beautiful and bewitching. I could scarcely believe that I was in America. In a moment or so a river boat loomed up, her colored lights scattering the dense mist into a frayed kaleidoscope of ribboned light. The deep fog horn sounded and was echoed by the hooting of invisible owls.


             It’s funny to think that the same man who spoke of shoving animals up a woman’s ass finds the subtle beauty in marble statues and river landscapes.

This passage displays the delicacy with which Miller can construct his sentences, sharing a simple moment alone among surprisingly beautiful surroundings. Normally a fan of lengthy, expansive run-ons, he tones it down here in structure and vocabulary, allowing the description to speak for itself. Perhaps the scenery left his more speechless than usual.



             From Black Spring, published in 1936:


And then comes a time when suddenly all seems to be reversed. We live in the mind, in ideas, in fragments. We no longer drink in the wild outer music of the streets– we remember only. Like a monomaniac we relive the drama of youth. Like a spider that picks up the thread over and over and spews it out according to some obsessive, logarithmic pattern. If we are stirred by a fat bust it is the fat bust of the whore who bent over on a rainy night and showed us for the first time the wonder of the great milky globes; if we are stirred by the reflections on a wet pavement it is because at the age of seven we were suddenly speared by a premonition of the life to come as we stared unthinkingly into that bright, liquid mirror of the street. If the sight of a swinging door intrigues us it is the memory of a summer’s evening when all the doors were swinging softly and where the light bent down to caress the shadow there were golden calves and lace and glittering parasols and through the chinks in the swinging door, like fine sand sifting a bed of rubies, there drifted the music and the incense of gorgeous unknown bodies.

This in quintessential Henry Miller; a sprawling, vast narrative rant which speaks to specific, yet relatable moments of nostalgia, whether they bring pain or joy, happiness or loneliness, spliced between incredibly luscious and innovative images which often personify that which we would never attach human emotion.

We grew up in school being taught to never being a sentence with “and” but that’s exactly what he does here, throwing us right in the middle of his internal monologue. Note that in the second sentence he speaks of living in ideas and fragments, while chopping up the sentence with two commas. That, to me, is an unbelievably talented writer matching structure with content, which adds a visual element necessary to truly grab your reader.

The comparison to a spider spinning an endlessly pointless (“obsessive, logarithmic”) web is perfect, which he follows up with his trademark sexually-driven picture of a chesty woman bending over, showing us her “great milky globes.” But not only that, he romanticizes the erotic image by adding the element of rain. A nice touch, you might say, but how about instantly tying it back in with the childish recollection of wet pavement described perfectly as a “bright, liquid mirror of the street.” I can’t say enough about the mind of this man.

And to be fair, this thought continues for another two pages. Miller is a man unafraid of losing your attention because he’s had it all along. That or he’s lost you immediately, but then why give a shit about you?

In Tangier

by Steven O’Sullivan

“A true document of human desperation.”

-Playwright Tennessee Williams on Mohamed Choukri’s autobiographical novel about life in Tangier, 1973.

The release of Choukri’s For Bread Alone came in the midst of Tangier’s development as a hideout for expatriate writers and artists. American writer Paul Bowles was one of the pioneering residents of Tangier and responsible for the English translation and release of For Bread Alone, a novel that would stand for years as a controversial testament to the darker realities of Tangier. These harsh realities coupled with the glistening promise of creation drew in expatriates seeking new approaches to life for many, many years.

Bowles had worked predominantly as a composer in New York, but when Doubleday approached him with a contract for a novel he felt it was time to make a change into full-time writing. Bowles noted, “I came here because I wanted to write a novel. I was sick of writing music for other people.” He had visited Tangier intermittently for 16 years prior and he moved there permanently in 1947. His wife, Jane, followed a year later. They would remain in Tangier together until his death in 1999.

Upon Bowles’ initial arrival, the city seemed detached from the rest of the world; isolated by endless sand dunes from the south and the waters of the Mediterranean at the north. Bowles felt a mythical, enchanting quality vibrating thru the city. From Bowles’ accounts the city feels similar to Henry Miller’s Paris of the 20s. Dirty bars, broken streets, and prostitutes in everyone’s bedroom were hallmarks of the dark side of Tangier. Despite the upscale, colonial European neighborhoods, violence stood strong in the shadows of the forgotten slums.

However, Bowles moved south into the sahara to write much of his novel. He shacked up in the decrepit desert hotels and wrote like a madman. These times are vividly reminiscent of Antonioni’s landmark film The Passenger. One can easily imagine Bowles as Jack Nicholson’s desperate journalist losing his mind in the midst of alcoholism and the stark white walls of the hotel. Regardless Bowles did manage to accomplish his goal. The novel was written.

Doubleday rejected the completed manuscript, much to their later regret. Within months, thru an independent publisher, The Sheltering Sky had gone thru three printings and sat at the top of the New York Times book list.

With the success of The Sheltering Sky, Bowles established himself as a serious writer. And throughout the 50s and 60s countless others would be driven to Tangier seeking that same maddening inspiration that had grabbed Bowles with such a vengeance.

French thief-turned-writer Jean Genet as well renowned playwright Tennessee Williams would both settle in Tangier, turning out many promising works.

Bowles’ fiction also inspired Beat madman William S. Burroughs to take up residence in the city in 1953. Burroughs’ infamous lifestyle and actions had led to an outlaw status in his favorite cities, thus he needed a new refuge in which to create. One Burroughs biography states that he rented a room above a homosexual brothel. In addition to this, drugs flowed easily and cheaply in the streets of Tangier. These surroundings left Burroughs quite at ease and he began the initial work on what would eventually become his magnum opus, Naked Lunch.

Burroughs’ first stay in Tangier was brief as he attempted a return to America after only a few months. However, his standing in the eyes of friends, family, and publishers remained tarnished. Even Allen Ginsberg, once his closest friend, refused him on all accounts. At this time Kerouac was neck deep in a Buddhist devotion, working on a biography of Siddhartha Gautama.

So, back to Tangiers it was.

Despite a modest allowance from his parents back home, royalties from Junkie were still not coming thru, so he began turning out travel articles on Tangiers to supplement his income.

With the comfort of a cornucopia of exotic drugs (not readily available back in the States) and sexual counterparts, Burroughs dug in deep and worked tirelessly on the Naked Lunch manuscript.

For the following four years Burroughs remained in Tangier continuing to write until his departure for Paris in the fall of ’59. And in the meantime his inspirations grew.

Eventually, his reputation at home began to heal, and his friends sought him out. Kerouac and Ginsberg arrived in Tangier in 1957. Up to that point, Burroughs was the only one with any kind of global travelogue and perhaps his confidants were looking to catch up with him and experience firsthand some of the visions that Burroughs had caught wind of and sent home in letters and stories. Additionally, they were able to offer a guiding editorial approach in refining the wild-eyed manuscript which at the time was merely a scattered stream-of-conscious narrative running amok in Burroughs’ mind.

One must remember that Burroughs’ first two publications, Junkie and Queer, while controversial in content were conventional in terms of style. Sure they were graphic tales of drug-induced homosexual depravity, but they were written with a literary suit and tie in hand. Naked Lunch was his first attempt at a non-linear narrative and such a radical approach to writing was certainly going to take some trial and error shots at refining. Just as Kerouac and Ginsberg had found their own unique voices with On the Road and Howl respectively, Burroughs was about to come into his own.

The style Burroughs developed at this time, and later at the Beat Hotel in Paris, can be seen as a natural evolution resulting from an adaptation to his surroundings. Just as George Orwell did with Down and Out in Paris and London, Burroughs took in the desperation of his circumstances, financial strain and social disdain, and fueled a machine with them. A machine powerful enough to turn out a work that would radically redefine literary concepts across the globe. This style would become his weapon, and with everyone subsequent work following Naked Lunch he would wield that weapon with a devastating efficiency.

One can imagine Kerouac and Corso dashing from one bodega to the next, desperately eluding dawn. Drink, drink, drink it down, down, down… chasing blindly after women, men, cats, dogs, and mice… thoroughbred Americans ravaging Tangierian nighttime with shouts and screams, kicking the air, and pumping fists at darkness… then, finally, facing the inevitable sun-up of the shattered glass of last night’s Grecian vase… stumbling back to the brothel and Burroughs delivering a scolding at arrival… having been up all night typing away at the masterpiece fueled by a Eukodol kick (crazy German-made opioid).

Of course, true to his restless nature, Burroughs left Tangier with Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1959 and the trio met up with Gregory Corso, and later Peter Orlovsky, taking up residence at the Beat Hotel in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

Yet Bowles, the grandfather of Tangier madness, remained. Who knows if Burroughs and Bowles ever even crossed paths. Regardless, Bowles’ influence on Burroughs is indisputable. Hell, beyond mere literary influence, Bowles inadvertently led Burroughs to Tangier in the first place which in hand provided the backdrop and experience that pushed Burroughs into new territories as an artist.

And that’s where we’re going to leave Burroughs. On his way to Paris. Since this is a travel issue, I want to focus on one man and the mythology he created at one destination. So we return to Bowles.

When Bowles initially arrived in Tangier he regarded it as an attractively unassuming city. Yet no more than ten years later in 1958 Bowles had witnessed a complete transformation. No more was the peaceful white city Matisse had taken inspiration from the in the early 1900s. The city had experienced a deranged westernization. The traditional cloaked garb of the Moslems had been replaced with jeans and t-shirts. Yet this change Bowles witnessed was not, in his eyes, for the worse, “The foreigner who lives here on a long-term basis will still find most of the elements that endeared the place to him in the old days.”

The above quote came from a travel article on Tangier Bowles penned in 1958. A bit later on in the article Bowles gives an account of the prevailing cultural mash-up found in Tangier. His words are devastating:

You will run into a Polish refugee who arrived ten years ago without a penny… and today runs a prosperous delicatessen and liquor store; an American construction worker who came to Morocco to help build the United States air bases, and has since become a freelance journalist; a Moslem who spent years in a Spanish jail for voicing his opinion on Generalissimo Franco, and now is a clerk in the municipal administration offices; an English masseuse who was passing thru Tangier twenty years ago on a holiday trip and somehow has never left; a Belgian architect who also runs the principal bookshop; a Swiss businessman who likes the climate and has started a restaurant and bar for his own amusement; an Indian prince who does accounting for an American firm; the Portuguese seamstress who makes your shirts. . .”

It is this diversity that gives Tangier its beauty and appeal. It’s as if time slows down in the secluded city and each resident finds an expression and appreciation for life they’d not yet possessed or had perhaps lost along the way. Maybe it comes in quietly from the coast with the tides or maybe it blows in stiffly with the winds from the southern desert.

Of course, even in Bowles’ time the bastardization of Tangier had begun. The city was beginning to modernize with the destruction of the classic and old to be replaced with brand-new European eyesores. Yet Bowles maintained that even in lieu of such drastic changes that Tangier never lost its aesthetic appeal.

To hear Bowles tell it there was a deep, dark charm to the city in the years prior to his writing the article. In the 40s and early 50s (around Burroughs’ time of arrival), the Zopo Chico served as the hotspot of most social life. The Zopo Chico was essentially the town square, housing many of its nightclubs and sidewalk cafes. Bowles recalls a time when the cafes were open all night and all day and he would go in at 5 a.m. to watch the nightclub cats stumble dutifully home with the night’s luster still in their eyes.

Thru Bowles’ eyes the beauty and charm of Tangier would be forever preserved by its topography. The buildings and the streets might change, but there was nothing anyone could do to change the rolling hills surrounding the city, the high plain on which it stands, or the mountains off in the distance that frame the whole picture. Bowles brilliantly noted that the beauty of the sky and landscape could never be destroyed in that,

“You don’t look at the city, you look out of it.”

Keep it burning.