Photo by David S. Wills
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 the late spring of 1939, Weldon Kees, his wife Ann, and his parents, John…