Re-imagining Henry Miller
In Bangkok and New York, Barney Rosset told me many stories about Henry Miller. He’d published Miller and knew the author personally. My views about Henry Miller have been shaped by Barney’s recollections over the years. Richard Seavers also had a long history with Barney. A friend gave me a copy of a memoir written by Henry Miller’s Paris friend and contemporary, a photographer named Brassaï.
Henry Miller The Paris Years was published in 1995 by Arcade Publishing, a press run by Richard Seaver. I’d met Richard Seaver in New York at Barney’s loft in the East Village and again at Barney’s table at the National Book Foundation award ceremony in 2008 when Barney was given a lifetime achievement.
With those connections, I was the right audience for Henry Miller: the Paris Years, having know a couple of the people who were close to Miller for years. You can be close to someone without knowing the interior layers that go deep, where stuff is hidden, forgotten, fractured into a prism like mystery. Even when you know them well, years later when you seek to recall what was said and done, the memory can play illusive games.
I am weary of memoirs written by the friends of famous people. It is natural that they will put themselves in the center of the famous friend’s life. That is a danger. I wondered if Brassaï fell into that trap.
Brassaï was one of Henry Miller’s friends. The one result of fame is that an author’s friends have their memories and correspondence ready for a memoir about the author, his life, habits, attitudes, weaknesses, ticks, and philosophy.
The book titled Henry Miller The Paris Years ends with, “Henry left France without tears, without regret, and without looking back, as if the ten years he’d lived there had simply vanished.” I wish that Barney were still around to ask if that was his take on Miller’s years in France. His time in France had made Henry Miller’s reputation; it has established him as a writer, a genius, and a literary tiger. I have been around expats a large portion of my life—it is very rare to find someone who has lived in a culture as Henry Miller did in France would discard the place like an old sweater.
Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and his other major works, were written out of experience that was processed through a hyperactive imagination. His reality was the result of this creative process. The boundaries of fiction, make-believe, became the raw ingredients of life in Paris and cooking up an exotic confection. His books were not just exotic, they were—according to the Americans—obscene. The Tropic of Capricorn was banned. But for the efforts of Barney Rosset who spent a personal fortune on court battles (only stopping at the Supreme Court of the United States) started in the 1960s. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn had established himself as a writer that upset officials who decided what could be read in the United States.
Understanding Henry Miller’s Paris experience sheds light on his views on relationships, sexuality, identity, memory and imagination. Pornography is largely the legal conclusion from the conservative elites that the combination of those elements must stay within strict boundaries of propriety.
Henry Miller, according to Brassaï, a person was lucky or unlucky on whom they met. For a writer, who needed the constant input of new experiences, Paris brought him much luck in companions. If experience was fuel, the high-octane stuff came from two women. Anaïs Nin, born in Paris, American by nationality, a Spanish father, and Franco-Danish mother—the original globalized woman before anyone used the term globalization. She kept a diary that by the time Miller met her ran to 48 notebooks—but she dismissed them as ‘bloody ejaculations.” It was a relationship of conflicting attitudes toward literature, a writer’s role, and the nature of reality. Anaïs Nin believed that a writer should stay bound into the moment of truth, not to filter it through imagination, which changed the reality to something no longer true. Henry Miller was at the opposite pole—where reality until processed and transformed by imagination would never become ‘real’ and fiction and myth were the techniques of this transformation.
Anaïs Nin was Miller’s intellectual muse. Brassaï writes that during the two-year period that the Tropic of Cancer was put on ice by a publisher in Paris anxious about possible legal problems, Anaïs Nin guided Miller through multiple rewrites. It wouldn’t have been the book that made his reputation without her tireless, patient pushing him to make changes.
Another woman, June, was Miller’s sensual muse. She walked on the wild side. A woman filled with a huge amount of energy, men were attracted to her, and she exchanged sexual favors for money. As June’s husband, Henry Miller didn’t ask where the source of her money was coming from. It was no surprise to learn that Henry Miller admired the pimps who gathered at Chez Paul near the offices of the Chicago Herald Tribune, 5 Rue Lamartine, in the heart of Paris’ red light district. He admired their power of women, their lack of shame, their sales banter and their disdain for ordinary work. They had a life style that Henry Miller idealized as one route to take in the rebellion against culture and those in authority.
June had, in Brassaï’s view, a superabundance of life; she was one of those people with ten times the intensity and energy of ordinary mortals. If one is writing out of experience, hooking one’s star to such a woman as June propelled Henry Miller into dramas that most writers would never dream possible. Her betrayals and lies created a stormy relationship. At the same time, passive women bored him. Such a woman was an open book. Miller didn’t want that kind of woman.
Brassaï writes that Miller married June without knowing the basic like place of birth, name or family background He wanted mystery, someone who was unpredictable, unreachable, whose life and background remained vague and unknown. June was not just a siren, she was a cypher—one that Miller tried with his imagination to break the code. He failed in that goal, but his failure to decode June nonetheless set him on a journey that inspired him to write two brilliant books: Tropic of Cancer and Tropics of Capricorn. June felt committed to Miller; though he was a genius, and for her, he was the one true love of her life. For Miller, June was part of his expression of open rebellion against his Brooklyn upbringing. They were both displaced spirits seeking to escape old lives and create new ones.
One detail of Miller’s writing habit concerned his daily routine of walking the streets of Paris. He was a great observer. He could only think on his feet. And that meant walking around examining buildings, people, activities until some thought—the Voice—would come into his head and he’d rush back to his room and sit in front of his typewriter as the cascading images, ideas, and expressions tumbled out of his mind and onto paper. He was less interested in the truth—thus his arguments with Anaïs Nin—then in stories he drew from observations. For Brassaï Miller’s casual relationship with the truth was ‘bewildering’. In Tropic of Capricorn, June emerged as a character filtered through imagination to the point she was no longer recognizable from the flesh and blood woman he had married.
In the end the well of Henry Miller’s experience drifted away. He left Paris without a backward glance. Anaïs Nin drifted away. He slipped away from June. Having lost the city and two women who had inspired him, brought him the Voice that defined him, there is a lesson to be learnt for an author. If your work is dredging experience arises from the lucky strike of a gold mine of life, like all resources, sooner or later the gold runs out. The mine is an empty shell, a hole in the ground, and a hole in the heart. Only a few writers are lucky enough to find the perfect match of time, place, and companions that put him in touch with that Voice—the one that moves and touches not just the author but readers for generations.
In a book titled Chairs, I wrote about Barney Rosset’s Henry Miller connection in a story called Star of Love. I had asked Barney if Henry Miller had discovered Bangkok would it have changed his life. Barney replied, “Totally. Absolutely. How could it have not influenced him?” In the end, Barney said that Henry Miller holed up on top of a mountain in the Big Sur. He had a security guard at the bottom where there was a dirt road. The guard’s job was to stop anyone going up to bother Henry.
This was the author who roamed the streets of Paris searching for the Voice. The oyster had closed its shell. No more pearls would emerge. Brassaï set out how he saw Henry Miller’s reality. Too bad there’s no chance to ask Anaïs Nin if Henry Miller The Paris Years was filtered through the imagination factory—part illusion, part hallucination. Or does the author give the reader the unfiltered, unmediated truth. But the person I’d really like to ask is June. What would she have thought of this version of the truth? All these people are dead. Whatever the truth of their reality will continue to slip into the recycle bin of their reimagined lives once created for succeeding generations. A literary life that has the capacity for self-generating truths by those who knew the author is rare. We are reminded that truth rung through the active imagination of writers like Brassaï is part of what keeps Henry Miller alive in the minds of readers today. Oblivion is the alternative.
After finishing Brassia’s memoir, and thinking about the big picture, the reader could say that Henry Miller was a lucky man.Luck has a great role in a writer’s life. As I put the book aside, I felt I had been lucky to have discovered Bangkok when it was the Paris of the 1930s, a place where Barney Rosset, Henry Miller’s friend, discovered my existence, making me a small piece in the chain of people who have written about Henry Miller.
Miller had Paris, while I had Bangkok pretty much to myself for the early years, and it was a place where I walked, explored, learnt a language and culture and the place where I found my Voice. Unlike Miller, I couldn’t imagine leaving Bangkok for the isolation of a mountain top or, at the very least, not without stopping and looking back one last time to say a final goodbye to all of that.