Tag Archives: 1977

‘Sextet: Six Essays’ by Henry Miller (1977 Club)

As the title suggests this book contains six essays, which were individually published by Capra Press in the 1970s when Henry Miller was then into his eighties. The collection includes On Turning Eighty, originally published in 1972; Reflections on the Death of Mishima, originally published in 1972; First Impressions of Greece, originally published in 1973; The Waters Reglitterized, Miller on the subject of water-colours, originally published in 1973 but looks like it was written in 1939; Reflections on the Maurizius Case, Miller’s thoughts on Jakob Wassermann’s book, originally published in 1974; Mother, China, and the World Beyond, originally published in 1977. The collection was originally published in 1977 by Capra Press. My version was published by John Calder in 1980.

Sextet, it has to be said, is a book for the Miller afficionado only. They are essays on a variety of subjects and each one was written with a friend in mind. I originally bought and read this book back in the early nineties (I think) and although the essays are of variable quality there are two parts of the book that I really liked: the first is the cover of the octogenarian Miller enjoying a pint and the other is the opening paragraph of the opening essay, On Turning Eighty:

If at eighty you’re not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good Lord for his savin’ and keepin’ power. If you are young in years but already weary in spirit, already on your way to becoming an automaton, it may do you good to say to your boss – under your breath, of course – “Fuck you, Jack! you don’t own me.” If you can whistle up your ass, if you can be turned on by a fetching bottom or a lovely pair of teats, if you can fall in love again and again, if you can forgive your parents for the crime of bringing you into the world, if you are content to get nowhere, just take each day as it comes, if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from going sour, surly, bitter and cynical, man you’ve got it half licked.

Unfortunately the rest of the essay, and the rest of the book also, is not up to the standard of this opening paragraph. Miller goes on to give a bit of a rambling old man’s monologue on what is good and what is bad with modern life and growing old. Miller covers love, friendship, idealogies, reading and euthanasia amongst other subjects.

I thought that the essay titled First Impressions of Greece was going to be quite interesting but it seemed to be little more than random notes from his visit to Greece and Corfu in the late 1930s. In The Waters Reglitterized Miller writes about his enthusiasm for painting water-colours. I thought this would be a bit dull but Miller’s enthusiasm comes through and makes it quite an interesting read. In the essay, Reflections on the Death of Mishima, Miller tries to explain his loss, confusion and exasperation over Mishima’s suicide in 1970. It’s interesting to read because Miller, usually sure of his own beliefs and opinions, is here confused with Mishima as man and artist. One of the main problems that Miller had with Mishima was his total lack of humour.

His utter seriousness, it seems to me, stood in Mishima’s way.

Mishima’s cult of the perfect body was an example, for Miller, of Mishima’s extreme seriousness. He struggles to come to terms with Mishima’s life as well as his death.

The other literary essay (Reflections on the Maurizius Case) is Miller’s thoughts on one of his favourite books, The Maurizius Case by Jakob Wassermann, which was originally published in 1929. The book, which is the first part of a trilogy, concerns a miscarriage of justice. Miller initially makes the book sound quite interesting:

The book offers no balm, no solutions. All the characters involved in the affair suffer tragic fates with the exception of Anna Jahn who had committed the murder for which Maurizius was unjustly punished.

However, by the end of the essay I wasn’t sure if I would be prepared to read a trilogy with such hyper-Dostoyevskian characters. In trying to hype the book I felt that Miller made it feel a little annoying and may have unwittingly done it a disservice.

In the last essay, Mother, China, and the World Beyond, Miller, rather unusually for him, imagines meeting his mother in the afterworld following his own death. He had never really liked his austere mother in real life, but in this essay she seems to have softened enough for him to like and respect her. Writing this essay must have been a cathartic experience for Miller, especially when we read the last lines:

   When I looked up I perceived my mother some distance away. She appeared to be on her way out. Looking more carefully, I observed that she was waving to me, waving good-bye.
   With that I stood up, my eyes wet with tears, and giving a mighty shout, I cried: “Mother, I love you. I love you! Do you hear me?”
   I imagined that I saw a faint smile illumine her face and then suddenly she was no more.
   I was alone, but more alone than I had ever felt on Earth. And I would be alone, perhaps, for centuries or, who knows, perhaps through all eternity.

OK, this is one for the Miller purists only and not the general reader. This was read as part of Karen’s and Simon’s ‘1977 Club’.

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‘Quartet in Autumn’ by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977 Barbara Pym’s novel, Quartet in Autumn focuses on the lives of four work colleagues, Norman, Edwin, Letty and Marcia, who are all single and approaching retirement. They work in the same office; we never find out what it is they do but it seems as if their jobs are pretty superfluous as none of them will be replaced when they retire. They seem to spend most of their time making cups of tea and eating jelly babies. All four characters live alone, have no immediate family and very few friends. Norman lives in a bedsit, likes fried food and complaining; Edwin is a widower who is interested in attending church functions and likes making holiday plans, though he rarely goes on holiday; Letty also lives in a bedsit and plans to move to the country on retirement to be close to her friend, Marjorie, whom she has known since childhood; Marcia lives in her deceased parents’ house. Since her parents and her cat died she has largely withdrawn from the world around her. She collects milk bottles and tinned food and likes cataloguing things. She’s not a big eater.

Although there’s a lot of humour in this novel I was glad that Pym is not too hard on these characters. Each character is aware, to different degrees, that they are out of sync with the world around them and that their impending retirement is only going to exacerbate this. At first it’s difficult distinguishing between the two male characters and equally between the two female characters but their differences soon emerge. For example it soon becomes clear that Marcia is a bit odder and more reclusive than Letty. Marcia has recently had a mastectomy and has formed a kind of crush on the surgeon who performed on her; she looks forward to her hospital appointments and occasionally takes the bus to the surgeon’s house in the hope of seeing him. Marcia had vaguely thought of Norman in a romantic role but now Mr Strong, the surgeon, has replaced Norman in her thoughts. She buys mostly tinned food but barely works up the enthusiasm to use their contents, usually making do with a biscuit and a cup of tea. As the novel continues she gets thinner and thinner, her appearance becomes stranger and her garden is wilder. She has aroused the interest of the social services, in particular Janice Brabner who sees it as her duty to help Marcia whether she wants it or not.

Letty lives in a bedsit; she was the daughter of middle-class parents and had moved to London in the late twenties where she met her friend Marjorie. Letty often meditates on the strangeness of life and wonders how it could have been different.

Like most girls of her generation and upbringing she had expected to marry, and when the war came there were great opportunities for girls to get a man or form an attachment, even with a married man, but Marjorie had been the one to marry, leaving Letty in her usual position of trailing behind her friend. By the end of the war Letty was over thirty and Marjorie had given up hope for her. Letty had never had much hope anyway.

Although they chat throughout the day the four colleagues rarely enquire about each others’ lives outside the office. Even their lunchtimes are spent in different ways. Norman, for example, likes to go to the British Museum or, when the weather is nice, a visit to the park. The problem is that nearly everything about modern life is a source of irritation to Norman such as long hair, semi-nudity in public, litter, abandoned cars or just cars in general, etc. It’s slightly worrying that I can identify with Norman. Edwin, however, is more satisfied, though a bit duller, filling his days attending church services and functions and reading the Church Times.

Letty’s plans for retirement become derailed when it turns out that her friend Marjorie is going to remarry. About the same time her landlady sells her house to an exuberant Nigerian Christian family who aren’t really to Letty’s liking. With her prospects looking grim her thoughts often turn to her approaching retirement, equating it with death.

Letty allowed her to ramble on while she looked around the wood, remembering its autumn carpet of beech leaves and wondering if it could be the kind of place to lie down in and prepare for death when life became too much to be endured.

But there is a positive side to the novel and that is that, despite their awkwardness, the characters do try to reach out to each other. For example, Norman helps to find some lodging for Letty, after their retirement they organise a lunch and all three characters try to reach out to Marcia even if Marcia is largely beyond help. Letty adjusts to her new lodgings and landlady and starts trying some new things, such as helping out with the church as well as watching television and sharing meals with her landlady. She comes to realise that she has slightly more control over her life than she had thought before.

So, the humour has a dark edge, very often commenting on death. As Marcia clears away some plastic bags she ponders:

So many things seemed to come in plastic bags now that it was difficult to keep track of them. The main thing was not to throw it away carelessly, better still to put it away in a safe place, because there was a note printed on it which read ‘To avoid danger of suffocation keep this wrapper away from babies and children’. They could have said from middle-aged and elderly persons too, who might well have an irresistible urge to suffocate themselves.

Or this quote as Letty sits down to chat with her new landlady following a funeral:

‘I think just a cup of tea…’ There was something to be said for tea and a comfortable chat about crematoria.

If this sort of thing upsets you then you may wish to give this book a miss, but you’d be missing out on a funny, compassionate story of four awkward but endearing characters. The end is very uplifting.

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