Tag Archives: Henry Miller

‘A Devil in Paradise’ (1956) by Henry Miller

For the 1956 Club I thought I’d carry on the Powys and Miller theme I started earlier this year. I’ve had to cheat a little with my choice of Miller’s works: although A Devil in Paradise was printed separately in 1956, it was subsequently included in Miller’s larger work of 1957, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, where it was re-titled Paradise Lost. ‘Big Sur’ is more readily available than the separate edition and it’s what I had to hand.

A Devil in Paradise is a short work, of just over a hundred pages, and the ‘devil’ in question is Conrad Moricand, born in Paris 1887. Is he a devil? Well, not really, just an annoying house-guest who becomes a leech on Miller and family, though he does divulge some unsavoury aspects of himself. Miller was first introduced to Moricand by Anaïs Nin in Paris in 1936 and his first impressions weren’t favourable. They have very little in common: Moricand was an astrologer, prissy, ascetic, whereas Miller was outspoken, gregarious and enthusiastic. Anaïs Nin had hoped to offload some of the responsibility she had for caring for Moricand onto Miller—why Nin was responsible for him in the first place is not explained. Anyway, Miller did his best to feed him and find him work. As poor as he was, Moricand had to keep up a front of respectability and affluence, much to Miller’s amusement.

What sticks in my crop about this period, when he was so desperately poor and miserable, is the air of elegance and fastidiousness which clung to him. He always seemed more like a stockbroker weathering a bad period than a man utterly without resources. The clothes he wore, all of excellent cut as well as of the best material, would obviously last another ten years, considering the care and attention he gave them. Even had they been patched, he would still have looked the well-dressed gentleman. Unlike myself, it never occurred to him to pawn or sell his clothes in order to eat. He had need of his good clothes.

Miller left Paris for Greece in June 1939 and does not hear about Moricand again until 1947 when he receives a thick, forwarded, letter from him. Moricand is living in Switzerland, and as always, is in a precarious state. Miller gets the idea to invite him over, though he’s not sure how his wife will take to it. She can see it ending badly.

Henry gets his way and he manages to raise the passage money somehow and it’s not long before Moricand has arrived in Big Sur, California. Moricand seems to be impressed at first, calling the place ‘paradise’, but a small incident, where Moricand insists that he can only use Yardley talcum powder, makes Miller realise early on that his wife had been correct—that it was a mistake to invite him to their home.

But of that instant I knew my wife was right, knew that I had made a grave mistake. In that moment I sensed the leech that Anaïs had tried to get rid of. I saw the spoiled child, the man who had never done an honest stroke of work in his life, the destitute individual who was too proud to beg openly but was not above milking a friend dry. I knew it all, felt it all, and already foresaw the end.

If it’s not the talc, then it’s the correct size paper, French cigarettes, proper eau de cologne, and then he needs codeine. Miller ends up portraying Moricand as a malingerer, sponger, drug-addict and finally a paedophile—this last one supposedly by his own admission, from a tale he tells the Millers.

So, this is an amusing and interesting character study/demolition, one we can probably all relate to, i.e. the annoying guest who just won’t leave. But it does make one wonder how much is true. I read a couple of Miller biographies decades ago but can’t remember if they say anything about Moricand. Whilst writing this review I came across a book by Karl Orend, called The Brotherhood of Fools & Simpletons: Gods and Devils in Henry Miller’s Utopia (Alyscamps Press, 2005) which appears to show Moricand’s side of the story — if anyone’s interested here’s a review of the book.

This was read as part of Simon’s and Karen’s ‘1956 Club’ Reading Group.

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John Cowper Powys and Henry Miller

After finishing John Cowper Powys’s A Glastonbury Romance I was eager to push on with some more of his works, however, I had made some commitments to read other books so I couldn’t indulge myself quite yet. But I still couldn’t quite leave him alone; after spending a month with A Glastonbury Romance I wanted to know a little more about Powys and his world. So, I bought online, and read, as soon as it arrived, a short biography of the author by Herbert Williams. Published in 1997 by Seren (Poetry Wales Press Ltd) it is too short to be a comprehensive biography but, at 172 pages, it’s long enough to be substantial enough, and it suited my purposes.

Image source: GoodReads

John Cowper Powys’s writing career lasted more than sixty years; surprisingly he started by writing poetry, with his first book, Odes and Other Poems coming out in 1896 and his last book, except for some posthumous, unfinished works, was the novel All or Nothing in 1960. Along the way he wrote poetry, novels, philosophy, literary criticism and an autobiography. In fact whenever I read anything about J.C. Powys it’s his autobiography that is marked out as being worth reading; J.B. Priestly said that ‘this one book alone would have proved him to be a writer of genius’, though it’s curious, as Herbert Williams points out, that it contains nothing about the women in his life, not even his mother. Still, his Autobiography and many of his other books seem appealing, even some of his more bizarre books, such as Atlantis (1954), which I believe is about Odysseus discovering Atlantis, or something. His book on Rabelais, a favourite author of Powys, and his philosophy book, In Defence of Sensuality are a couple of his non-fiction works that I would like to read. It is worth noting that many of his books are published by Faber and Faber and the Powys Society recently released many of the more famous novels in kindle format.

Image source: Powys Society

I first heard of John Cowper Powys via the works of, and biographies of, Henry Miller. So I had to read this collection of letters between Henry Miller and J.C. Powys, published in 2014 by The Powys Society and edited by Jacqueline Peltier; its full title is Proteus and the Magician. The Letters of Henry Miller and John Cowper Powys. Miller initiated the correspondence in March 1950, when he was living in Big Sur, California and was in the middle of writing his book, The Books in My Life and was obviously thinking about authors who had inspired him through his life. Miller had seen Powys lecturing in New York between 1916-17 and had the impulse to talk to the man after one of his lectures only to be rather curtly treated by Powys. Still, reading these letters it is amazing to see how quickly the two authors start calling each other ‘dear John’ or ‘dearest Henry’—they quickly become best friends and their letters become quite personal at times. Having read works by both authors it is not that surprising that they both got on so well together. The only real difference is over sex; although Powys is no prude he seems to have not enjoyed sex (in a letter included in the Williams book Powys states ‘I have a horror of ‘fucking’ as it is called’), though he often claims to have had sadistic fantasies in the past and preferred masturbation to sex. In one of the letters Miller mentions the works of Sade, in reply to Powys’s previous mention of his sadistic tendencies and Powys shares the following:

No I’ve never read a line of de Sade and never shall. You see my own dominant overpowering maniacal vice was sadism and in Philadelphia (isn’t that the right place for such a thing?) I used to borrow from a friend Sadistic Books in French (he had half a library of them!) and carry them off to my lodging where I wd. read them with my knees knocking together & all my pulses going it like mad in a prolonged cerebral fury of crazy unsatisfied satisfaction.

Amusingly, Powys frequently calls himself an ‘old maid’ in his letters to Miller, but then he was approaching eighty at the beginning of the correspondence, whilst Miller was still a sprightly fifty-eight. Another topic where Powys disagreed with Miller can be seen below, which is about love—it’s rather amusing—see what you think.

O I do so agree with you in Faith being the thing! But Henry (my dear) I can’t I can’t I can’t and I won’t (even if it is the old devil himself in me!) I can’t agree with you about ‘Love‘. No no no no no no no no no no I am sick of love. It has been tried and it has failed. Jesus & Love have had their day.

It was heartening to see that they met again in 1953, when Miller visited Powys in Corwen, North Wales, and that they, and their wives, got on so well together; their visit is frequently referred to in later letters and seems to have been a joyful encounter. In one of the last letters in the volume, Henry Miller wishes Powys a happy ninetieth birthday and signs off with the following:

And now, my dear beloved John Cowper Powys, rest well, breathe lightly, and dream true.
   Henry Miller

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‘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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On Proust and Procrastination

Ok, let’s get started. With a title like ‘On Proust and Procrastination’ you might be expecting some Earth-shattering insights on Proust and life in general, but unfortunately, you’ll probably be disappointed – for which I’m sorry.

I started reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time this year and had initially intended to set up a blog to keep a record of it and to get some feedback from others who would, no doubt, know what they were talking about more than me; but I joined a GoodReads reading group which fulfilled most of my Proustian requirements and so blogging about it became less urgent. But now I’m just starting the sixth volume, The Fugitive, and I’m starting to regret not setting this up when I started the book, as I’d intended. Inertia is the main reason for not doing this along with all the other little worries connected with such a project, such as: What to call it? Have I got anything to say? Have I got enough to say? Can I spell? Can I use the correct grammar when listing a series of questions? I’m still unsure of the answers to most of these questions but on reading volume four (Sodom and Gomorrah) of In Search of Lost Time I came across the section titled The Intermittencies of the Heart which I thought, with a slight adjustment, would make a great name for a blog, especially as I can’t imagine my posts being anything other than intermittent. I also found out that The Intermittencies of the Heart was an early contender for the title of the whole novel; it’s one I think he should have kept.

Whilst I was busy procrastinating I kept thinking of a quote by Henry Miller on writing and writer’s block. I’ve wasted a lot of time trying to find it in an old notebook of quotes that I’ve kept and by looking online but I’ve had no luck. The most obvious place that it could be is in the book Henry Miller on Writing; but I’m confident that I’ve never read that book, so until I can find the actual quote, which will probably bear no relation to what I remember, I’ll have to paraphrase it from memory: Henry Miller said that he had never had writer’s block and that other writers suffered from it when they were trying to start a book with a perfect sentence, which stops them from writing anything. What Miller did was to just start typing anything, this would get the words flowing and then you could just edit out all the waffle at the beginning and end up with something publishable. So I’ve followed Henry’s advice, but I’ve left all the waffling in. In future I promise to edit my posts a bit more thoroughly….

 

 

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