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Tag: Henry Miller

LBMC: #1 The Swedenborg Society Bookshop

The Swedenborg Society

I have somehow  – in a bout of inadvertent spontaneity – set myself the challenge of visiting every independent bookshop on the London Bookshop Map. Upon making my London Bookshop Map Challenge (LBMC) known on Twitter I received several shop recommendations, urging me to go to Judd Books, The Broadway Bookshop,  Clerkenwell Tales and  the Kirkdale Bookshop, all of which I now also intent to visit. This brings the total to a hefty 109 different shops, in different parts of town! What was I thinking? Probably not very much at that precise moment, but I like a challenge and have sulfur in my blood! (The latter is something Henry Miller used to say. Not sure if it applies here but it kind of sounds good.)

The first bookshop I went to is the Swedenborg Society one, which I picked because of its proximity to my work. The shop is located on the corner of Barter Street, opposite Bloomsbury Square. It specialises in the work’s of  Swedish philosopher, theologian, scientist and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Most of the books in the shop are published by The Swedenborg Society, which has been going since 1810. This wonderful little establishment also sells other editions, most of which pertain to the philosopher, his ideas and his cultural and historic significance.

The books published by the Society are absolutely beautiful. The intention is to have them look like classics, Nora (Foster), the Society’s Publicist and Assistant Curator, told me. A lovely idea, I agreed, marvelling at the handsome hardbacks. I was greeted and shown around by the very lovey Company Secretary Richard Lines, who offered me a potted history of the famous philosopher and took me on a guided tour of the Grade II listed premises. The building houses a vast and impressive library, which contains  the most extensive collection of Swedenborg editions in Europe, some in their original languages of Swedish and Latin. I was also lucky enough to be shown a couple of leather bound manuscripts written in Swedenborg’s own hand, which looked fantastic if indecipherable.

Richard took me up and down several flights of stairs annotating our journey as we went, telling me about the Society’s heritage, its early patrons and contemporary friends (A. S. Byatt,  Iain Sinclair, Homero Aridjis among them). As we made our way through the building, Richard explained that the Society is currently in the process of cataloging Swedenborg’s Library and Archives online, to make them accessible to the general public. All the antiquated hardbacks and manuscripts are stored around this grand scholastic hub, which also has a 100 seat neo-classical hall, where the Society hosts literary evenings, talks, exhibitions, performances and lectures. Their programme is extensive and varied and has in the past included an Ingmar Bergman season, a poetry reading by Ali Smith, a special screening of Grant Gee’s documentary on the writer WG Max Sebald and a musical performance by Jozef Van Wissem.

The Swedenborg Society bookshop is one of Bloomsbury’s little treasures. It has a wonderful array of specialist books and great staff, who are infectiously enthused about them.

The Swedenborg Society
20-21 Bloomsbury Way
London
WC1A 2TH
Opening Hours: Monday – Friday/9.30 am – 5.00 pm

PS If you’d like to recommend a bookshop please leave a comment on my blog, tweet me (@DollyDelightly) or send me an email: dolly.delightly.books@gmail.com. Thanks.

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Nicholas Royle: Gripping, innovative and fluent

First Novel by Nicholas Royle

Nicholas Royle’s First Novel is a bit of a misnomer because in fact it is his seventh. The title, however, is integral to the book whose protagonist Paul Kinder is obsessed with literary debuts. This is something he shares with Royle who says he’s also “very interested in first novels”. And that’s not the only similarity between the two men. Royle like Kinder is a novelist and a lecturer, albeit a more successful one than his fictional counterpart. He has several novellas and six other novels to his name while Kinder is a one book wonder, striving to complete his second undertaking in between teaching, dogging, housebreaking, petty pilfering and uncovering a connection between his former wife Veronica, his neighbour Lewis and a man called Trevor. In truth, Kinder’s literary aspirations are secondary to the plot unlike his fascination with first novels, especially those that “have been lost or supressed or never followed up”. Kinder’s pathological interest in the subject is a projection of his own predicament, of his own failure to follow up his debut and his subsequent exploration of the psychologies of singular authors. “Why do we hear no more from these very talented writers,” he says to one of his students, “while others, far less talented, continue to write book after book after book?” It is a question that is never really answered, except to say “that first novels are important because it’s the first thing an author says about the world”. This notion is fundamental to the plot, which twists toward a startling and wholly unexpected revelation divulged by way of someone else’s first book.

Kinder is an idiosyncratic man. We know he’s idiosyncratic because he’s probably the only “Mancunian in his forties who doesn’t like the Smiths” and is into pyramids, straight lines and fucking to the sonic onslaught of a 747. He’s also quite a compelling man, whose inner thoughts and ruminations keep the reader intrigued throughout. Royle’s prose and his plot amuse and surprise, challenging the reader’s powers of anticipation at every other turn. The tone of First Novel is expertly set in the opening chapter, when in an impromptu bout of Luddite revolt Kinder dismantles a Kindle. “I pick up the waste-paper bin and return to my side of the desk,” he says having taken the device apart, “I hold the bin under the edge of the desk and use my other hand to sweep all the various part and pieces of the Kindle into it.” A Kindle doesn’t smell of anything, Kinder tells us, unlike its print equivalents, which contain within them infinite possibilities and just as many scents. Trampled grass, funfairs, futility, life are but to name a few. As the novel progresses we discover that Kinder is actually a bit of a shit and yet quite likable, despite his calculated womanising, passive but pervasive egotism and anti-social behaviour.  All of which has been exacerbated by the loss of his wife and two children, following revelations about his philandering.  There is little indication of just how acute Kinder’s separation anxiety from his family is until toward the end of the book, which given the conclusion perhaps demanded a little more focus on the subject all the way through. “I kept up appearance, but when I was alone I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I couldn’t read or write,” Kinder tells us with a sense of overwhelming defeat in regard to losing his twins, “There was a chance or so I believed at that stage, before the case reached the courts, that I’d get visitation rights. A good chance. But I felt that chance receding once the case began and Veronica’s lawyer, predictably, went to town on the dogging angle.”

There’s another story that runs in tandem with Kinder’s, that of a former RAF pilot turned poet called Ray and his son Nicholas. The stories appear completely unconnected until the last chapter, and while in theory the idea is brilliant in practice Ray’s tale just doesn’t grip the reader in the same way as Kinder’s. Royle’s technique and delivery is innovative and fluent, although occasionally inconsistent. It nevertheless puts his work into a category entirely its own. The book is written in episodic vignettes, which skip back and forth in time. “Everything is either or,” says Kinder at one point, “and inside each either or is another either or, like Russian dolls”. This is essentially the principal upon which First Novel operates, because there’s always something lurking beneath the surface of the narrative, something offering nebulous clues if one is discerning enough. In many ways, First Novel is a book about the chaos of modern day life, upon which, according to Henry Miller, “reality is written”.  This chaos is presented in First Novel through the overabundance of choices we face every day and the ensuing confusion that can lead our lives into disarray. “Sometime I will look at the taps on a wash basin,” Kinder says while contemplating this predicament, “even ones affixed with a blue or red spot, and I don’t know which one to turn. Like on and off. Televisions have become so complicated, having so many external devices. Standby, remote, on/off, hard switch off. Sometimes I don’t know whether it’s on or off. Life and death is another.”  In Kinder’s case, this confusion is also indicative of his general mental health, which is more unbalanced than idiosyncratic as we eventually learn.

“Nothing is beautiful. Nothing makes me feel anything,” he confesses candidly, “Everything either exists or it doesn’t. Everything either has a physical presence or it doesn’t. Everything – everyone – is either alive or dead. And that’s about all I can say.” It is at this point that the reader is alerted to the fact that Kinder may be undergoing some sort of existentialist crisis, which Royle builds up slowly, adding momentum, to the climax which reveals the second one of the two major twists. First Novel defies categorisation, albeit Vintage publisher Dan Franklin had a point when he said it was combination of “a murder mystery, a campus novel, [and] a meditation on identity”. All these elements are certainly present and blend together quite well into a unique book. The genre hoping is no surprise when one discovers Royle’s key literary influences are Derek Marlowe and M John Harrison, both of whom are known to “flit in and out of genres”. There are also other influences or perhaps unwitting likenesses, between Royle’s protagonist and others of his ilk. There is definitely something of Chris Duffy of Palace Pier by Keith Waterhouse, about Kinder in his fixation with the literary world and his personal lack of success, his diffidence and arrogance, substance and blatherskite. And there is undeniably something of Malcolm Bradbury’s Stuart Treece about him, especially when it comes to his commentary on campus life and all the bureaucratic hoops one is expected to jump through.

Reading First Novel, one also wonder about the similarities between Kinder and Royle, who teaches creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University, while working as an editor (Salt) and a publisher (Nightjar Press). One certainly  wonder whether some of Kinder’s views about the industry (“Few are interested in articles about untranslated foreign-language novels that are not set to become the latest publishing sensation,”) and his fiction (“It was overwritten, it was too weird, it was unlikely to gain a mass audience,”) may also belong to Royle. But it is difficult to say, at least without speaking to the author, and yet one thing’s for sure Royle is a writer’s writer. Unlike Kinder who wouldn’t recommend writing as a career to anyone, Royle spends a great deal of his time mentoring, whether through “editing anthologies or publishing stories with Nightjar Press, or novels at Salt or teaching creative writing, or even doing actual professional mentoring”. In fact, Royle says he loves it. “I find it exciting,” he explains, “and satisfying to work with people who I can see – and you do see it straight away, in the first paragraph, the first line sometimes – are really, really good, but maybe their talent has rough edges, their craft needs a little work, and all you have to do is encourage them and help them to see what works and what doesn’t.” This is undoubtedly the mark of a true teacher and more importantly a true writer, whose latest book is a great addition to his already large and varied oeuvre.

Negative Press | Nicholas Royle 

Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Publication Date: January 2013
Hardback: 304 pages
ISBN: 9780224096980

Frederick Turner: Guaranteed to captivate Miller enthusiasts

Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer by Frederick Turner is engaging, erudite, fluent and succinct yet full of novel biographical paraphernalia, which is guaranteed to captivate most Miller enthusiasts. The pulchritudinous little hardback, published by Yale University Press, chronicles how Miller’s first published novel “has risen from smuggled dirty book to American classic”. Turner employs Yankee folklore to explain Miller’s savage abandon and fascination with an anarchically subversive way of life steeped in “murky fringe land between a strict fidelity to the law and actual illegality”. It’s a daring interpretative mode, psychoanalytical speculation always is, but it works. Turner pinpoints certain undeniable similarities between Miller and his folklore primogenitors,  the infamous Mississippi brawlers, gamblers, crooks and filibusterers, who like Miller lived on their wits, shape-shifting, altering occupations, addresses and personae as circumstances dictated. Following in the same line of thought, Turner positions Miller alongside Mark Twain and Walt Whitman –  both once considered on the literary sidelines for their scabrous argots and iconoclast subjects –  to show how Miller inherited a tradition of prose “in the outsized, colourful monologue mode” of the colloquial, and subsequently nurtured it into his very own brand of “rude hieroglyphics”.

Miller had been jawing about becoming a writer long beforeTropic of Cancer, but for all his boorish braggadocio he had perilously little to show for it; or indeed his 30-odd years, except a divorce, a second falling marriage, chronic penury, a handful of literary rejection slips and a profound hatred of America, the unremitting “slaughterhouse” and “monstrous death machine,” as he called it. It is not clear when Miller’s fascination with Europe began, but Turner suggests it may have been inspired by his old school friend Emil Schnellock, with whom Miller corresponded extensively throughout his time in Paris and beyond.  Miller left for the French capital in February 1930, cajoled by his second wife June Mansfield Smith. He shipped out with a borrowed ten dollar note, two valises and a trunk. Turner explains: “In these he had some suits made by his tailor father; the drafts of two failed novels, and a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. But within him, buried within the accumulated detritus of a random and crudely assembled self-education, Miller was carrying a great deal more than these meagre effects.” Indeed.  He was in fact carrying a myriad of fantasises, which fuelled by his imminent experiences would eventually materialize into a book that now “belongs on a select shelf of works that best tell us who we are, for better or worse”.

While this may only be marginally true for humanity as a whole, it is certainly true for Miller. Tropic of Cancer tells us everything we need to know about its writer, “the gangster author,” who penned a literary deviant, which reads like a variegated autobiography of inescapable Americanism and an aspiration to European sensibility, a libidinous and comical picaresque of a sexual adventurer and a lovable knave, a daring exposition of an ironic moralist, a manual to the lifestyle of the bohemian deadbeat and a triumph of crude and creative splendour. Turner’s sympathetic and skilful evocation of Miller’s time in the US and in Paris,  spent mostly in depravation with a retinue of factotums, the work that followed and how it ought to fit into the American canon offers some interesting insights; but it never unequivocally states the fact that for all his raging and retreating from the establishment Miller actually yearned to be integrated into the high-end literary tradition. For as Turner himself notes, while talking about his subject’s impoverished background, Miller was “cut from different cloth…so Miller the failed Ivy Leaguer, the college dropout… refused to submit to his cultural and personal fate,” by means of a literary self-erudition, a fanatical interest in EVERYTHING (hamburger sandwiches, collar buttons, poodle dogs, slot machines, grey bowlers, typewriter ribbons, oranges sticks, free toilets, sanitary napkins, mint jujubes, billiard balls, chopped onions, crinkled doilies, manholes, chewing gum etc)  and a desperate desire for self-actualisation. In fact, he became a sort of microcosmic noosphere, bursting with ubiquitous knowledge on the page as well as in person.

But neither the writing nor the inspiration came easily, not until Miller met June – at the time the only person who “believed in his star”. Following the chance meeting in the summer of 1923, Miller – then a husband, a father and a man with a responsible job at the Western Union – quit his career, divorced his wife, married June and embarked on a quest to become a writer. With very little success. Turner records Miller’s life with June – the woman who led to his emotional labefaction – with great attention to detail, concluding that “for Miller, June in one way and another inspired his three finest works, the Tropics and Black Spring”. Though often disputed, this is certainly true, for long-after the two separated June remained a permanent fixture throughout Miller’s life, indelibly looming over the man and his work. But there was another force behind Miller’s drive.  Upon his arrival to Pairs, Miller had “apparently lost everything, nationality, job, wife, even his language” thus to stave off loneliness he hit the streets with a notebook and a pen “walking great distances and making notes on virtually anything he happened to see, from the life of the cafes to the carcasses of the newly slaughtered horseS hanging from the market stall hooks”. And  almost everything he did see made it into the book. It is precisely this, his observational deft and pyrotechnical delivery – albeit occasionally blemished by overindulgence in periphrasis and even unabashed flummery -that makes Tropic of Cancer remarkable, brilliant.

Renegade: Henry Miller and the Making of Tropic of Cancer is a considered and intriguing book, which aims to show how Miller’s “heroic confrontation” of his own failures eventually made him into a success. Turner treats his subject objectively but with great enthusiasm and at times with much-needed caution, knowing all too well that Miller was prone to casuistry and embellishment. The discerning biographer does well to outline most of Miller’s influences, friendships, struggles and aspirations, the main one of which was to write a  magnum opus for his wife (June), which earned him great admiration among certain circles and a “shadowy reputation as a writer of truly dirty books” among others. Turner remains the voice of reason throughout the narrative, only occasionally showing disdain for Miller’s callousness and dubious morality, when for example Miller refers to his aborted baby as the “seven month toothache” or neglects his duties as a husband and father. On the whole, Turned does well to pieces all the elements together to show how Tropic of Cancer materialised, even if he doesn’t place the book or its legacy into a greater political and socio-economic context. (Some reviewers have griped.)  Still, there is something he says which is on the money, namely that “writing with an increasingly naked candour about his life” Miller was bridging the gap between “autobiography and literature,”  and since many a great writer has followed the path that Miller bravely blazed.

Lawrence Durrell: A towering visionary philhellene who has shaped English literature

Lawrence Durrell was a prolific and protean writer. Unlike many of his contemporaries his livelihood depended exclusively upon his literary undertakings.  Not only that, Durrell laboured in a variety of genres – criticism, translation, philosophy, satire, travel writing – to be able to sustain himself in “exotic squalor”. He also wrote poetry. And one of his biggest regrets, which he voiced throughout his life, was his failure to establish himself as a credible poet through the work which he regarded as “closest to his heart”. Yet the prodigious corpus he produced as a poet demands that he should be regarded as one. Durrell was a towering visionary philhellene who has left an array of ideas that have shaped not only literature but how it is read. His tremendous gift should have made him a beacon of English writ, but instead this tireless craftsman has been invidiously overlooked. Durrell was one of few major 20th century writers without university training, who aspired to the profession from the vernal age of eight after reading Charles Dickens and subsequently spending the remainder of his childhood “madly scribbling”.  Following a rejection by Cambridge and a miscellany of jobs – a nightclub pianist, a photographer, an estate agent – Durrell decided to try and live by his pen. And I for one am very glad he did.

Durrell’s Collected Poems were given to me by a friend, and as we sat in the pub flicking through the compendium I felt myself beset by a sensory fever incited by Durrell’s words. His poetry shines with the shellac of a virtuoso modernist endowed with an enviably pitch-perfect ear and a knack for intense sensuality. Most of the verses describe sexual couplings, amatory intrigues and the complexities of the human condition in startlingly vivid, baroque syntax and febrile imagery. Reading his poetry one gets the distinct impression that Durrell was retooling convention, or at the very least bending it to his will. Poems such as Strip-tease reveal him as an apostle of the avant-garde, exemplified in the closing lines when talking about the “girls” he says: “So swaying as if on pyres they go/About the buried business of the night/Cold witches of the elementary tease/Balanced on the horn of a supposed desire/Trees shed their leaves like some of these.” 

The greatest of Durrell’s distinctions is his originality, and his work should stand as an archetype for future poetic exertions. His observations, aphorisms and ideological pronouncements are abundant and judicious. They are also superlatively poignant. Yet Durrell shies away from romanticism. In a poem called Plea, for example, he refers to love as a “cruel apprenticeship” and concludes that “Pleasure is greatest pain so dearly bought/And love unfaithfulness.” In another poem, Repeat, he speaks along the same lines: “I would be rid of you who bind me so/Thoughtless to the stars: I would refrain and turn/Along the unforgotten paths I used to know/Before these eyes were governed to discern/All beauty and all transience in love.”

But Durrell could also be consummately quixotic. In Echo dedicated to his wife Nancy Myers and his new-born daughter Penelope, Durrell ostensibly celebrates the symbolist ideal. “Nothing”, he writes, “is lost, sweet self/Nothing is ever lost/The unspoken word/Is not exhausted but can be heard/Music that stains/The silence remains/O echo is everywhere, the unbecoming bird.”  Similarly in another poem to his wife: “We have endured vicissitude and change/Laughter and lanterns, colours in the grass/And all the foreign music of the earth/Starlight and glamour: every subtle range/Of motion, rhythm, and power that gave us birth.” Despite the romantic nature of the two poems, Durrell somehow manages to strip his work of cloying sentimentality, yet he also, and more importantly, strips it of rhetoric and ridged precedents in order to present his ideal of a heraldic reality that is in keeping with his own defiant nature. Some of his best poems are the most seemingly labile, often set in symbolist Greece and full of mystic lyricism, references to the bucolic landscape, the sea and “foreign music of the earth capable of turning a key…in the heart”. His fascination with the Mediterranean is prevalent in much of his work; the campestral setting almost always the central point, the pivot, along with its “cities, plains, and people”.  Another of Durrell’s fascinations was the Greek poet Constantine P Cavafy, who is a spectre – ironic, pained – in the sensibility of much of Durrell’s verse. In an eponymous poem dedicated to his hero, Durrell writes: “And here I find him great. Never/To attempt a masterpiece of size/You must leave life for that. No/But always to persevere the adventive/ Minute, never to destroy the truth/Amid the coarse manipulations of the lie.” 

Another figure of great importance to Durrell was Henry Miller. The two were lifelong friends, maintaining an epistolary correspondence for over 40 years. In a paean called Elegy on the Closing of the French Brothels Durrell reminisces about their time together in Paris and nebulously mirrors Miller’s pleasure without compunction. He writes: “Of all the sickness, autumnal Paris/This self-infection was the best, where friends/Like self-possession could be learned/Through the mystery of a slit/Like a tear in an old fur coat/A hole in a paper lantern where the seeing I/Looked out and measured one/The ferocious knuckle of sex.” Durrell has a gift for dramatic traction and for combining irony and vulnerability, which strikes at the centre of human emotion. But, on occasion, he can also be obscure, fragmentary and opaque. He does, however, make up for his shortcomings with a number of rhapsodic verses which utilise modernist devises with alchemic valour.

His love poems, which pepper the collection throughout, are among my favourite. They reveal Durrell at his best, as a man of many passions, a lover of numerous women and someone who bravely unveiled and refracted his life on the page. Durrell’s poesy, magisterial in range, contains a great many influences from spiritual philosophy to Elizabethan dramaturges, and enjoys a synergy between fiction and reality: one knows when reading his work that every line has origins in some truth or emotion once felt. Love’s Intensity, one of my favourite poems in this veinis of simple structure and arrangement but reveals Durrell as a spirited assertor of the soul. It seems to be at once joyous and melancholic: “In all the sad seduction of your ways/I wander as a player tries a part/Seeking a perfect gesture all his days/Roving the wildest margins of his art/I would drink this perfection as a wine/Leash the wild thirst that binds me more than taste/Hoard up the great possession that is mine/Not squander as a drunkard makes his waste/I will be patient if the world be wise/And you be bountiful as you are curt/Until a song awakes those distant eyes/And all your weary gestures cease to hurt.” Another favourite is Return. Here, Durrell reminisces about the past with eloquent intensity: “There is some corner of a lover’s brain/That hold this famous treasure, some dim room/That love has not forgotten, where the sane/Plant of this magic burgeons in the gloom/And pushes out its roots into the mind/Grown rich on the turned soil of days that passed.” Many of Durrell’s love poems are distinguished by a literal view, which is continually merging into the most rapturous or passionately abstract. His divergent voices testify to the endless experiments and the complexity of his poetic expression, to his talent as a modernist, and more importantly to his status as a poet.

Durrell’s multifaceted career and his genre-transforming prose represent the diversity of his contribution to literature. They also point to the fact that he was perhaps one of the first English writers to speak for the post-war generation, chastened and perplexed by a collapse of order and reduced to mindless boredom by decades of chaste parlour prose.  Born in India in 1912, the first son of an engineer, Durrell developed his sense of the exotic through his Anglo-Indian upbringing. Yet according to his biographer Ian MacNiven, Durrell also thought of his self-elected lifelong exile as a “psychic burden” and of himself as “the lonely colonial child shadowed by the cosmopolitan writer.” He had a complicated relationship with England, where the family relocated after the premature death of Durrell’s father in 1928. In the early days, Durrell published a few poems between bouts of “drinking and dying”, and in 1935 an acutely autobiographical novel about life in Bloomsbury called Pied Piper of Lovers. That same year Durrell married Myers, the first of his three wives, and moved with his entire family to Corfu, where he wrote his second novel, Panic Spring, published in 1937 under a pseudonym of Charles Norden. His first book of real significance, however, materialised through his correspondence with Miller, who helped him get it published in 1938 by Obelisk Press. Reflecting on that period, Durrell said that The Black Book had a “special importance because in the writing of it I first heard the sound of my own voice.” By 1941, at the outbreak of World War II, Durrell was on his way to Egypt, where he served in Cairo and Alexandria as a British press officer. Exhausted by her husband’s philandering, his avuncular and long-suffering wife left him, making way for Durrell to openly cavort, and eventually marry several other women. It was in Egypt that he began working on the Alexandria Quartet, inspired by the decaying splendour and the seedy café nightlife of the once magnificent city and all its denizens. The Quartet is Durrell’s most remarkable accomplishment, eminently deserving of the Nobel Prize it failed to win. But his poetry is also an achievement of some import, and one which has been overlooked for far too long.

Seminal Lines

 

“My policy has always been to burn my bridges behind me. My face is always set toward the future. If I make a mistake, it is fatal. When I am flung back I fall all the way back – to the very bottom. My one safeguard is my resiliency.”

Sexus – Henry Miller

Henry Miller: The generous, pliant, forgiving, tolerant, tender scatologist

It is no mean feat to take-away from a book an erudition. Reading Henry Miller’s work schooled me into realising that there really is “only one great adventure and that is inward towards the self”. And, more importantly that inveterate boozing and smoking, carousing, quixotic philandering and riding life out “on the wind of the wing of madness” like one has “iron in the backbone and sulphur in the blood” is elementary in the success of that adventure; and the manumitting of oneself from the ne plus ultra drudgery of life.  And for that, and the fact that his writing always remained “true, sincere” and “on the side of life” and he an old roué throughout, I love him: earnestly, completely. I read Tropic of Cancer, and subsequently the Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy, some years ago, and thus was ecstatic to find Miller in my favourite Oxfam. One of the things I discovered, by sheer coincidence, prior to reading Tropic of Capricorn was that both the aforementioned and Tropic of Cancer were Miller’s choice sobriquets for his second wife June Mansfield Smith’s breasts. And for that I love him also.

Tropic of Capricorn opens with a pronunciamento that, “Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos”, a line of thought, that denotes the perspicuous resignation of the disillusioned. And Miller’s voice gets even more intractably dour a jot or two down the page when he confesses that, “Even as a child, when I lacked for nothing, I wanted to die: I wanted to surrender because I saw no sense in struggling. I felt that nothing would be proved, substantiated, added or subtracted by continuing an existence which I had not asked for.” The realisation about the innate lack of purpose and “the stupidity and futility of everything” reverberates throughout as Miller expounds at length about working dead-end jobs inimical to his creative freedom, being a myrmidon to his superiors at the redoubtable Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America – a “hideous farce against a backdrop of sweat  and misery… a waste of  men, material and  effort” – and ploughing against the  “whole  rotten system of American labour” while sitting behind his work-desk “hiring and firing like a demon”.

Chronically impecunious despite full time employment with the Western Union and feeling no fealty to anyone or anything, Miller chronicles this time in his life, spent mostly with a retinue of factotums and waybills – all trapped in a system that was so rotten, so inhuman, so lousy, so hopelessly corrupt and complicated, that it would have taken a genius to put any sense or order into it, to say nothing of human kindness or consideration – with both animus and amity. Forced by his superiors to be “be firm, be hard!” instead of having “too big a heart”, Miller sticks it to the avaricious panjandrums and vows to be “be generous, pliant, forgiving, tolerant, tender”. Everything in Tropic of Capricorn is perched on a pedantically balanced scale, just as Miller’s prose, which jumps from fatalistic cynicism to Panglossian mirth, the sagacious to the fecund, the overzealous to the insouciant, the recidivistic to the enterprising, thereby mirroring his life which consists of nothing but “ups and downs…long stretches of gloom and melancholy followed by extravagant bursts of gayety, of trancelike inspiration.” And it is precisely this deft linguistic ability, albeit occasionally blemished by overindulgence in periphrasis and even unabashed flummery, to relay his variegated reminiscences so graphically and candidly that incites a sense of grandstand awe.

Above all other subjects, however, Miller spends a lot of time lamenting and lambasting his homeland, the “monstrous death machine” where “nobody knows how to sit on his ass and be content”. His avid hatred of the US is documented with effusive graphic proclivity and an unapologetic conviction, for as he sees it he had never anywhere “felt so degraded and humiliated as in America”. Miller expectorates vehemently about the country he calls a “cesspool” where “everything is sucked down and drained away to everlasting shit”, before asserting that everything he had “endured was in the nature of a preparation for that moment when, putting on my hat one evening, I walked out of the office, out of my hitherto private life, and sought the woman who was to liberate me from a living death”. The woman sought was Miller’s second wife, June Mansfield Smith, the great nostrum who turned into an obsession leading to his emotional labefaction. June was the one who convinced Miller to jack-in his job and take up writing full time while she machinated a variety of schemes to support them financially, whether parading around dance halls, running a speakeasy or collecting money from services rendered. Writing of her elsewhere, Miller once noted: “I’m in love with a monster, the most gorgeous monster imaginable.” And, she was a monster. Or to be more precise “a monstrous lying machine” one with a striking bloodless face, rouged lips, a penchant for Dostoyevsky and indiscriminate fucking. Intrepid, perfidious, prone to theatrical exaggeration and acidulous lies June became the archetypal femme fatal in Miller’s literary endeavours.

Their connubial life was marked by volatility, mutual jealousies, June’s mercurial vagaries, and eventually their great big love was reduced to something like a “soft prick slipping out of an overheated cunt.” When the two first met, however, they were as one like, “Siamese twins whom love had joined and whom death alone could separate.” But it was not to be. The inchoate despair comes to the surface in Tropic of Capricorn when Miller begins to realise that June is prone to “transformation; almost as quick and subtle she was as the devil himself”, later likening her to the “queen mother of all the slippery Babylonian whores,” for she was just as inconstant. Their love was intense, both in a spiritual and physical sense, with Miller once describing her in copulation like a wild creature “radiant, jubilant, an ultra-black jubilation streaming from her like a steady flow of sperm from the Mithraic Bull. She was double-barrelled, like a shot-gun, a female bull with an acetylene torch in her womb. In heat she focussed on the grand cosmocrator, her eyes rolled back to the whites, her lips a-saliva. In the blind hole of sex she waltzed like a trained mouse, her jaws unhinged like a snake’s, her skin horripilating in barbed plumes. She had the insatiable lust of a unicorn,” but one he couldn’t tame.  In turn, he became “possessed like a full blooded schizerino” while she taunted him by launching her powers “toward the fabrication of [herself as] a mythical creature” and whoring like a nymphomaniac on day release from AA because she simply didn’t “give a fuck about anything”. The two split eventually, and the ruptures in the relationship are documented toward the end of the book with melancholic retrospection, and thereafter in Miller’s later works. June remained a permanent fixture throughout Miller’s early years, indelibly looming over his life and his literature.

Her spectre is firmly entrenched in the Tropic of Capricorn, but mostly the book is about Miller himself – the scatologist who is transfixed by shit, vermin, booze, fucking and disease, albeit one who has an inexorable knack for finding poetry in the grotesque. And he does, without fail, in “people’s stories, the banal tragedies of poverty and distress, of love and death, of yearning and disillusionment”.  Miller is not frugal with the scope of his subject matter either. He writes about everything from eating meat balls to eating pussy by way of St Thomas Aquinas, who omitted from his opus “hamburger sandwiches, collar buttons, poodle dogs, slot machines, grey bowlers, typewriter ribbons, oranges sticks, free toilets, sanitary napkins, mint jujubes, billiard balls, chopped onions, crinkled doilies, manholes, chewing gum, sidecars and sour-balls, cellophane, cord tyres, magnetos, horse liniment, cough drops, feenamint, and that feline opacity of the hysterically endowed eunuch who marches to the soda fountain with a sawed off shotgun between his legs”. Not to mention the strip-teasers with nothing more than “a little patch to cover their twinkling little cunts”. And his turn of phrase remains truly unique with asides and observations such as: “The chaff of the empty soul rising like monkey chatter in the topmost branches of the trees,” and “…music is a diarrhoea, a lake of gasoline, stagnant with cockroaches and stale horse piss,” or “the black frenzied nothingness of the hollow of absence leaves a gloomy feeling of saturated despondency not unlike the topmost tip of desperation which is only the gay juvenile maggot of death’s exquisite rupture with life,” and “We are of one flesh, but separated like stars” and “Look at your heart and gizzard – the brain is in the heart.” Gems like these stud his stream-of-consciousness prose from start to finish. You might scowl or snigger as he wrestles with the salacious and the sad, but you will not be unaffected.

As a follow up to Tropic of Cancer, Capricorn ruminates over the same old grounds, “speaking about what is unmentionable” and according to Miller “what is unmentionable is pure fuck and pure cunt” and must not be mentioned “otherwise the world will fall apart”. But of course sex is not the only unmentionable subject that Miller mentions, in fact, he pontificates on every topic that springs to mind while “rubbing elbows with humanity”, realising “truth is not enough,” watching men “scurrying through a cunty deft of a street called Broadway”, and claiming that “heartbreaks and abortions and busted romances,” are nothing in comparison to “lousy” coffee; and the result is this sagacious irreverent hulk of a picaresque. But I think Miller’s work is summarised best by the thought that in any great book, “Each page must explode with the profoundly serious and heavy, the whirlwind, dizziness, the new, the eternal, with the overwhelming hoax, with an enthusiasm for principles or with the mode of typography.” Henry Miller’s work certainly does.

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