Plots and character don't make life. Life is here and now, anytime you say the word, anytime you let her rip. – Henry Miller
I have had a copy of Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn on my bookshelf for years, twenty years at least without reading it. I bought it because I knew that Miller was a writer I ought to read but somehow I never got round to it. When Oneworld Classics offered me a copy of Black Spring to review I thought that it was about time I got to grips with Mr Miller.
Easier said than done. I freely admit I didn't know what to expect when I began reading and that is a good place to start. I did know the book had been banned in America and the UK as soon as it was released but that was back in 1936 so I didn't think there would be too much in it that would shock me. And to be honest there wasn't. There's a good deal of swearing and reference to unsavoury topics but really that's it.
Let's just dive in to the opening of the last story, 'Burlesque'. If it bothers you then this may not be the book for you, but I would still encourage you to hold that thought and read on a bit because there are diamonds in the rough here to be found:
Standing at the bar looking at the English cunt with all her front teeth missing, it suddenly comes back to me: Don't Spit On the Floor! It comes back to me like a dream: Don't Spit On the Floor! It was at Freddie's Bar on the Rue Pigalle, and a man with lacy fingers, a man in a white silk shirt with loose flowing sleeves, had just rippled off "Goodbye Mexico!" She said she wasn't doin' much now, just battin' around. She was from the Big Broadcast and she had caught the hoof and mouth disease. She kept running back and forth to the toilet through the beaded curtains. The harp was swell, like angels pissing in your beer. She was a little drunk and trying to be a lady at the same time.
Okay, so the language is coarse but there's also poetry in there. And, in under 150 words, such detail and colour.
Black Spring was written while Miller was in France between 1934 and 1935 so that explains why Freddie's Bar is on the Rue Pigalle; there was a vibrant jazz scene in Paris at that time. The Quartier Pigalle is a sleazy area in Paris around the Place Pigalle, on the border between the 9th and the 18th arrondissements. It's also coincidentally where you'll find the Moulin Rouge. 'Freddie's Bar' is probably Fred Payne's Bar, 14 Rue Pigalle, according to Anaïs Nin's diary, where she describes the area as "rough point, pickpockets, apaches, etc." The neighborhood's reputation – prostitutes operating in the side streets – led to its World War II nickname of "Pig Alley" by Allied soldiers. Now we have our setting.
The Big Broadcast, was the first of a series of films made by Paramount Pictures, beginning in 1932 (the second in the series was in 1936, after the book was completed) so I'm assuming that the woman had a bit part in the film but that's only guesswork. I'm also assuming that "hoof and mouth disease" is a euphemism and someone kicked her teeth in. Why that happened and how she ended up in Paris is anyone's guess.
I'm not sure what Don't Spit On the Floor! refers to but I suspect it's a parody of Bizet's 'Toreador Song' from Carmen popular in American barrooms: "Toreador / Don't spit on the floor / Spit in the cuspidor / That's what it's for" but I have no idea what a harp might be doing in a jazz band. It was probably a harmonica.
It may seem as if we need a lot of information to really appreciate what's going on here. And you do but you don't. Most of what's going on you can work out from the context. Details like this you can look up later if you have a mind to.
Black Spring is not a novel; it's not even a book of short stories, at least not in the traditional sense. It's closer to a collection of memoirs beginning in the streets of Williamsburg, Brooklyn (known locally as the "14th Ward) where Henry's family lived between 1892 and 1900 and ending up in France where he lived for a number of years in the nineteen-thirties.
Miller's style is unlike any other author I've read although I did get a similar feeling reading through this book to reading Molloy by another ex-pat living in France, Samuel Beckett, as if this wall of words was just about to collapse and crush me. There are a couple of audio files available online where Miller reads two sections from this book and he actually reads them at a sedate pace but when I began reading 'The 14th Ward' I found myself getting faster and faster; it was exhausting. And exhilarating. I found it hard to pick just one quote from this opening piece but I finally settled on this:
To be born in the street means to wander all your life, to be free. It means accident and incident, drama, movement. It means above all dream. A harmony of irrelevant facts which gives to your wandering a metaphysical certitude. In the street you learn what human beings really are; otherwise, or afterwards, you invent them. What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say literature. Nothing of what is called "adventure" ever approaches the flavour of the street. It doesn’t matter whether you fly to the Pole, whether you sit on the floor of the ocean with a pad in your hand, whether you pull up nine cities one after the other or whether, like Kurtz, you sail up the river and go mad. No matter how exciting, how intolerable the situation, there are always exits, always ameliorations, comforts, compensations, newspapers, religions. But once there was none of this. Once you were free, wild, murderous…
The boys you worshipped when you first came down into the street remain with you all your life. They are the only real heroes. Napoleon, Lenin, Capone – all fiction. Napoleon is nothing to me in comparison with Eddie Carney, who gave me my first black eye. No man I have ever met seem as princely, as regal, as noble, as Lester Reardon, who by the mere act of walking down the street inspired fear and admiration. Jules Verne never led me to the places the Stanley Borowski had up his sleeve when it came dark. Robinson Crusoe lacked imagination in comparison with Johnny Paul. All these boys of the 14th Ward have a flavour about them still. They were not invented or imagined: they were real.
He then goes on from there to describe the Brooklyn of his childhood in dramatic and enthusiastic terms and, like I said earlier, I found myself falling headlong into this text and being dragged along by the words until it suddenly came to its end.
The abrupt end to this first text is appropriate because Miller felt himself ripped away from that area when he was ten, when the family moved to 1063 Decatur Street, in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn where he lived until he graduated and got his first job but it was Williamsburg that provided the raw material he worked with as a writer:
Miller's experience of his childhood environment was physical, primal, as deeply ingrained in his being as the stains he described on the hands of the ironworkers – something he could not simply wash away. The scenes that passed before his childish eyes were forceful because they were new and unknown, and the fact that they were not scenes from an idyllic childhood but rather rough, working class dramas probably made Miller's childhood memories that much more forceful. Perhaps what Miller later attempted in his writing – the frank and graphic descriptions of sex, the emotional nudity – was an attempt to recapture that particular internal violence of his own first childish impressions. As a writer, Miller did not recoil from the harshness of the streets, the dirt, the coarseness, rather he embraced it, sought it out and found in it vitality and beauty. – Jeanne Storck, 'Band of Outsiders: Williamsburg's Renegade Artists', Billburg, Jan 1, 2002
So this is an important text, one that provides groundwork for the whole book, indeed his whole life.
His description of this time contrasts vividly with the next piece, 'Third or Fourth Day of Spring' where he talks about Decatur Street which he calls the "Street of Early Sorrows". The piece begins:
The house wherein I passed the most important years of my life had only three rooms. One was the room in which my grandfather died. At the funeral my mother's grief was so violent that she almost yanked my grandfather out of the coffin. He looked ridiculous, my dead grandfather, weeping with his daughter's tears. As if he were weeping at his own funeral.
In another room my aunt gave birth to twins. When I heard twins, 180she being so thin and barren, I said to myself: why twins? why not triplets? why not quadruplets? why stop? So thin and scraggy she was, and the room so small – with green walls and a dirty iron sink in the corner. Yet it was the only room in the house which could produce twins – or triplets, or jackasses.
The third room was an alcove where I contracted the measles, chickenpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, et cetera: all the lovely diseases of childhood […] In this room I heard nothing but insanities.
By the third story we've relocated to France. 'A Saturday Afternoon' is essentially a tour of the public urinals of Paris:
One likes to piss in sunlight, among human beings who watch and smile down at you. And while the female squatting down to empty her bladder in a china bowl may not be a sight to relish, no man with any feeling can deny that the sight of the male standing behind a tin strip and looking out on the throng with that contented, easy, vacant smile, that long, reminiscent, pleasurable look in his eye is a good thing. To relieve a full bladder is one of the great human joys.
There are certain urinals I go out of my way to make – such as the battered rattle-trap outside the deaf and dumb asylum, corner of the Rue St. Jacques and the Rue de l'Abbé-de-l'Epée, or the Pneu Hutchinson one by the Luxembourg Gardens, corner Rue d'Assas and Rue Guynemer.
I had imagined that these would have long since gone but perhaps not. In his review of the book, Tom Cunliffe has this to say about a passage where a woman smiles at Miller from an open window while he is in mid-flow:
[T]he above passage seems highly improbable: as someone who has used the Parisian pissoirs, I have never seen a Frenchwoman do anything other than avert her eyes and pass hurriedly on! – A Common Reader
The fourth piece, 'The Angel is my Watermark', describes "the genesis of a masterpiece", the masterpiece being a watercolour painting. Miller wasn't simply a dabbler either. Seven years before Miller published the Tropic of Cancer he had held his first watercolour painting exhibition. In total he painted over 2000 watercolours over six decades and had over sixty international exhibitions. His paintings are in museums and private collections in Japan, Europe and the United States. "To paint is to love again and to love is to live life at its fullest", Miller wrote. You can download a nice PDF with a good selection of his artwork here and for those with time there's an excellent slideshow presentation here showing 130 works.
As one might imagine Miller was a passionate painter but it's his philosophy of painting that interests me more:
When you can draw up a clean balance you will no longer have a picture. Now you have an intangible, an accident, and you sit up all night with the open ledger cracking your skull over it. You have a minus sign in your hands. All live, interesting data in labelled minus. When you find the plus equivalent you have – nothing. You have that imaginary, momentary something called "a balance". A balance never is. It's a fraud, like stopping the clock, or like calling a truce. You strike a balance in order to add a hypothetical weight, in order to create a reason for your existence.
Henry's father was a gregarious and easygoing Bavarian. In 'The Tailor Shop' we get to see the adult world he inhabited while his son was being a little tearaway. Chronologically this story seemed a bit out of sequence – I would have placed it third – but since they're all standalone pieces it's not a big deal. Miller grew up in a polyglot world where he learned to speak German before English (his mother was German) and with the sound of Yiddish and Polish all around him. His father's tailor's shop was located at 5 West 31st Street, off of 5th Avenue and this chapter describes its world at some length. For about four or five years during his twenties Miller worked there too and it does not appear to have been a particularly happy time for him but that doesn't really come out in this description of the place; it's quite funny in places. Maybe I was just too taken with all the colourful characters to notice. A small – no pun intended – taster:
They were all midgets in the bushelling room – Robin, Rapp and Chaimowitz. At noon they brought out the big round loaves of Jewish bread, which they smeared with sweet butter and slivers of lax [salmon]. While the old man was ordering squabs [pigeon] and Rhine wine, Bunchek the cutter and the three little bushelmen sat on the big bench among the goose irons and the legs and sleeves and talked earnestly and solemnly about things like the rent or the ulcers that Mrs Chaimowitz had in her womb.
Possibly my favourite of the ten chapters is 'Jabberwhorl Cronstadt'. This is a wonderful verbal caricature of the aforementioned Mr Constadt, a bohemian:
He lives in the back of a sunken garden, a sort of bosky glade shaded by whiffletrees and spinozas, by deodars and baobabs, a sort of queasy Buxtehude diapered with elytras and feluccas. You pass through a sentry box where the concierge twirls his mustache con furioso like in the last act of Ouida. They live on the third floor behind a mullioned belvedere filigreed with snaffled spaniels and sebaceous wens, with debentures and megrims hanging out to dry. Over the bell-push it says: "JABBERWHORL CRONSTADT, poet, musician, herbologist, weather man, linguist, oceanographer, old clothes, colloids." Under this it reads: "Wipe your feet and blow your nose!" And under this is a rosette from a second-hand suit.
This is a chapter for anyone who revels in the use of language. You can read the whole story online courtesy of Google Books; it was included in the collection The Cosmological Eye which you can find here and you can hear Miller reading the story here.
It's impossible to read this story without thinking of Lewis Carroll, a writer he admired. Henry Miller's friend Walter Lowenfels was the model for Cronstadt who also appears in Tropic of Cancer something which pleased me when I discovered this because he's too large a character to waste on a single story. Death and food were apparently Miller and Lowenfels' favourite topics of conversation and I'm reliably informed that this story is not as sunny as it might appear on an initial read. I can't comment because I only read it the once and I was too busy fighting with words like ontogenyphylogeny, rotogravure, defluxions, cotyldons and glycophosphates to mention just a few that trip off Cronstadt's tongue. As the day progresses, and, as he gets drunker and drunker, the more entertaining he becomes.
The next piece, 'Into the Nightlife', is essentially a long dream sequence although I've never had a dream like this in my life, certainly not one that would take up 22 pages. Of all the pieces in the book this was probably the one I enjoyed the least. It's not that the language isn't wonderful it's just the fact that it goes on and on and I couldn't connect with it and I couldn't see its relevance to the book as a whole. I wasn't that excited by 'Walking Up and Down in China' and 'Burlesque' either but I think I was just getting tired by this point and wanted to be done. I felt much the same when I completed Beckett's Trilogy, as if I'd been beaten about the head with the English dictionary and left for dead.
I've read that Miller is out of fashion at the moment. I can see why he might have been in fashion in just the same way as James Joyce and D H Lawrence were banned – and so also fashionable – because of their shock element. Now none of them are particularly shocking so why should we keep reading? Based purely on this book, which the blurb on the back calls "his most distinguished book from a stylistic point of view," I can see that there is a lot more to Miller than simple shock tactics. His biggest strength is as an observer but there's not much point being an observer if you're not also equipped to effectively communicate what you've observed, then what he does is comment on what he has observed (which he does with Joycean flair) and what he has to say is thought-provoking.
Is it dated? Yes, of course it is, but who would suggest that we stop reading Dickens because he's dated? I would suggest that he's not outdated. Good writing doesn't get old especially if its themes are broad: everyone has a childhood, everyone had a dad, everyone needs to pee and although I doubt many of us will ever have a friend quite like Jabberwhorl Cronstadt we all have friends who from time to time test the bonds of friendship. I would recommend this book to writers as a textbook first and foremost. I'm sure we've all had a crack at stream of consciousness writing and fallen flat on our faces; like abstract art, it's not as easy as it looks. These are ten ways of doing it. I say, ten, because every story is different in style and approach and yet they all have the name Miller running through the centre of them like a stick of Blackpool rock.
I would not pretend for a minute that this is an easy book because it is not. Who said reading was supposed to be easy? Going for a stroll is easy. Climbing up a mountain isn't but which is the more satisfying I ask you?
Normally I'd end this piece with a short bio but here's one written by his daughter, Valentine, which I think does just fine.
Sites worth checking out: