Henry Miller

Between the tropics

It all started with an eye-catching book cover sticking out from a stack of English language novels in a cluttered used bookstore in the French town of Le Mans. Be sure to check out this funny bookseller if you’re visiting, the guy has some well-hidden treasures in there. Shockingly, I had never read a Henry Miller book before, until I stumbled onto Black Spring, written between Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn (the back cover informs me) and making for a very pleasing introduction to the writer’s literary work. Divided into ten chapters, this stream-of-consciousness autobiographical novel chronicles with no apparent logic a succession of milestones in Miller’s eventful life, mainly in his native Brooklyn and Paris. A recurring motif throughout the book is the deep sense of disconnection from the motherland,  “I am a man of the old world, a seed that was transplanted by the wind, a seed which failed to blossom in the mushroom oasis of America”, and an offbeat embrace of Parisian back alleys and nighttime carousing. However, Miller seems to strive for a much larger liberation, a break from a “Coney Island of the mind” (So that’s where Laurence Ferlinghetti got his inspiration from…) that doesn’t amuse him at all. Alongside the comical situations that recall some of Céline’s juiciest moments in Mort à credit (Death on credit), a dark veil is cast over the epic journey.

Bloody and wild the night with all the hawk’s feet slashed and trimmed. Bloody and wild the night with all the belfries screeching and all the slats torn and all the gas mains bursting. Bloody and wild the night with every muscle twisted, the toes crossed, the hair on end, the teeth red, the spine cracked. All the world wide awake twittering like the dawn, and a low red fire crawling over the gums. All through the night the combs break, the ribs sing. Twice the dawn breaks, then steals away again. In the trickling snow the oxide fumes. All through the streets the hearses pass up and down, up and down, the drivers munching their long whips, their white crapes, their cotton gloves.

 The narrative jumps around a lot and it is sometimes hard to keep track of what’s actually going on, but Miller’s poetic style imbues every situation with Surrealist humor and wit. Whether he comments on the merits of Parisian urinals, introduces us to a cast of idiosyncratic characters, walks us through a watercolor lesson or strays into daydreaming abstraction, Miller’s hilarious scenes work as a foil for the Maldoror-like visions that haunt his world. Now I wonder what life is like in the tropics. Also, whoever designed this book cover is a minimalist genius.

Henry Miller, Black Spring (Copyright, 1936, published by Panther Books in 1974)