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Henry Miller, Happy Rock
University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003
University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Sunday, April 19, 1959
Six years have gone by. Miller and his family have just arrived in Paris.
And this morning, I am going to see them again at their home on rue
Campagne-Premiere. A flurry of letters preceded this journey. All his
friends were alerted. A month ago, Henry told me: "Yes, everything is
arranged: passports, visas, tickets. All I need to do now is relax.
Working feverishly to finish rereading Nexus before I go!"
As for Eve, she announced their return with this exclamation of joy, in
capital letters: "WE ARE COMING BACK TO FRANCE!" And she added: "I say
COME BACK because that's what this journey means to me. In Henry's mind,
it's just one more trip. So there you have it!" And she ended her letter:
"I want my children to have a real sense for what it is to live in France,
and not only to be passing through" (letter to Brassai, January 28, 1959).
When I arrive at the studio in Montparnasse, Henry exclaims: "What a
pleasure to see you again. Most of the friends and acquaintances I saw in
Paris are faring well. But just think if you lived in the United States!
There, at forty you're prematurelyold, used up."
Brassai: How was your trip?
Henry Miller: It's the first time I've flown in a jet. San Francisco-New
York: five hours and forty-five minutes. It's fantastic! Nine thousand
meters up and not a bump. I felt like I was living in the future, the
future that is becoming our present.
Brassai: What do you think of Paris? Has it changed in six years?
Miller: So many cars in the street! It's astounding! People think New
York's a frenetic city. But it's really Paris! The traffic is even heavier
here and the police wave their arms to get people to go even faster. When
I have to cross a street, I start to shake. I fear for me and my children.
Fortunately, French cuisine hasn't changed, it still lives up to its
reputation. But the odd thing is, I've lost my passion for Paris. I've
changed. I don't like big cities anymore and I'm looking forward to being
in the country. It's different for Eve! She loves Paris and wants to know
it better. She'll stay here while I visit the Scandinavian countries with
From the kitchen where she's been making breakfast, Eve appears, still as
beautiful as ever. And Henry introduces me to his children: Valentine,
called Val, a tall blonde girl the same age as Juliette, sparkling with
life, and Tony, who reminds me of James Dean: straw-colored hair,
rebellious locks sweeping across his transparent blue eyes, his grave
voice breaking as he curses with adolescent grace. He has the
seductiveness of the hero of Rebel without a Cause, and also the
arrogance. When Henry calls him over to introduce him, he turns his back
and walks away.
Miller: Regular savages. Ill-mannered, stubborn, unruly, undisciplined. I
love them! Apart from Big Sur, they don't know very much of the world. Oh,
that's not true! Once I took them to San Francisco. Sometimes I try to put
myself in their place, to imagine their childhood memories. They're
important your whole life! What could a kid from Williamsburg, that seedy
Brooklyn neighborhood, dream about? The only images filling my childhood
were gloomy vacant lots, smoking chimneys, mounds of garbage and trash
being incinerated. But marvelous memories nonetheless. Other kids remember
a beautiful garden, a forest, a trip to the seashore, a loving and tender
mother. What will Tony and Val dream about, I wonder. Probably about
cliffs, eagles, vultures, sea elephants warming themselves in the sun,
whales passing off the coast, those terrible storms that come crashing
down on the Pacific. For a long time I was hesitant to take them to
Europe. Larry advised strongly against it: "Travel is already tiring in
itself," he wrote me, "one must be free and without a care to take
advantage of it." Obviously, without the kids it would have been less
bother. But I adore them. And they like it in France. I'm looking forward
to having them in the Midi. In the country we won't have to keep them on a
leash. Larry has rented a house for us in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, I
think. But I dread La Camargue. "You're going to see medieval France
again, unchanged, intact," he wrote me. "The notaries are straight out of
a Balzac novel and everyone shits outdoors." Well, no thank you! I can't
adjust to medieval life again, to houses without the modern conveniences.
America has spoiled me, corrupted me. Why live like idiots in the atomic
age, without a minimum of comfort, of hygiene? I'm also afraid of
mosquitoes. It seems La Camargue is infested with them."
Mosquitoes! Along with ants, flies, and drafts, mosquitoes are for Henry
the "poison apples that spoil paradise." He wrote of Big Sur: "The flies
wake me up at six o'clock in the morning." And when he was camping in
Corfu: "The camping is fine, but why add ants, flies, etc.? I hate flies!
I don't think there would have been so many if I'd been alone. I would
have camped under the olive trees, not on the sand." He remembered Far
Rockaway beach as a nightmare. Invited to the home of June's friends, they
were eaten alive. "The instant I saw the mosquito net above the bed, I
knew what we were in for. It started right away, that first night. Neither
of us could sleep a wink."
Brassai: Are you thinking of leaving Big Sur to settle in France?
Miller: Eve would like to and Larry has strongly advised us to go looking
in Provence for a good spot to settle permanently. But I don't agree. I
can't leave Big Sur just yet.
Brassai: But you complain of being invaded there.
Miller: My wonderful solitude, my peace and quiet, haven't existed for a
long time now. Success comes at a high price. They think I'm the Dalai
Lama. And I'm too weak to resist. It's hell. As soon as I sit down in
front of the typewriter, my work is interrupted. It drives you crazy.
Impossible to collect your thoughts. And yet, despite its inconveniences,
I'm attached to Big Sur. It's my haven. And the sea, the wind, the cliffs,
the sky, the stars are irreplaceable! I'd never find a promontory like
that in France.
Brassai: How long are you thinking of staying in Europe?
Miller: Four months. We've reserved our return seats for August 20. I'll
be delighted to see the Durrells and to meet Claude and the children. I
look at the map, I measure the distance from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to
Nimes and other places. There's a lot I'd like to visit: Le Puy, for
example. Have you been?
Brassai: An odd city, dominated by two volcanic cones. One bears a
colossal statue of the Virgin at the summit-quite ugly in fact; the other
has an adorable little eleventh-century chapel-Saint-Michel-a real
* * *
This morning-a Thursday-he wants to take his children to the Eiffel Tower,
and asks me to go with them. He's red with anger, fed up. Valentine played
a practical joke in the building: she trapped the tenants in the elevator
between two floors. Yelling, calls, complaints. The life of the building
is disrupted. And now, out of breath, streaming sweat, Tony appears.
Against his father's orders, he crossed the dangerous boulevard Raspail to
go roller-skating the length of Montparnasse cemetery. Still an unfamiliar
sight for me: Henry Miller, who could be their grandfather, in the role of
father, grappling with these little devils. He bellows, explodes, scolds
them. Tempers rise. He responds to Eve tit for tat, and she constantly
criticizes him: "Just look at the result of how you raised them. They do
what they like, naturally! Refuse to obey their father. You can shout all
you like, you have no authority anymore." A fierce enemy of submission of
any sort, deep down Henry undoubtedly approves of his children's
escapades, even applauds them. And he's annoyed at himself for giving in
to anger. He is about to explain himself when the doorbell rings. It's the
telegraph boy. Henry reads a long dispatch from Stockholm.
"A few months ago, Sexus was seized as pornography in Sweden. My lawyer
appealed. He found a good argument: a Swedish book, also banned for
obscenity, was cleared recently and could be published again. So why not
Brassai: And you won?
Miller: Wait, I don't know yet. [He reads the dispatch, shakes his head,
grunts, and bursts out laughing.] No, we've lost for good! The argument
was rejected by the appeals court, and do you know on what grounds? The
judges did a sort of chemical analysis of the pornographic ingredients of
the two books. According to that expertise, the Swedish book, which is
really filthy by the way, contained only 10.3 percent obscenities, and
Sexus 15.7 percent. My book was thus 5.4 percent filthier. Therefore, the
appeal was rejected and the ban continues. It's really high comedy!
Imagine all those grave magistrates, those high priests of justice, poking
their noses into my novel, rifling through it, analyzing every page, every
sentence to extract such and such a percentage of obscenities from it.
Incredible, don't you think?
That bad news does not trouble Henry's serenity, however. He's seen enough
already! With the slanted eyes of a Chinese sage, he laughs until he sheds
bitter tears: "You'll see, one day I'll win the Nobel Prize all the same!
And other grave magistrates will praise my books." He's joking. Yet I
detect a glimmer of hope in his words. Five months ago, he wrote me: "We
may see each other again when I receive the Nobel Prize (what a joke!)"
(letter to Brassai, December 2, 1958). After all, couldn't he get the
award in Stockholm? Obscenity is no impediment. The winds can change.
Wasn't Andre Gide among the elect despite-or because of-his defense of
homosexuality? Wasn't he honored precisely for his courageous struggle
against hypocrisy? The same arguments may one day work in Henry's favor.
Miller: The battle is now joined in earnest. My books had the same
misadventure in Japan. They were all banned. My Japanese publisher held an
exhibition of my watercolors and sold a lot of them. Now he wants to keep
my money and even my watercolors, as "compensation." The ban has
completely ruined him, he wrote. That's what I've come to.
Young Claire, the daughter of Maurice Nadeau, arrives. We set out to
conquer the Eiffel Tower. Thursdays are the tower's big days! Hundreds of
schoolboys and schoolgirls, flanked by men and women teachers, nuns, stand
in line to go up. Finally they herd us into the elevator. Then we have to
change cars because the kids want to go all the way to the top, to the
sky, 320 meters up. The sight of Paris from bird's-eye view, the
glistening ribbon of the Seine traversed by its bridges, the gilded
Prussian helmet that tops the emperor's tomb at Les Invalides, its white
replica at the Pantheon, the Arc de Triomphe with its twelve-pointed star,
Sacre-Coeur perched on its Montmartre pedestal: all these monuments on the
left and right banks, a pleasure for the eye to pick out on every side,
interest them very little. For them, that ascent is only an amusement park
ride and they're having a great time: they drink and eat everything
offered-hot dogs, ice cream, lemonade, Coca-Cola-and buy out the gift
shop: postcards, globes, miniature Eiffel Towers.
Brassai: Do you know the Eiffel Tower was the result of a competition:
design an iron tower three hundred meters high? At the Sainte-Genevieve
library one day, I looked over all the plans. There were some astounding
ones. An elephant, among other things, a hundred meters high, holding a
sort of two-hundred-meter-tall pagoda on its back. Even Eiffel's original
plan was rather different from the present tower. When they calculated the
resistance, it produced purer forms, more beautiful curves. And do you
know that, up above us, there's a little private apartment with several
rooms, traversed by iron girders? I was able to visit it one time. Eiffel
lived there for several weeks. It was his office. Now it's reserved for
heads of state.
Miller: How old is it?
Brassai: Just seventy years old, two years older than you.
Miller: And it hasn't been eaten away by rust?
Brassai: No. It can survive another two centuries. It seems that steel
lasts longer than concrete and the longevity of a steel tower is greater
than that of a skyscraper. But only if it's repainted every seven years. A
rather extraordinary acrobatic sight!
Miller exclaims: "The children, where the hell are the children?"
While we were talking, they wouldn't hold still and were running around
the platform knocking into lovebirds and people contemplating suicide.
Could they have ventured into the stairwells? We finally find them. Val
and Tony beg their father to let them take the metal stairs down to the
third floor, on foot. After a categorical no, Miller caves in and gives
them the green light. We take the elevator and wait for them on the second
Miller: You don't have children. So you don't have these problems.
Brassai: Have you read Emile?
Miller: A few passages, and I found them very appealing. A fundamental
book. I also read the books by Ferrer, Montessori, and Pestalozzi. The
question of education interests me passionately. I agree with Rousseau. He
was against pedagogues, against schooling, and, like me, he recommended
the return to primitive virtue. I didn't see the usefulness of stuffing my
head with school learning. I only wanted to learn what seemed of vital
interest to me. I had to discover everything on my own. There's only one
good pedagogue: life. I wanted to raise my children in the greatest
freedom. That's what my wives always criticized me for: I thwart their
efforts, I'm not ruthless enough, I take a malicious pleasure in seeing
them misbehave. That horrible discipline I should have inculcated in them
was really always the main reason for our quarrels. But I rejected such a
cruel, stultifying upbringing.
Brassai: So you took your own lack of upbringing as a model for
Miller: Yes, my own experience. I grew up on the streets, that's where I
learned what it means to be truly human. Until the age of nine, we were
little rascals, budding young gangsters, but our own masters. None of us
idolized our parents. We were hungry for knowledge, we discussed burning
questions. Around a campfire in a vacant lot we were able to talk about
serious things: love, death, life, birth, sex, God. I had the good luck
never to have been spoiled by my parents! They gave me a free hand. I
could wander, return any time of night without reporting to anyone.
Brassai: Celine also claimed that high school is the root of all evil.
Excerpted from Henry Miller, Happy Rock
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
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