""[C]ontinues the narrative begun ... in Nexus, the third volume of The rosy crucifixion trilogy""--P. 4 of cover.
"This book is an important piece of literary history, offering different perspectives on people and places that Miller wrote about elsewhere." —James M. Decker, author of Henry Miller and Narrative Form: Constructing the Self, Rejecting Modernity and editor of Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal
- Indiana University Press
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By Henry Miller
John Libbey Publishing LtdCopyright © 2012 Estate of Henry Miller
All rights reserved.
So this is it, I said I to myself, coming down the gangplank at Le Havre ready to set foot on French soil. Europe! Though I had been preparing for it for seven days, and before that for seventy-seven years or centuries, I could scarcely believe my eyes. No child could welcome its mother with more eagerness than I welcomed the sight of Europe. At last my dream had come true. I was there, and with money in my wallet. And she was with me, Mona, perhaps not as excited as I, but radiant and looking as bizarre as ever in her flowing black cape, her eyes heavily made up, her barbaric jewellery swinging from neck and wrists.
It wasn't a pretty sight, the dock yards, with lumber and merchandise piled up in every direction, but it was different. And that was what I craved — something different. As we stumbled over the tracks to get to the boat train I caught sight of the purser, garbed now in civilian clothes, satchel in hand, picking his way to God knows where, perhaps the nearest bistrot. He looked like a different person now — Mister Anybody — as he mooched along. On the boat he had been somebody, witty, entertaining, a man to answer any and every question — and an excellent chess player too. Now he was just I one more Frenchman, a very ordinary Frenchman, with a peak cap and trousers that were too short. Above his head floated the gray-black roofs which were to become so dear to me in time. Not a pretty picture, but solid, comfy, everything built to last, it seemed. On the whole somewhat shabby, tawdry, woe-beg-one. But that was part of the image of Europe which I had always preserved.
Rolling toward Paris my eyes were glued to the window pane. The countryside seemed neat and orderly, the little railway stations were just as one finds them in picture books, the cows and sheep were like cows and sheep anywhere, but the humans appeared always to be draped in mourning. Now and then, usually from factory windows, the French blue sang out, a blue such as I had never seen before. Now and then the tricolor popped up, usually atop some ugly building. A beautiful flag — light, airy, joyous, and so simple in design.
Nearing Paris Mona gave me a nudge and pointed to a cluster of shimmering white buildings which overlooked the city. The Sacré Coeur. At once my heart leaped; tears came to my eyes. I don't know why I felt such emotion — there was nothing about Sacré Coeur which had any claim on me. Perhaps it was simply the fact that it belonged to Montmartre. That was indeed a magic word for me. Montmartre.
Instantly I thought of George Moore, Van Gogh, Utrillo, of all the painters, poets, vagabonds I had ever read about. "Are we going to live there?" I asked. She didn't think so. It was too far from the center of things. Well, I would walk there every day, I fervidly thought to myself. And where was the center, I wondered. Surely we weren't going to live near the Opera and the American Express?
St. Lazare. We had arrived. I gasped as I took a quick look around. It was the rush hour and the place was jumping. I kept looking up all the time. The glass roof fascinated me. Never had I seen a railway station like this. Standing at the curb, waiting for the porter to get us a cab. I could have stayed in that spot forever. All Paris seemed to be parading before my eyes. This was it.
Suddenly I felt completely lost. It was no longer Europe, France, Paris, but a maelstrom in which I was drowning, without knowing so much as how to say 'Help! Help!' (It took me months, indeed to discover that the word for 'Help!' is 'Au secours!' What I thought of was 'Alp! Alp!' which is nightmare in some strange language. (Wasn't it Strindberg shivering in the wintry boughs of a tree who kept yelling 'Alp! Alp!')
We are threading our way through the maze of traffic, past the statue of Joan of Arc, past the Obelisk, over the bridge and on to the Boulevard St. Germain. I can't take it in all at once, it's too much to swallow in one gulp. All I can say is "What a city! What a city!".
Suddenly we stop in front of a hotel — the Grand Hotel de France. She has stayed here, Mona, and seems to know the proprietress. The night porter in his green billiard cloth vest recognizes her, greets her warmly. The luggage is dragged up to our room. Immediately the man goes to the French windows and opens them up. We have a little balcony on the street, rue Bonaparte. As I step out on the balcony the church bells begin to ring. Such a beautiful way to welcome us to Paris. I listen with new ears; it is the first time in my life that the sound of church bells has meant anything to me. Soon there is sound of klaxons, and a fire engine sweeps through the narrow street. Are they real firemen? They look exactly like the ones I played with as a child. What next?
We unpack, wash up, and set out for the boulevard to have a drink. I'm still trembling with excitement. It seems to me that everybody is staring at us. At Mona particularly. Too much make up probably. Or the clothes. Or is it that they see in her something different? We sit down at a little café, not the Deux Magots on the corner.
Mona is talking now — a mile a minute. Giving me the low down on the quartier, pointing out where she ran into this one and that — Borowski, Hemingway, Kokoshka, Tihanyi. Where to eat cheaply when our money begins to give out. Which bookstores are the most exciting. Where one can see Picasso of an evening, or Marcel Duchamp. Where not to go, because there are too many Americans about. Where one can buy African sculpture — or canes such as Borowski sports. How to find one's way around in the Metro. Where the avant-garde films are shown. Which aperitifs are the most pleasant tasting. "Try a Pernod!", she says. I finish my beer and she orders two Pernods. "How did you say that again?" I'd like at least to be able to order myself a drink when I'm alone. "You can order in English", she says. "Everybody speaks English around here." "But I don't want to talk English. I don't want to be taken for an American."
She laughs in my face. "You'll always be an American", she shouts. "Don't try to be anything else. Besides, the French like Americans."
'Good", I said. "So long as they don't take me for a Hun."
The Pernod was wonderful. Seemed to clear my head.
"I wouldn't take another now", said Mona. "Let's eat first. I know a nice little place not far from here — on the rue Jacob. André Gide goes there some times."
I was watching the women passing by as she talked. I hadn't seen a really striking one yet. Most of them seemed rather homely to me, though they carried themselves well.
"We'll go the Brasserie Lipp some time", she was saying. "There you'll meet everyone you've ever heard of. It's ..."
"Excuse me", I said, "but there's the first stunning-looking one I've seen so far". I indicated a young woman standing at the curb.
"Oh her!" she exclaimed. "She's a well-known model. Poses for Soutine, I think, or maybe it's Matisse. Rather fleshy, don't you think? But that's how they like 'em here."
"Looks good to me", I said. "I like a little flesh too."
"I must take you to a whorehouse some time ..."
"Yes, a whorehouse. Women go as well as men, you know. You sit around and drink ... you don't have to go with the girls if you don't want to."
"I'd rather go alone. It sounds crazy to me, dragging your wife to a whorehouse."
"It's fun", she said. 'Everybody does it."
Walking to the restaurant — we made a slight detour so as to take in some of the colorful streets in the neighborhood — my eyes feasted on even the tiniest details. What gorgeous streets for a man striving for something different all his life! The rue de Buci, the rue Mazarine, the rue de Seine: nothing but quaint dilapidated hotels, brilliant awnings, bars, food emporiums, art stores, bookshops, one thing piled on top another, men, women, dogs, cats, lunatics, vegetables, carcasses, bric-a-brac, treasures from Africa and Asia, paintings by poets, pastries by masters, billboards, ensigns, emblems, scarred and charred walls decorated with letters ten feet tall advertising drinks, talcum powders, tires, cheeses, what not.
We sit on the sidewalk, where one did everything apparently, depending on the weather and the time of day. Mona had to explain the various dishes to me. It seemed like an enormous menu — such a variety of meats, vegetables, cheeses, wines, liqueurs, hors d'oeuvres. I let her order for me, astonished to hear her rattle it off in French. I had always been dubious that she knew any French. Her vocabulary wasn't very extensive, I soon discovered, but it was enough to get us by.
What struck me most about that first meal was the animation with which people ate. They ate and talked, and laughed and joked. They not only enjoyed the food, they seemed to enjoy one another's company. Didn't they in America too? Only now and then, it seemed to me. Americans never impressed me as enjoying anything properly. And they were certainly deficient in the art of conversation. If only I knew what these frogs were talking about! If only I could join in! "Do you get any of it?" I asked.
"No, Val, it's too fast for me. Besides, the Parisians use a lot of slang."
"It sure sounds beautiful", I said. "And so much more vigorous than I thought. I used to think it a feminine language, all flowers and perfume."
"Wait till you hear them swear."
"I wouldn't know the difference", I recalled. "By the way, give me a couple of swear words. I'd like to know what it sounds like."
She leaned forward and said with a grin: "Merde!"
"What's that mean?"
"Shit. Isn't it lovely?"
"Sounds rather innocuous to me. Can't you give me something stronger?"
"Vous êtes un con", she volunteered.
"Actually it means cunt, but when you say vous êtes un con, what it really means is — You're a prick!"
"That's a strange one", I said. "So they reverse it here. I must get a dictionary of slang."
"First you'd better get an ordinary one. And a map of the Metro."
"And you write out the names of a few good dishes for me!"
"Listen, Val", she cut in, "Just choose at random. Point with your finger. Everything's good in France. You can't pick a bad dish, even if you try. The same for the wines. They're all marvellous, even the vin ordinaire. Let's go somewhere for a coffee. I'd love a Chartreuse with my coffee. Let's go to the Café Flore — it's not so crowded as some of the others. Or would you like to try Montparnasse — the Dôme, for instance?"
I decided that Montparnasse could wait. "Let's stay in this quarter", I suggested. "Pick any joint you like."
The church bells began ringing again. It was entrancing. Why didn't they sound that way at home?
"Do you remember Huysmans, Val? There's a church a little farther up the street, probably the ugliest in Paris — St. Sulpice. Huysmans wrote about it in La Bas. Paris is full of churches. The best one, in my opinion, is St. Chapelle. Next to Chartres I think it the most beautiful in France."
"What about Notre Dame?"
"It's beautiful too, but it doesn't move me. Maybe it's been looked at too much."
As we took a seat on the terrasse of the Flore, Mona pointed out this one and that, all celebrities, most of them unknown to me even by name. "Each artist has his own café", she explained. "It's in the café he meets his friends, not at his home. Most of them don't have a home, anyway; they live in hotel rooms or garrets. If a Frenchman invites you to his home you can take it you've made a real friend."
"I like that". I said promptly. "I means meeting one's friends at a café rather than at home. Privacy is something we've never had."
"Yes", said Mona eagerly, "No one here thinks of barging in on you unannounced. They either telephone or send you a pneumatique — that's like a special delivery letter, only it looks like a telegram."
"How do you like the hotel?" she added. "Isn't it cosy? If you run short of cash just ask the woman at the desk to lend you some francs. They're very decent about money."
"That doesn't sound French to me", I said.
"You're right. The French are not very generous, on the whole, but the people at the hotel are different. They come from the Midi, that's the south of France. Another breed entirely."
"Let's hope we don't run short", said I. "We have enough now to last us a year, if we don't get reckless."
"That's the trouble", said Mona. "One does get reckless over here. Too much to see, too much to do, too much to buy. You can't resist."
"Well, let's take it easy to begin with. Jesus, I'd be happy if I did nothing more than eat and drink the way we're doing now, and walk the streets and gape and stare."
"We don't want to stay in Paris forever, do we?" said Mona. "There's so much else to see. There's Germany, Austria, Hungary, Poland, Romania ..."
"Hold on! Let's get a taste of Paris first. Don't rush me all over the map right away, please. Sure, I want to go places, see things, but not all at once. Romania, you say. That's a strange one. Why Romania?"
"Because I have relatives there. I was born in the Carpathians, remember?"
"Where was it again?"
"Okay. We'll go there one day. But not till we've had a good look at France, eh?"
"As you please", she replied. "Only I know you. You've got itchy feet."
"I'd like to see the whole wide world, that's what. But you can't do it on a shoestring. If we had the dough. I'd say let's go to India, China, Bali, Persia. I could go on travelling for the rest of my life."
"And what about writing?" she said, with a sly gleam in her eye.
"That, there's always time for that. Now we're travelling."
Couldn't you write too?"
"I don't know. Maybe. We'll see."
"Maybe we'll find just the spot to settle down in, some place where you'd feel at home ... maybe in the south of France."
"I wouldn't care where it was", I replied. "If only we had enough to live on. It would be tough trying to beg in French."
"We're not going to beg", said Mona defiantly. "You're going to write and you're going to get paid for your work. Trust me. I'll take care of all that."
"Let's drop the subject, what do you say? I don't want to think about money any more. Let's just live and forget."
The next morning we had breakfast in bed, or rather Mona did. 1 was already up and dressed, ready to stretch my legs; the bells were ringing again, the air was soft and balmy. Springtime in Paris: the dream of every tourist. The croissants were delicious and the dark chicory-flavoured coffee just to my taste.
"What's the program for today?" I asked, as she made for the bathroom.
"I think we'll go to see Borowski, if you don't mind."
"Just like that? No warning? I thought you had to send a what you call it first."
"Not with Borowski", she replied. "We're old friends."
I waited patiently on the balcony while she made ready to go, always a long procedure with her. What a lively spectacle it was from up there on the third floor: where in America could I look down on a stream of traffic such as this? She had picked a good street for a first taste of Paris. It was alive, intimate, colorful — as gay as the tricolor itself.
"We'll walk there", she said. "It's only a few blocks from here. Near the Luxembourg Gardens. He'll be thrilled."
I wasn't so sure he'd be thrilled to see me. From all she had told me about the wonderful days and nights they had spent together, to say nothing of the gifts she had brought back from his studio, 1 was a bit apprehensive. I tried to convey the thought to her but she dismissed it as absurd. In the past, whenever I had been introduced to one of her lovers — "admirers", she called them — it was never as her husband. I was usually passed off as one of her writer friends. Borowski, she had told me, treated her as a fellow artist, a writer, no less. It would be interesting to know, could I open him up, just what he thought about her writing. I also wondered what she would say when he inquired about those "gifts" she had taken with her to America.
She pulled the bell rope at the garden door and in a moment there came a man's voice — rather sharp and querulous, I thought — demanding to know who was there.
"It's me, Mona", she said softly.
With that the door was unlocked and there stood Borowski, no mistaking him, pipe in hand, beret cocked jauntily over his thick mop of iron-gray hair.
Excerpted from Paris 1928 by Henry Miller. Copyright © 2012 Estate of Henry Miller. Excerpted by permission of John Libbey Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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