Friday, March 21, 2014

Henry Miller

Henry Miller befriended Erica Jong when Fear of Flying came out, referring to the novel as "the female counterpart" to Tropic of Cancer.

He became Jong's mentor and "literary benefactor," setting her on a path that culminated in this "paradox of biography."

It became a search for a contradictory and divisive figure who remained "maddeningly elusive," in part due to the "blurred boundaries between fiction and autobiography" in his writing.

But it also became a search for Erica Jong herself, for how could she reconcile his chauvinism, his blatant sexism, with her own feminism?

Thus this 1993 book is "part memoir, part critical study, party biography, part exploration of sexual politics in our time."

It includes a 36-page section of letters they exchanged in 1974, as well an outrageous anecdote related by Miller about pissing his pants in a French courtroom. There is also an imaginary dialogue between the two authors. ("Make it all up!" Miller had advised her. "That's the only way to get it right.")

The book was slagged by many reviewers for its hyperbole, blurred boundaries, and suggestive title (Erica Jong on Henry Miller), criticism that seems rather narrow-minded and might be construed, perhaps, as a confirmation what Jong is saying.

Personally I found the book well-written, insightful, provocative, and full of quotable nuggets.

His Life

Born and raised in New York with "a raging mother, a retarded sister, a drunken father." Spoke German at home and was named Heinrich after his father.

"He gave off heat like a roaring fire. He was more alive than most people ever are, and when you were near him, he shed his light and life force on you."

"It is Henry's lifelong habit of letting it all hang out that often makes him appear bigoted."

"Henry's financial life reads like a surrealist farce."

Some descriptors used: scribomaniac, primal force, eternal vagabond, cock-eyed optimist.

Loved painting and playing the piano.

His Writing

"Miller's works are confrontations, not evasions. For his life force alone, Miller is unique."

"'The truth can also be a lie.' This is critical to Henry's whole concept of life and writing."

He "used the word sex in a cosmic, not a genital sense."

He was "a trancendentalist in the indigenous American tradition of Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson and Whitman." His style "as revolutionary in its own way as Joyce's or Hemingway's or Stein's."

He "predicted the art of our age--and even our journalism, film, television, and visual arts--all based on the exploration of personality and the blurring of the line between fiction and fact."

"If we have trouble categorizing Miller's 'novels' and consequently underrate them, it is because we judge them according to some unspoken notion of 'the well-wrought novel.' And Miller's novels seem not wrought at all. In fact, they are rants---undisciplined and wild. But they are full of wisdom, and they have that 'eternal and irrepressible freshness' Ezra Pound called the mark of the true classic."

"His best work was so far ahead of its time--and his worst work, as with many writers, was horrendous self-parody."

His "sexism does not annihilate his contribution to literature."

His Painting

It was only after his return to America and living on the West Coast that "he began to paint as demonically as he once had written."

The title for Jong's book came from a small work that Miller wrote and illustrated, Insomnia, or the Devil at Large.

Erica Jong

"Sexual censorship is always used to mask political goals. Frequently it is not about sex at all."

"I believe I belong to the last literary generation, the last generation, that is, for whom books are religion...for whom reading and writing are sacraments."

"For the most part, the 'fictional' novels we read today belong to a dead genre, a genre that somnolizes rather than awakens. People read mysteries, romances, and thrillers to anesthetize themselves, not to alert their souls."

"Film absorbed the lessons of surrealism. The novel speeded up its scenes to match the dwindling attention span of the contemporary reader. Fiction writers learned to cut and edit like filmmakers. But, for the most part, they ignored the lessons of Miller, Joyce, Woolf, and Stein, and continued to write nineteenth-century Dickensian or Dostoyevskian novels in the age of visual media."

"Writing problems are always psychological problems."

Henry Miller--The Paintings: A Centennial Retrospective

The three paintings shown above come from this book published in 1991.

It has nearly 100 reproductions, each with a comment by Miller himself, his former wife Lepska, his son Tony, his daughter Valentine, or a number of other acquaintances, plus a foreword by Miller's longtime pal, Lawrence Durrell. By the end of his life he'd had 70 exhibitions all over the world.

Durrell: Miller's paintings convey "the feeling of abundance and vivacity that characterised his mind and heart."

Lepska: "I remember he loved the pinks. He was intoxicated with those colors, with the names of the paints. They were like the titles of books or names of great wines to him. They would excite him so, he would literally dance about."

Valentine: "Pablo Picasso visited us once at our home..."

Tony: "My father was the most generous person I have ever known."

Tony Miller maintains a website where you can see more of his father's work. Some pieces are going for as much as $35,000.