Thursday, 6 August 2009

"Black Spring" by Henry Miller

Where to start, in writing about Henry Miller? Come to that, where to stop? The only way to make this manageable is to restrict myself so far a possible to the book I am supposed to be reviewing, which is the new release by One World Classics of Black Spring. However, it is necessary to place it in the context of his other works, chiefly because it forms part of a trilogy which (though non-sequential) begins with Tropic of Cancer and concludes with Tropic of Capricorn. It is also set, at least partly, in that period of his life when he was living in Paris with flatmate Alfred Perlès, which is described in much more salacious detail in Quiet Days in Clichy. A fictional character named Carl masquerades as Perlès in both books, and the latter work is about the only surviving record of this largely forgotten writer; let us hope that One World Classics will now turn their attentions on him.

Miller’s main works of fiction fall broadly into two trilogies: the one just mentioned, and a second written later in life, comprising Plexus, Nexus, and Sexus, together called The Rosy Crucifixion. Thankfully, we can safely ignore these since they are common consent of a lesser standard than their earlier counterparts. Even the loyally sycophantic Lawrence Durrell cabled Miller in an effort to stop one of them (I forget which) being published, saying that they would damage his reputation. Personally, I found them tedious and over-long.

None of that is the case with the earlier trilogy, though. As with Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring is written in a totally unique style. Fragmentary, with the unities of time and place cracked asunder, and influenced on Miller’s own admission by the prevailing surrealism and existentialism of the thirties, the scenes which follow each other in bewildering succession are thinly disguised (though, some believe, heavily embroidered) auto-biography, and carry a consistent message. Better by far, says Miller, to be poor, hungry and homeless if in being so one can find understanding and fulfilment, than to be wealthy and successful if this simply wraps one in so many layers of social convention and platitudes that one has no hope of ever seeing the world as it really is.

It is only fair to point out that the text is well larded with four letter words and graphic descriptions of various sexual acts which are, for good measure, at best dismissive and at worst openly contemptuous of women in general. All three books of the trilogy could be published only in France (by Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press recently chronicled by Neil Pearson) and were immediately banned in both America and Britain. Indeed they were not finally published in either country until the early 60s, after the Lady Chatterley case. Bizarrely, though, in 1958 even while his books were still banned, Miller was elected to the American Institute of Arts and Letters, so presumably a significant number of copies must have been circulating privately.

Even on initial publication a number of books must have slipped past the customs officials in England, because George Orwell, Cyril Connolly and T.S. Elliott all wrote favourable reviews. So, from distant Corfu, did Lawrence Durrell, whose Black Book (his first novel, now largely forgotten) was also published in Paris by the Obelisk press. Anticipating a ban, no effort was made to release it in England and America, based largely on the advice of T.S. Elliot, who during his day job was Durrell’s poetry publisher. As Neil Pearson points out in his book on Jack Kahane, alongside its day to day task of churning out sleazy rubbish, Obelisk also played a valuable role without which writers such as Miller and Durrell would not have seen the light of day.

I initially read both the other two books in the Paris trilogy while I was actually living in Paris, but I found Black Spring at least as enjoyable even when read in the dull greyness of London (incidentally there is an almost Proustian section in Black Spring where Miller speculates on the various qualities of greyness) and probably even more accessible.

Yes, of course there are objections and drawbacks. It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Miller’s frequent use of bad language is gratuitous, and intended solely to shock, particularly in the context of the prevailing mores of the 30s. His attitude to women would inflame many of the school of political correctness. The fragmentary nature of the novels often makes it difficult to string together any coherent long term narrative. Yet Miller is undoubtedly a writer of genius, and the fact that he paints life in the raw is an important part of that. He puts me in mind of Céline, the depiction of life in New York by a Frenchman ironically echoing the description of life in Paris by an American. Black Spring should be on the reading list of anyone interested in twentieth century literature, or indeed in the evolution of the novel.

A huge thank-you is due to One World Classics for having had the guts to publish something on the grounds of its literary merits rather than its perceived commercial potential. Let us hope that Perlès and Durrell’s Black Book will feature in their list sometime soon.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Thank you for that review. I wanted to get a handle on the style and this prefaced my reading of the Black Spring.