“We lead lives that are contrary to our profession” – Henry Miller

It would be impossible to overstate the influence Henry Miller had on me when I was younger. I first read “Tropic of Cancer” when I was eighteen, and in the next three years I must have read it half a dozen times more, along with “Tropic of Capricorn”, “Black Spring”, the “Rosy Crucifixion” trilogy, “The Air Conditioned Nightmare”, “Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch”, etc etc etc. Miller is the ultimate “voice” writer, where you either submit to his brash, freewheeling, incantatory rhythm, or you reject it utterly. If you like your fiction neat and considered, polished and perfectly constructed, then Henry Miller is not your man. If you like your fiction to be actually fictional, then Henry Miller is not your man. These books are rambling digressions on the supreme subject of Henry Miller, his extraordinary life, and his ultimate rejection of  the materialism of the 20th century. Sexually frank and explicit, Miller’s work can be (and has been, by Salman Rushdie most recently) dismissed as little more than pornography, but the sexual element of his writing tends to overshadow his central themes of individual liberty, and the way the crushing world of work exerts itself to stamp that spirit out. Miller’s intense bohemianism attracted me more than I can say; frequently broke, anguished by his failures both literary and sexual, in the end he seemed completely free.

I don’t know what has led me back to him lately. On a whim, I watched “Henry and June”, Philip Kaufman’s 1990 film of Anais Nin’s journals, for the first time in a decade or so. Like Miller’s books, this film was once a touchstone in my life, and I must have watched it dozens of times. Not a work of art by any means, I think Fred Ward’s performance captures Miller’s spirit perfectly, and the languorous, sensual atmosphere is the absolute distillation of Nin’s journals. My old copy of “Tropic of Cancer” has gone missing somewhere along the way (it was a battered, second-hand 1960s Panther paperback, and I’d had to stick most of the pages back in with tape), so I bought the recent Harper Perennial edition and am preparing myself to read it once more.

Miller’s influence was not wholly benign; I think it deformed my own writing considerably, at a time when I was trying to find my own voice. I didn’t; I ended up with some half-arsed version of Miller’s, and it took me years to expunge it. But that’s not Henry Miller’s fault, and should serve as an indication of how hypnotic and strangely seductive he can be. When he’s writing at his highest pitch, there is no one to touch him.

I found this old Paris Review interview with him online. WordPress won’t let me put it in as a link for some reason, but copy and paste, and enjoy. And seek out his books where you may.

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4597/the-art-of-fiction-no-28-henry-miller

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