Henry Miller (Interview, Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No. 28)

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In 1934, Henry Miller, then aged forty-two and living in Paris, published his first book. In 1961 the book was finally published in his native land, where it promptly became a best-seller and a cause célèbre. By now the waters have been so muddied by controversy about censorship, pornography, and obscenity that one is likely to talk about anything but the book itself.

But this is nothing new. Like D. H. Lawrence, Henry Miller has long been a byword and a legend. Championed by critics and artists, venerated by pilgrims, emulated by beatniks, he is above everything else a culture hero—or villain, to those who see him as a menace to law and order. He might even be described as a folk hero: hobo, prophet, and exile, the Brooklyn boy who went to Paris when everyone else was going home, the starving bohemian enduring the plight of the creative artist in America, and in latter years the sage of Big Sur.

His life is all written out in a series of picaresque narratives in the first-person historical present: his early Brooklyn years in Black Spring, his struggles to find himself during the twenties in Tropic of Capricorn and the three volumes of the Rosy Crucifixion, his adventures in Paris during the thirties in Tropic of Cancer.

In 1939 he went to Greece to visit Lawrence Durrell; his sojourn there provides the narrative basis of The Colossus of Maroussi. Cut off by the war and forced to return to America, he made the yearlong odyssey recorded in The Air-Conditioned Nightmare. Then in 1944 he settled on a magnificent empty stretch of California coast, leading the life described in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch.Now that his name has made Big Sur a center for pilgrimage, he has been driven out and is once again on the move.

At seventy Henry Miller looks rather like a Buddhist monk who has swallowed a canary. He immediately impresses one as a warm and humorous human being. Despite his bald head with its halo of white hair, there is nothing old about him. His figure, surprisingly slight, is that of a young man; all his gestures and movements are young.

His voice is quite magically captivating, a mellow, resonant but quiet bass with great range and variety of modulation; he cannot be as unconscious as he seems of its musical spell. He speaks a modified Brooklynese frequently punctuated by such rhetorical pauses as “Don’t you see?” and “You know?” and trailing off with a series of diminishing reflective noises, “Yas, yas . . . hmm . . . hmm . . . yas . . . hm . . . hm.” To get the full flavor and honesty of the man, one must hear the recordings of that voice.

The interview was conducted in September 1961, in London.

from Pocket

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