Miller’s most famous books – Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, Tropic of Capricorn – were banned in Britain and America at the time, remaining so until Grove Press risked prosecution by printing Tropic of Cancer in 1961, to be followed by a John Calder edition in the UK two years later. They were none the less widely read, being available legally in Paris, first in the original editions from the Obelisk Press, the creation of the Mancunian Jack Kahane, then from Obelisk’s post-war offshoot, Olympia Press (overseen by his son, Maurice Girodias), and were obtainable under the counter in English-speaking countries. Their fugitive status in the 1950s and 60s, together with that of other titles – The World of Sex, the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy (Sexus, Nexus and Plexus) – conspired to make Miller the hardiest of that alluring mid-century species, the sexual outlaw, perhaps the last of its kind in Western lands.
At the time Durrell wrote to Aldington, Olympia was profiting from yet another Miller title, Quiet Days in Clichy (1956), with photographs of Parisian low life by Brassaï – a feature of which there is but a sole trace in the new Penguin Modern Classics edition, in the form of a cover illustration. The reader needn’t venture far into this short text to encounter the “ghoul” evoked by Durrell. Joe, the narrator – in other books he is Henry, occasionally Val, short for Valentine, Miller’s middle name – is sharing a house near Place Clichy with his friend Carl. One night he returns home hungry and tries to tap Carl for a few francs. “We’ve got bigger things to worry about now”, Carl tells him.
“I brought a girl home with me – a waif. She can’t be more than fourteen. I just gave her a lay. Did you hear me? I hope I didn’t knock her up. She’s a virgin.”
“You mean she was,” I put in . . . .
At that moment the girl stuck her head through the doorway. Carl jumped up and brought her to the bed. “Colette,” he said, as I put out my hand to greet her. “What do you think of her?”
Before I had time to answer, the girl turned to him and, almost as if frightened, asked what language we were speaking.
“Don’t you know English when you hear it?” said Carl. . . . Then to me: “She’s a little idiot. But look at those breasts! Pretty ripe for fourteen, what? . . . Would you like to come and look at the sheets?” he said, putting an arm around Colette’s waist. “We’ll have to throw them away, I guess. I can’t take them to the laundry; they’d suspect me of having committed a crime.”
“Get her to wash them,” I said jocularly. “There’s a lot she can do around here if she wants to keep house for us.”
“So you want her to stay? You know it’s illegal, don’t you? We can go to jail for this.”
“Better get her a pair of pajamas, or a nightgown,” I said, “because if she’s going to walk around at night in that crazy shift of yours I may forget myself and rape her.”As it happens, Joe has just arrived from an encounter with a woman met in a café, whom he had escorted to a hotel, envisaging her “dangling on the end of my cock, a fresh, hefty piece of meat waiting to be trimmed and cured”. Soon he will be enlaced with yet another. “It was a period when cunt was in the air. The English girls were at the Casino de Paris; they ate at a prix fixe restaurant near the Place Blanche. We became friends with the whole troupe, pairing off finally with a gorgeously beautiful Scotch girl [who] eventually handed Carl a beautiful dose of clap which she contracted from her Negro lover at Melody’s Bar.” There is no harm in a dose of clap, Joe assures Carl “cheerily”:
He looked at Colette and burst out laughing.
Get a double dose and spread it abroad. Infect the whole continent! Better a good venereal disease than a moribund peace and quiet. Now I know what makes the world civilized: it’s vice, disease, thievery, mendacity, lechery. Shit, the French are a great people, even if they’re syphilitic.Miller would have turned 125 this year. In chronological terms, he belongs to the era before the writers of the Lost Generation but his publication history projected him beyond them. He had little or no contact in France with the American-in-Paris fraternity, the sort that permeates The Sun Also Rises or frequented Sylvia Beach’s bookshop. By the time Tropic of Cancer was published, Miller was almost forty-three. He first arrived in France from New York for a short stay in 1928 with his wife June Mansfield, a “dancer” – she sold dances for 10 cents a time at Wilson’s Dance Hall near Broadway, where Miller met her – then returned, alone and lovelorn, in 1930. Poverty seeps through all his Paris writings, visible in a way that it is not in the nostalgic hunger-was-a-good-discipline atmosphere of A Moveable Feast. Miller is always close to his last crust. Where young Hemingway’s cheap rooms are simple but cosy, Miller’s are bare and cold. Forced outdoors, he had a face-to-face relationship with the thronging Parisian street life, something encountered in Hemingway’s work only occasionally, usually when Ford Madox Ford or Scott Fitzgerald can be glimpsed amid the throng. “Have just been to the Trois Portes for a couple of beers”, Miller wrote to Anaïs Nin one night in 1932 after he had knocked off from his job as a non-registered proofreader at the Paris bureau of the Herald Tribune.
Trembling as I swallow them, from the pace at which I worked . . . . And today, bundled up in a bathrobe, an overcoat, a muffler and hat, I sat down and wrote ten more pages for the book . . . . I go to the Rotonde bar for a drink and the messenger who delivers me the Havas [news agency] reports mentions a girl he wants to introduce to me – he is a pimp on the side. I was in the Café l’Avenue the other night and there was a pregnant woman sitting beside me. She opened her coat to show me her stomach – eight months under way. Some dirty Spaniard, she said, deserted her, and there she was high and dry, would I give her a hundred sous so that she could eat.The letters to Nin, written mostly before the publication of Tropic of Cancer and collected in A Literate Passion (1987), share the climate of “the book”, with one noticeable difference: the narrator of the novel is portrayed as happy and free, while Nin’s correspondent is so lonely and cold that he suspects himself of writing just to keep warm. He is obliged time and again to inform friends that he has moved – Miller estimated twenty-five addresses in three years. “Am going over Tropic of Cancer with a fine comb”, he told Nin. “Here and there a bit sentimental – sententious even. But I’ll try to weed this out.” Eventually, she put up the money for its production, out of a fear that Kahane, with financial and legal troubles of his own and perhaps pleased to have an excuse to avoid the impending Tropic storm, would prevaricate indefinitely. The book was published in September 1934. Nin wrote a preface, which is missing from the new Penguin, as, more seriously, is the epigraph from Emerson, essentially a mission statement: “These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies – captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experience that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly”.
There was a time, beginning with “the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP”, enduring through the 1970s, when Miller’s literary standing was as high as that of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Truman Capote and the other Miller, Arthur. Durrell was exaggerating (and probably speaking from ignorance) when he said, “American literature begins and ends with the meaning of what Miller has done”, but it is indicative of the esteem in which he was once held that Penguin can draw on a rich fund of endorsements from Aldous Huxley, Erica Jong, Norman Mailer, George Orwell and Ezra Pound, among others. The “meaning of what Miller has done” is a hard phrase to pin down but presumably refers to, among other things, his sexual frankness – the very quality that has today led to his exclusion from the canon Durrell claimed he was the founder of.
The admirers included T. S. Eliot, who politely turned down Tropic of Cancer on behalf of Faber and Faber but none the less permitted his remarks to be quoted on the second printing: “A very remarkable book . . . a rather magnificent piece of work”. (In the first of three letters to Miller in 1935, Eliot had said that Cancer was “a great deal better both in depth of insight and of course in the actual writing than Lady Chatterley’s Lover”.) Having met Miller in Paris when on his way to fight in Spain in 1936, Orwell declared that he was “the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past” (“Inside the Whale”, 1941). The achievement lay in his having found a proportionate literary reaction to the current global malaise. “I should say that he believes in the impending ruin of Western civilization much more firmly than the majority of the ‘revolutionary’ writers; only he does not feel called upon to do anything about it.” This “negative, unconstructive, amoral” approach appealed to Orwell for much the same reason as it pleased Miller himself: it was “the voice from the crowd, from the third-class carriage, from the ordinary, non-political, non-moral, passive man”. It was free of two qualities Orwell despised thoroughly: cant and pretentiousness.
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