I Read a Biography of Henry Miller – Glad I Wasn’t He.

OK, so I have never read through a novel by Henry Miller.  Of course, I have looked at a page here and there (who hasn’t?), but the writing always seemed so overblown that I never had the patience to see a book  through beyond a few paragraphs (of course I feel the same way about Faulkner).  Whether I have been mistaken in my feelings about Miller’s writing, I don’t know.  Many praise him to the skies (although I don’t know how much he is read today).

But I did make it through Arthur Hoyle’s “The Unknown Henry Miller: a Seeker in Big Sur” and found it quite interesting, although in spite of the great detail which is contained in the book, I still don’t think that I understand much about the man.

Henry Miller is of course best known for his two “Tropics” books – the “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn” and, perhaps to a lesser extent, some of his other writings. He was also a painter, who often exhibited his watercolors. I had assumed he was someone who lived by venturing from one sexual escapade to another, egotistical, without much thought of the lives of normal folks.  I knew that there was a lot of trouble getting his books published in this country because of the obscenity laws, and that it was not issued here until the mid-1960s, about 30 years after it was first published in France.  I know that he had a much larger following abroad (but so does Jerry Lewis).

It turns out that Miller was far from a happy-go-lucky type.  Raised in Brooklyn, from a somewhat dysfunctional family, he held a number of poorly paid jobs and wrote on the side, married and had a child, divorced and married again, and didn’t leave Brooklyn until he was almost 40 years old.  He then went to Europe, divorced his second wife, stayed in Europe about a decade and continued to roam around (somewhat aimlessly, I think) and write, and then returned to the United States and settled in Big Sur, where he married again (and again) and lived until the 1960s, when he moved to Pacific Palisades where he lived until he died at age 88 in 1980 (in his later years traveling back and forth to Europe).

Miller was obviously a compulsive writer, and used his life history as a kickoff point for his writing (which he considered philosophical).  He was completely uninhibited in his writing, you can assume that much of what he wrote was exaggerated, and his style (and openness) was unique (perhaps not so unique today).  As many writers are, I assume, he was very much egocentric, and he was unable to enter a mature relationship with any woman, so everyone of his relationships started with infatuation, and ended with boredom and infidelity, or just wore itself out.  Not a pretty picture, whether in New York, Europe or California.  And Miller’s writing, as the book explains it, was a philosophical and sexual rumination on his juvenile infatuations, and his inability to be happy in an ongoing relationship.  Not a happy guy.

He also never had any money.  I mean no money.  He had no domestic income, and a hard time collecting from his foreign publishers.  He borrowed with shame from everyone he knew.  When he started living at Big Sur, it was in a loaned cabin without heat, electricity, or running water.  Far from neighbors, far from major roads, and far from grocery and other stores.  In fact, he was not financially secure until his books were able to be published in the United States – and by now he would have been about 70 years old.

Throughout this time, though, he was able to maintain friendships (OK, so some of his friendships did have abrupt endings) with literary celebrities around the world – Anais Nin for example, with whom he had an intimate relationship but from whom he was estranged for most of his career, and Lawrence Durrell of the Alexandria Quartet fame, whose friendship remained throughout his life.  His relationships with his ex-wives, and with his mother (on whom he blamed everything) were not good.  He had three children, one by his first wife (he was estranged from her for decades, but they reconciled; and two from his third wife, when he was living at Big Sur and with whom he maintained a custody sharing agreement).

I am not sure what I expected when I started the book.  But I know that I did not expect as much poverty and domestic struggling, or so much egotistical insecurity. Would I learn even more about him if I attacked his writing?  Not sure.  But I am not going to find out.


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