7 May 2014

Robert Ferguson: Henry Miller: A Life (1991)

Robert Ferguson's Henry Miller is no hagiography: Miller is in general depicted as a person with a huge appetite for sex and with little care for the wives and girlfriends – or children created – that he leaves behind when his love affairs have reached their inevitable final climax.

Henry Miller was addicted not only to sex (especially with much younger women) but also to marriage, and tied a loose knot five times: with Beatrice, June, Lepska, Eve and Hoki, although the final marriage was merely one of convenience and the young Japanese woman had no intention of having sex with an old man, no matter how many gifts he bestowed on her or how many love letters he wrote.

Before, in between – and during – his marriages Miller also made good use of his libido. And he eventually made very good use of his experiences by transmuting them into explosive autobiographical fiction. But for many years – particularly in the thirties when he was in Paris – Miller was just struggling to get by, using his charm and flattery with anyone he met in order to bum money and/or find somewhere to crash for a few nights. But his relatively long and frequently fraught, poverty-stricken relationship with June, which began in America and ended in France, was closed by Anaïs Nin, the wealthy married woman who wouldn't marry him and who came to understand what a bastard he could be.

Inevitably, because Henry Miller's life was frequently distorted by the myth he lent to it by his exaggeration and his outright lies, some of the truth about Miller gets lost, and there has to be some reading between the lines. Towards the end of his life Miller really played to the gallery, and photos of the beautiful young Brenda Venus with her arms around a much older, cloth-capped man, or the same old man playing ping pong with a naked young woman are of course just set up for publicity, an attempt to stretch a legend to places which reality couldn't reach.

George Orwell briefly met the pacifist Miller in Paris on his way to fight in Spain and was told that his action was 'sheer stupidity'. Famously, Orwell wrote about Miller in the essay 'Inside the Whale', in which he sees him insulated against reality by all the blubber around him.

What is surreal is Miller's visit to Eudora Welty in Jackson, Mississippi, having previously informed her that if she needed the money anytime he could 'put her in touch with "an unfailing pornographic market"'. Ferguson says that Miller spent three days with Welty and her mother, although other (surely more credible) sources say her mother refused to see him and that Welty got some male friends together to attempt to entertain him but that he didn't seem interested in anything – plus, he wasn't at all interesting.

What is real, as Ferguson points out, is Henry Miller's influence on other writers. He mentions the admiration of Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, John Updike and James Baldwin for such attributes as 'the courage and honesty of his sexual writing'. The Beat writers, on the other hand, were also attracted to his anti-Americanism, anti-materialism and his appreciation of eastern religions.

I've only ever read Tropic of Cancer and the very different novella The Smile at the Foot of the Ladder, but what now interests me is re-reading Cancer, and probably Tropic of Capricorn too, in the light of what Ferguson has shed on them being romans à clef.

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