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Amber Paulen

Conversations with Henry Miller

27 June 2010


In Michigan last winter, in a book store, I hit on this gem of a book tucked between shelves. It was only $10.95 though I would have paid triple. Reading Henry Miller we get the writer and the man as he writes himself to be read; in these interviews he is the one observed, his conversational nuances, his bald crown ringed by white hair. This is not the kind of book one reads all the way through but dabbles in and puts down again, so that it’s never finished but always returned to.

Yesterday Simon and I went to Ostia beach to satisfy my skin’s craving for sunshine, sand and water. Ostia isn’t beautiful, it’s been a Roman beach for too long and not to mention the mouth of the river Tevere spewing Italian rubbish. Slightly south to cleaner (cold) waters and it was very pleasant. Especially since I had Henry Miller along to give sun-drenched thoughts floatation.

The interview that most amused me was one by Roger Jones in 1976 when Miller was a mere 84. He comes off as an almost crotchety old man living in the suburbs of the Pacific Palisades, someone very different than the Miller I converse with in my head. Roger Jones preserved Miller’s rhetorical phrases, gesticulations and pauses for laughter, which makes it’s reading that much more delightful.

They begin with biography, unavoidable for a dying well-known writer. Henry Miller says he wants an “imaginary biography”:

Well, I’ll tell you why, easily I think. Because I place imagination above everything. The word “realism” is something I hate almost, abominate. Reality is another, do y’know? Reality. To me that has a great ring. A metaphysical ring. And there’s no end to reality, to the meaning or the depth of it or the extent of it. But “realism” such as you get in writing, like certain of our American writers, is to me scum on water, you see? So anything that springs from the imagination, that’s poetic, and that disregards fact—facts to me are only stumbling blocks.

Four questions down Roger Jones asks: Do you see [an imaginary biography] arriving at some more essential truth than a factual biography?

Oh yes! Oh yes! I would say if you close your eyes and you are a poet you get more out of a meeting with a man than would one of these reporters who’s a trained journalist and observer. Because you’d sense your subject with all your being. You see I never worry about the faults, the mistakes, the errors of fact. That doesn’t bother me. It’s the insight, the man’s penetration of the other’s character that matters.

Yes! Yes! As always and how it should be, Henry Miller isn’t interested in the details, what matters is the crystallization of the spirit.

They warn you about germs, about this and that, but they don’t tell you that you should be a free spirit first of all. If you have freedom, the freedom of spirit, you’ll overcome all those germs and microbes and whatever they talk about. I think. (He chuckles.)

What sane wisdom. And another:

I hate to give advice, but I will answer young people who are writing in this way: If you know what you are doing you must realize that you are in for ten years before you are accepted in print; and it’ll be another ten years, if you’re lucky, before you’re recognized as a writer. Do you see? So it’s a terribly long haul.

Thank you Henry Miller! Thank you thank you thank you!



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