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Robert Ferguson captures Henry’s essence

Those of us who talk with visitors about Henry’s writing deploy a host of analogies and thought experiments. For example, we’ll say:

Imagine you walk into a smoky, dimly lit bar… there’s a guy in the corner regaling guests, who sit there hanging on his every word. You are you curious, so you approach, but aren’t all that impressed with what he’s saying. Then, just before you walk away, the man says something that absolutely floors you.”

That’s kind of how Henry rolls.

Robert Ferguson hits on this idea — Henry’s penchant for what seems like serviceable and discursive ruminations suddenly punctuated by a philosophical lightning bolt — in his biography “Henry Miller: A Life.” 

Here’s what he has to say on page 331:


Miller’s long years of practice as a letter-writer and as a first-person narrator had made him a master at creating a feeling of intimacy between himself and his reader, and a master, too, at dealing with his own limitations as a novelist. Like a comic juggler he was able to win the sympathy of his audience by his very ineptness, bungling trick after trick while retaining the ability to astound between times with passages of astonishing and haunting power. With sound technical sense he usually placed these at the end of his chapters. Chapter nineteen of Sexus concludes with one such flight, a vision of life in a Jewish ghetto:

In another cellar an old man sits in his overhead on a pile of wood, counting his beard. His life is all coal and wood, little voyages from darkness to daylight. In his ears is still the ring of hoofs on cobbled streets, the sounds of shrieks and screams, the clatter of sabres, the splash of bullets against a blank wall. In the cinema, in the synagogue, in the coffee-house, wherever one sits, two kinds of music are playing – one bitter, one sweet. One sits in the middle of a river called Nostalgia.

A river filled with little souvenirs gathered from the wreckage of the world. Souvenirs of the homeless, of birds of refuge building again and again with sticks and twigs. Everywhere broken nests, eggshells, fledglings with twisted necks and dead eyes staring into space. Nostalgic river dreams under tin copings, under rusty sheds, under capsized boats. A world of mutilated hopes, of strangled aspirations, of bullet-proof starvation.

A world where even the warm breath of life has to be smuggled in, where gems as big as pigeon’s hearts are traded for a yard of space, an ounce of freedom. All is compounded into a familiar liver paste which is swallowed on a tasteless wafer. In one gulp there is swallowed down five thousand years of bitterness, five thousand years of ashes, five thousands years of broken twigs, smashed eggshells, strangled fledglings…

The effect of a passage like this, suddenly surging out of a prose that is often lax and pedestrian, can be both exhilarating and disorienting. It is like waking suddenly to find oneself high on a mountain with no path in sight, nothing to indicate the means of ascent. A look back through the preceding pages to find the point of take-off will rarely succeed, and in the end one simply has to shrug and forge on, leaving behind all dull expectations of knowing exactly what is supposed to be happening.

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