Saturday, May 28, 2011

Henry & June: It's Complicated.

I read in Bloom's The Western Canon that Virginia Woolf looked to Jane Austen as Shakespeare's only true literary equal. Woolf thought that part of Austen's success lay in her extreme isolation. She, unlike many of her contemporaries, wrote quietly. She didn't show her novels to passing house guests or read excerpts aloud to salons full of her peers.

Well, Anais Nin, she shows her diaries to literally everyone. To Miller to Fred to her therapist. And then they all get embarrassed for her. I'm embarrassed for her. It's your classic ploy of a desperate girl  trying to attract male attention. The 1930's edition of dancing atop the bar at Marquis.

Here's Anais justifying her affair with Henry Miller:
"When Henry hears Hugos beautiful, vibrant, loyal, heart-stirring voice over the telephone, he is angry at the amorality of women, of all women, of women like myself. He himself practices all the disloyalties, all the treacheries, but the faithlessness of a woman hurts him. And I am terribly distresssed when he is in such a mood, because I have a feeling of being faithful to the bond between Hugo and me. Nothing that I live outside of the circle of our loves alters or diminishes it. On the contrary, I love himbetter because I love him without hypocrisy." p107.

This girl has issues. And it's distracting me from the book. At least Henry Miller, in Tropic of Cancer, accepts his flaws. He moves on--with his life and with the plot.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tropic of Cancer + Water In A Desert

It turns out Tropic of Cancer rewards the patient (and, yes, desensitized) reader. The last fifty pages of TOC were some of the most beautiful and strangely introspective pages I've read. Then again, maybe that's like someone lost in a desert finding an oasis and calling it the sweetest water she's ever tasted... Miller certainly forces you to work for these last few pages.

The book picks up when Miller defects from Paris to take up a position as a professor of English in Lyon.  He doesn't take the post seriously, of course.

"It was one of those Franco-American amity arrangements which is supposed to promote understanding and good will between sister republics... a job for a rich man's son."

But he has a brief moment of revelation. Miller is alone at the 'penitentiary'. He's not getting along with the other teachers, he has no one to drink or generally carouse with and he gives us this one beautiful passage on the bottom of p.287. By this time the passage is abrupt for its lack of coarseness. The way that readers of TOC might have found the C word abrupt on p10, but had no choice but to be inured to it on p.210.

Here it is:
"Going back in a flash over the women I've known. Its like a chain which I've forged out of my own misery. Each one bound to the other. A fear of living separate, of staying born. The door of the womb always on the latch. Dread and longing. Deep in the blood the pull of paradise. The beyond. Always the beyond. t must have all started with the navel. THey cut the umbilical cord, give you a slap on the ass, and presto! you're out in the world, adrift, a ship without a rudder. You look at the stars and then you look at your navel. You grow eyes everywhere- in the armpits, between the lips, in the roots of your hair, on the soles of your feet. What is distant becomes near, what is near becomes distant. Inner outer, a constant flux, a shedding of skins, a turning inside out. You drift around like that for years and years, until you slowly rot, slowly crumble to piece,s get dispersed again. Only your name remains. "

It's as if Miller is telling us the whole 262 odd pages prior to the revelation (aside from a few strange, out of place segues on Manet) he is making a choice. A choice to show baseness and debauchery over the Paris of say Hemingway, a Paris of "gently winding" rivers through the "girdle of hills".

The rest of the book is dedicated to (what else) Miller's subsequent rejection of revelation which he does with great aplomb. But his rub with morality imbues the text with a newfound relevance. It modernizes Miller's plight. And almost makes you want to go back and read the whole thing again. Almost.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Western Canon

Or how to have a massive panic attack at how little of this you've actually managed to read in 27 years.
Thank you Harold Bloom. Click through to see the entire Canon here.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

After slogging through the first 150 pages of Henry Miller's Tropic of Camcer, I am now the ONLY person in my book club reading Tropic of Cancer. I guess this makes Miller 'pleasure reading' though the phrase doesn't feel appropriate.

Tropic of Cancer was first published in Paris in 1934. But it didn't make it to the US of A until 1961. It was banned as too obscene for American consumption for twenty-seven years. Finally, a scrappy Grove Press published the book. And they promptly became engaged in an obscenity trial. The verdict changed Americas censorship standards and paved the way for modern writers such as Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and (luckily! jk) Thomas Pynchon.
Henry Miller the original Wburg Hipster
I don't know what I expected exactly when cracking the spine, but it wasn't to be shocked. I pretty much figured that anything written in 1934 couldn't be any more scandalous than say the 'death by feces eating' in Gravity's Rainbow.

How wrong I was! This book has continually made me feel like all sorts of Victorian prude. Miller uses the C word as a moniker for women-kind on nearly every other page. Then there's that sex scene on pg 144 where Miller is watching Van Norden with a prostiute It's creepy and sad all at once. I'm not going to write it here. Too NSFW. Even the most innocuous landscape description, Miller finds a way to charge with bad language and sex analogies. It's almost farcical.** Here's a classic Miller simile on p. 172 "Paris takes hold of you, grabs you by the balls, you might say, like some lovesick bitch who'd rather die than let you get out of her hands." Okkaaay. Moving on...

I've been able to mostly get around the gross-out, eerie sex scenes. What I haven't been able to get over is how Miller managed to write this book, under financing from his lover, Anais Nin. It's incredible. Any sane writer would recognize that writing a book about sleeping with a trillion different prostitutes, contracting a case of the Clap, and getting seriously drunk every night when you're meant to be writing a book, is the epitome of 'biting the hand that feeds you'. No?

I've already bought my copy of Henry & June from Greenlight. H & J is a novelization of Anais Nin's diary during the time she was sleeping with Henry Miller. I can't wait to find out how totally twisted this relationship must have been.

**I thought maybe he was trying so hard to outdo Hemmingway's Moveable Feast he came out with this?

PS Also, another thing that's been incredibly disturbing for someone living in Manhattan in 2011 is all of the bedbug chatter. The characters are always hilariously leaving run-down hotels after having their evening fun with the you know what's and scratching themselves as they walk down the street. In another scene, Miller describes a dinner party where he had to angle for a position farthest from the bed, because he could see the bed 'crawling' ick. Don't worry, our protagonist stays of course. He's nothing if not game.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Helen Simpson on Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse

Image from Elle's 2009 "To The Lighthouse" editorial, featuring Burberry

"There are novels which have an almost uncanny power to renew themselves in the reader’s imagination. Each time I return to To The Lighthouse I’m struck by something that I haven’t noticed before: a flash of description, a moment of double-edged intimacy between two characters, a touch of sensory experience so immediate that it brings a shiver. More and more, as we grow older, these great novels declare their authority. They will certainly outlive us, like sea or rock or sand. We can inhabit their world for a while, and be changed by it, but they are forever moving beyond us to the next generation. It’s like visiting the same beach every summer, first as a child, then as a teenager, then as a parent surrounded by shivering children just out of the sea. Time passes. Those children are teenagers in wetsuits or bikinis, then suddenly adults lugging the paraphernalia of parenthood themselves. The present does not obliterate the past, but cohabits with it so that sometimes one is visible and sometimes the other. Any number of lifetimes on the beaches of St Ives may be no longer than a summer’s day."
-From the newly released paperback as published by the Orange Inheritance Collection, courtesy of Granta

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Billy Collins Litany

Last night, Ad and I celebrated our engagement with around 60 of our nearest and dearest. There were some Livre Life readers there too! The party had me thinking about the ceremony and the dinner to follow. Ad and I have asked two of my best friends from college to do readings at the ceremony. But I have yet to find something appropriate for them to read. While on the hunt, I came upon this hilar. Billy Collins take on a sonnet. Not appropriate, but entertaining nevertheless.

You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...
-Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and--somehow--the wine.