It happened last night: I’m in a bar with our CEO Rufus and a guy sitting next to us starts up a literary conversation. Speaking to Rufus, he said, “the problem, you see, is that you’ve clearly read too much Henry James you sound just like him. Where you could say what you mean in five words, instead you use whole paragraphs.” We were both a little taken aback; he was right to an extent, though in my opinion, that’s what’s called oratory. Why say in five words anything that merits a paragraph? Are we really in that much of a hurry?
It turned out he really liked Henry James; it was Dickens who elicited his real rancor (“he was paid by the word, you know, a dime, no, maybe a penny a word, so he’d find the most difficult way possible to say something to make a little extra money”). Okay, I was tempted to forgive him; I’m no great Dickens fan myself and I love taking unsubstantiated generalizing potshots too. But then he started in on Henry Miller. “I just started reading this man, this Henry Miller, and I have to say I hate him. It’s like he’s just playing with words; nothing makes any sense; all he does is mumble. It’s all mumbling. He’s demented. I mean, a lot of people read his book, but that doesn’t mean it’s good, I mean a lot of people read Stephen King and Anne Rice too, right? So clearly that doesn’t mean it’s a good book.”
I don’t think it was the second martini that incited my discomfort. His final comparison was to say that Joyce was a writer and Miller was not. And, of course, he had a point, a point that Miller himself was all too aware of and preempted. He was no polished gem; that was his message, in a way. At the outset of Tropic of Cancer Miller wrote, “There are no more books to be written, thank God. This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character . . . this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art.” He knew what he was up to, and, as Rufus pointed out, there are a lot of people who share Miller’s form of dementia. Point won, point lost. He didn’t seem to be listening. So Rufus and I went back to our conversation where it had left off I think something about the mating processes of house and garden aphids.
The funny thing was, on leaving the bar, he gave us the book. He was that serious. It made me think of being in the Paris Metro one time and listening to a French guy verbally berating the sandwich he was holding. At the top of his lungs, he enumerated its shortcomings, lambasted its inadequate meat holdings and rued its tourist-geared overpricing. This went on for a few minutes until finally, as the punctuating act of his soliloquy, he hurled it unbitten on the tracks. That was his level of disdain. Giving me the book, the man in the bar was equally indignant, though I, happy to have another copy, went home and read much of it again.
Miller is no Joyce. That’s okay. We have a Joyce, and, when Miller was writing his Parisian Tropic, we had already had a Joyce. But we hadn’t had a Miller. And we needed him. Perhaps it’s because I too lived as a louse in France; perhaps it’s because I think the world needs more exuberance; perhaps it’s because in the midst of his mumble he manages to hit some high notes of sublimity, but I love Miller and will defend him all my days. If he’s not a writer, it’s not for want of genius, it’s because he thought that the act of writing was nowhere near as important as the act of living.