One of the nice things about growing older is that you lose some of the inhibitions about admitting you haven’t read a particular writer. One of the less nice things is that your tastes can become a bit ossified and (internally) predictable.

All of which is prelude to saying that I haven’t read the works of Henry Miller, and up to now he he has been a writer I wasn’t terribly interested in reading. Why did I have this prejudice (a literal pre-judging)? I guess what I had read about did not incline me to read more, and in my mind he was conflated with  a certain rather self-conscious American-in-Paris literary pose which grates. Not very edifying on my part, although I do suspect that all our literary tastes have such not very reasonable lacunae.

However recently I have been reading the wonderful blog of Lee Watkins and his discussions / summaries of some of Miller’s work.  The highest praise one can surely give to a literary blog is that it makes you want to read the works featured, and in Watkins’ case it is even better – he makes me want to read a writer that not only I have not read, but one I would not have thought I would ever want to read.

This post by Watkins encapsulates what is it about Miller (or, more properly, what Watkins captures about Miller) that attracts: a commitment to truth and an awareness of his own flaws:

Occasionally people will ask about Henry Miller: was he even a real writer? Wasn’t he a fraud who fooled the world into believing he was the real thing?

Miller’s books are, on the one hand, like nothing else that had ever come before: sprawling and spiralling things without beginning middle or end, so that nothing he wrote could ever be called a “novel” or even really an “autobiography”. Miller found himself unable to write a story and so he played to his strengths and created his own way of expressing himself in writing.

On the other hand, Miller’s books can seem derivative of the avant-garde that had arrived long before him – Dada and Surrealism, for example – so that you could ask yourself: What did Henry Miller really contribute as an artist?

Miller’s books speak to me directly as almost no other writing does. And so I know that Miller was the real thing. But it’s interesting to see that Miller doubted himself as much as his critics did.

He knew that he was capable of lies and fraud, and he spent a lot of time bluffing his way through life before he succeeded as a writer, as we see in his “Rosy Crucifixion” trilogy (SexusPlexus, and Nexus).

The elevator attendant in Chapter 7 of Nexus is bizarrely rude to Henry. We wonder what exactly his problem is. Still, it’s strange to see Henry march back up to him and confront him with “Why do you hate me?” It seems like a sure way to start a fight.

But the encounter is quite revealing. The elevator attendant, a war veteran, has seen through him, he says. He knows a fake when he sees one, and literally has the scars to prove it. Henry is terrified and feels that the man has seen right into his soul

For all that Miller may have used tricks to get by – both in his writing and in his daily life, borrowing and stealing – we see throughout Nexus what it is that he really wants: to find the truth in himself and express it to the world. He is miserable for as long as he is forced to lie and pretend and play a part, and he has to become a writer not because of the expectations of others – since almost no-one expects him to succeed anyway – but because he must do it for himself, to raise himself up to a higher spiritual level. He needs to be able to tell the truth, and to live truthfully.

Miller’s books are an answer to a serious question he posed for himself, and answered truthfully as he could: Who am I? And because he struggled honestly, earnestly, and for so long with this question, a question we all ask ourselves from time to time, he was able, finally, to write books that are really worth reading.

Anyway, here is a Christmas with Henry Miller. I found this story moving for its very ordinariness, and also subverting my (and Watkins’) expectations about what a Christmas with Henry Miller might be like!

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Harry Clarke: The Master of Stained Glass — A R T L▼R K post

Harry Clarke: The Master of Stained Glass — A  R  T  L▼R K post

Given how much I have been featuring Harry Clarke work (see also here and here and Harry Clarke Studio alumni here) I thought it might be nice to share this post from the Ark Lark blog on Clarke himself….

On the 17th of March 1889, Harry Clarke, an Irish stained glass artist and book illustrator, was born in Dublin, Ireland. The second son of Joshua Clarke and Brigid McGonigle, he was remarkable already as a child for his extraordinary individuality and intelligence. After attending several schools, including the Model Schools in Marlborough Street, he […]

via Harry Clarke: The Master of Stained Glass — A R T L▼R K

“a world that seeks only varieties of comfort and metaphysical appeasement.”

From the April 21 TLS, a review by Cynthia Haven of Andrezj Franaszek’s Czeslaw Miłosz biography and Miłosz’s own previously unpublished science fiction novel “The Mountains of Parnassus”:

At one shattering moment in his life, however, he rejected his vocation: on February 1, 1951 Miłosz, in Paris as a cultural attaché for the Stalinist government of Poland, stepped into a waiting taxi that took him to Maisons-Laffitte in the suburbs. The thirty-nine year old defector spent three and a half months in hiding at the offices of Kultura , an important émigré journal of politics and literature. He wrote: “my decision marks the end of my literary career. He had walked out on more than five years of service to the Communist government, most recently in the grim, barricaded French embassy where insubordinate employees were drugged and delivered to the airport, and where others never left the building for fear of being dismissed. He had longed for “a place on earth where I could wear a face and not a mask”, but still believed he had turned his back on the future by defecting.

Miłosz was the first writer and intellectual of such distinction to defect from the Soviet bloc, and the first to give his reasons publicly, saying that a lie is the source of all crime and that “the paramount duty of a poet is to tell the truth.” For this, he was subjected to vicious slander and attacked from old friends in Poland, the left-wing Parisian intelligentsia, and ever other émigrés. Miłosz became an Orwellian un-person in his native land, and would not see his wife and  two sons again for more than two years.

Haven’s summary of “The Mountains of Parnassus” is also worth quoting:

Cardinal Vallberg in the novel describes his contemporaries, our descendants, whose “imagination had been incapacitated and could no longer hold a Heaven, a Purgatory, or a Hell”. This “second space” would haunt Miłosz’s last poems. What is left after its loss is a world that seeks only varieties of comfort and metaphysical appeasement. As one character explains, “time both terrified and offended us, and thus it had to be destroyed and replaced with intensity of experience in every living moment, so that a great deal could happen before the hands of the clock revealed the passing of even a single minute.”

Sounds pretty contemporary, does it not? This is expanded on by Emma Schneider in her review at Full Stop:

The philosophical strength of The Mountains of Parnassus amplifies as it moves from one story to the next, concluding in an appendix that depicts the dissolution of religion and art and the reformation of ritual. Milosz lingers in this final section; he muses over humanity’s increasing inability to believe in the divine — not for a lack of desire to believe, but for a lack of imagination. Milosz describes the multitudes of artists that proliferate in the postmodern age who print their “100,000 almost identical poems” every day and create a din “like an enormous hall filled with endless rows of pianos. Everybody was playing his own instrument, straining to drown out the others” and unable to hear more than a neighbor, even were he to pause his fingers and try to listen (124). The future Milosz presents is marked by hurried, empty excess. Meaning is ever harder to believe in.

And yet, there remains hope throughout his writing in the option of slowing down and returning to earth, as the Astronaut chooses to do. This choice is one that accepts death as one of the bounds that gives life significance and shape. In his introduction to the text, Milosz accepts the partiality and imperfection of his own production and hopes that “the reader’s imagination will receive no shortage of small stimuli, but also an expansive area in which it can freely glide — which perhaps is better than having everything spelled out and constrained by the twists and turns of the characters’ stories” (11). Indeed, it is a text that presents just enough information to raise questions about this speculative world but answers none of them. Although this sparseness induces confusion, even detachment on first reading the novel, it, like a poem, opens holes to consider upon meandering back through its prose.

The main sections’ hazy tone coupled with minimal world-building threaten to drown the reader in lassitude, but the introductory remarks convey Milosz as playful and personable, a compatriot who derides the “diabolical boredom emanating” from many contemporaries novels ‘tormented by structuralist theories,” which “seems hostile to the very vocation of narrative (6). Although written for its initial (unsuccessful) trip to the publisher in 1972, the introduction’s commentary on the state of the novel remains strikingly accurate. Indeed, perhaps the entire novel proves better suited to the current moment than to the one it was born out of 45 years ago. As life moves ever faster and mysteries are persistently revealed, Milosz’s unusual song amidst the roar of the pianos creates a necessary excuse to pause.