Black Spring – Henry Miller (1936)

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It is no secret that Henry Miller is venerated a bit higher than a literary god here at Living with Lit. Our reviews of Sexus and Tropic of Cancer are glowing; they even appeared at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Thus, every few months a selection from my favorite author’s canon is required. The latest?: the second book from Miller’s Obelisk Trilogy - Black Spring.

Black Spring features Miller at his most surreal. The chapters (if they can be labeled such) are held together by loose strands concerning the author’s childhood in New York and observations throughout Europe, particularly Paris. Miller’s voice and artistic energy acts as the narrative in the novel, which is filled with those characteristic peaks and valleys:

“There is something about the little stretch from the Place Clichy to La Fourche which causes all the grand obsessional walks to bloom at once. It’s like moving from one solstice to another. Supposing I have just left the Cafe Wepler and that I have a book under my arm, a book on Style and Will. Perhaps when I was reading this book I didn’t comprehend more than a phrase or two. Perhaps I was reading the same page all evening. Perhaps I wasn’t at the Cafe Wepler at all, but hearing the music I left my body and flew away. And where am I then? Why, I am out for an obsessional walk, a short walk of fifty years or so accomplished in the turning of a page.”

Miller’s peculiar works of autobiographical fiction are powered with a prose that stampedes, whether the subject be everyday reality or the obscure metaphysical. In Black Spring, life and dreams are too intertwined for consistent enjoyment, but the author occasionally hits the right note. Embracing a mystic voice – something wonderfully prevalent in the following trilogy – Miller speaks with past writers, his influences:

“So Robinson Crusoe not only found a way of getting along, but even established for himself a relative happiness! Bravo! One man who was satisfied with relative happiness. So un-Anglo-Saxon! So pre-Christian! Bringing the story up-to-date, Larousse to the contrary, we have here then the account of an artist who wanted to build himself a world, a story of perhaps the first genuine neurotic, a man who had himself shipwrecked in order to live outside his time in a world of his own which he could not share with another human being, ‘meme un sauvage’. The remarkable thing to note is that, acting out his neurotic impulse, he did find a relative happiness even though alone on a desert island, with nothing more perhaps than an old shot-gun, and a pair of torn breeches. A clean slate, with twenty-five thousand years of post-Magdalenian ‘progress’ buried in his neurones. An 18th century conception of relative happiness! And when Friday comes along, though Friday, or ‘Vendredi’, is only a savage and does not speak the language of Crusoe, the circle is complete. I should like to read the book again- and I will some rainy day.”

In Black Spring‘s rare moments of entertainment, Miller is an eloquently lucid craftsman, despite the seemingly superfluous subject matter. It is the virile and visceral author, rather than the overly dilated voice seen throughout the novel, that readers search for:

“One of them was the Baron Carola von Eschenbach. He had earned a little money in Hollywood posing as the Crown Prince (of Germany). It was the period when it was considered riotously funny to see the Crown Prince plastered with rotten eggs. It must be said for the Baron that he was a good double for the Crown Prince. A death’s head with arrogant nose, a waspish stride, a corseted waist, lean and ravished as Martin Luther, dour, glum, fanatical, with that brassy, fatuous glare of the Junker class. Before going to Hollywood he was just a nobody, the son of a German brewer in Frankfort. He wasn’t even a baron. But afterwards, when he had been knocked about like a medicine ball, when his front teeth had been pushed down his throat and the neck of a broke bottle had traced a deep scar down his left cheek, afterwards when he had been taught to flaunt a red neck-tie, twirl a cane, clip his mustache short, like Chaplin, then he became somebody. Then he stuck a monocle in his eye and named himself Baron Carola von Eschenbach. And all might have gone beautifully for him had he not fallen for a red-haired walk-on who was rotting away with syphilis. That finished him.” 

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Black Spring was published in Paris in 1936 and finally in the U.S. after the infamous 1964 obscenity trial, which “declared Miller’s works to be literature.” Though these three books lack a sequential narrative – unlike his later trilogy – “…the style is totally unique. Fragmentary, with the unities of time and place cracked asunder, and influenced on Miller’s own admission by the prevailing surrealism and existentialism of the thirties…” Like his many other works, the author reads like a pariah yet product of the time.

Miller once labeled the act of writing a ‘bloody orgasm’. To readers of Black Spring, this mad euphoria is overwhelmingly apparent. The writer, though discussing those always intriguing subjects, tests the limits of patience. The chic Surrealist influence swarming through Paris grasps Miller too well, which causes the objective of Black Spring - destroying any memory of past – to be labeled ‘hifalutin pedantry’. Yet, as I finish sifting personally highlighted passages and lauded reviews, opinion wobbles:

“O the wonderful recesses in the toilet! To them, I owe my knowledge of Boccaccio, or Rabelais, of Petronius, of ‘The Golden Ass’. All my good reading, you might say, was done in the toilet. At the worst, Ulysses, or a detective story. There are passages in Ulysses which can be read only in the toilet – if one wants to extract the full flavor of their content. And this is not to denigrate the talent of the author. This is simply to move him a little closer to the good company of Abelard, Petrarch, Rabelais, Villon, Boccaccio – all the fine, lusty genuine spirits who recognized dung for dung and angels for angels. Fine company, and no rari nantes in gurgite vasto. And the most ramshackle toilet, the more dilapidated it be, the better. (Same for urinals.) To enjoy Rabelais, for example – such a passage as ‘How to Rebuild The Walls of Paris’ – I recommend a plain, country toilet, a little out-house in the corn patch, with a crescent silver of light coming through the door. No buttons to push, no chain to pull, no pink toilet paper. Just a rough-carved seat big enough frame your behind, and two other holes of dimensions suitable for other behinds. If you can bring a friend along and have him sit beside you, excellent! A good book is always more enjoyable in good company. A beautiful half-hour you can while away sitting in the out-house with a friend – a half-hour which will remain with you all your life, and the book it contained, and the odor thereof.” 

‘Zorba the Greek’ – Nikos Kazantzakis

2443961697_a5ccca8292_oZorba the Greek is more than just a title. The eccentric, wily Mediterranean character who exists in a romanticized past, still flickers in our present day, and is demanded by some for a secure future in the human race. The back cover of my Touchstone copy from ’52 compares Zorba with Shakespeare’s ‘Falstaff’, ‘Sinbad the Sailor’, and Cervantes’ ‘Sancho Panza’. Does such a lofty likeness to these literary figures still hold water in contemporary culture?

Zorba the Greek follows a stuffy intellectual narrator and his conversations with a frankly plebeian, yet worldly man named Alexis Zorba.

Stirred by the final parting words from his close friend Stavridakis, who embarked on a mission in the East to help persecuted Greeks, the unnamed narrator, who is also a writer, commits his own selfless undertaking: connect with the everyday man, the working man. The companionship so desired by the writer is not that far away, in fact, the earthy individual he’s searching for sits at the same bar in Piraeus, under the alias Alexis Zorba or simply: “Zorba”.

In a short, but stimulating conversation between the two, in which Zorba chastises the narrator’s life of “chewing paper” and “covering himself with ink”, the unrefined, santuri playing man is invited along to the island of Crete with the “bookworm.”

To achieve his goal of connecting with the working man, the narrator ventures to re-open a lignite(coal) mine on Crete – with Zorba as the foreman. Yet the inhabitants of the island, which are certainly of the class the writer is looking for, are more than either of the men bargained for.

To achieve the grand ideas presented in Zorba, author Kazantzakis employs a conversational structure, a “Cartesian dualism”. What the Narrator gleans from his naive, yet seasoned foreman, is refunded as Zorba becomes equally educated in the world (and reason) of scholars. This framework would function if not for the less than assertive direction in the dialogue taken by Kazantzakis, who prefers to leave readers ambiguous and unfulfilled by his themes:

“‘But don’t you realize, boss, that my brain’s not the correct weight? Maybe it’s a little overweight, maybe a little under, but the correct weight it certainly isn’t. Look now, here’s something you’ll understand: I haven’t been able to rest for days and nights because of that widow. No, I don’t mean on my account; no, I swear that’s not the case. The devil take her, that’s what I say. I’ll never touch her, that’s one sure thing. I’m not her cup of tea…But I don’t want her to be lost for everybody. I don’t want her to sleep alone. It wouldn’t be right, boss; I can’t bear that thought. So I wander at night round her garden-that’s why you see me disappear and you ask me where I’m going. But d’you know why? To see if someone is going to sleep with her; then I can be easy in my mind.’

‘I started laughing.’

‘Don’t laugh, boss! If a woman sleeps all alone, it’s the fault of us men. We’ll all have to render our accounts on the day of the last judgment. God will forgive all sins, as we’ve said before–he’ll have his sponge ready. But that sin he will not forgive Woe betide the man who could sleep with a woman and who did not do so! Woe betide the women who could sleep with a man and who did not do so! Remember the words of the hodja!’”

Novels of self-discovery and personal awakening like Zorba the Greek seem to have lost the foothold they once held in the literary culture – are we too selfish to read selfish writing? Unless centered around historical events, narratives like the one in Kazantzakis’ book becomes “far from ‘unputdownable’” and tedious. If readers are to follow a recurrent theme in the book – to abandon the literary life for entertainment of the world – why bend the binding of Zorba at all? Furthermore, the lessons taught by the bawdy Greek foreman are certainly connected with proletarian world, yet without educated or intriguing  principle:

“‘Life is trouble,’ Zorba continued. ‘Death, no. To live–do you know what that means? To undo your belt and look for trouble!’

I still said nothing. I knew Zorba was right, I knew it, but I did not dare. My life had got on the wrong track, and my contact with men had become now a mere soliloquy. I had fallen so low that, if I had to choose between falling in love with a woman and reading a book about love, I should have chosen the book.

‘Don’t calculate, boss,’ Zorba continued. ‘Leave your figures alone, smash the blasted scales, shut up your grocer’s shop, I tell you. Now’s the time you’re going to save or to lose your soul. Listen, boss, take a handkerchief, tie two or three pounds in it, make them gold ones, because the paper ones don’t dazzle; and send them to the Widow by Mimiko. Teach him what he is to say: {The master of the mine sends you his best wishes and this little handkerchief. It’s only a small thing, he said, but his love is big. He said, too, you weren’t to worry about the ewe; if it’s lost, don’t bother, I’m here, don’t be afraid! He says he saw you going by the cafe and he’s fallen sick and only you can cure him}’ 

‘There now! Then the same evening you knock on the door. Must beat the iron while it’s hot. You’ve lost your way, you tell her. It’s dark, will she lend you a lantern. Or else you’ve suddenly come over dizzy and would like a glass of water. Or, better still, you buy another ewe and take it to her: {Look, my lady}, you say, {here’s the ewe you lost. It was I who found it for you!} And the Widow – listen to this, boss – the Widow gives you the reward and you enter into…God Almighty, if only I could ride your mare behind you–I tell you, boss, you’ll enter into Paradise on horseback. If you’re looking for any other paradise than that, my poor fellow, there is none! Don’t listen to what the priests tell you, there’s no other!’

‘Well?…’, he said.

And he waited anxiously.

‘That’ll do!’ I replied harshly.

And I quickened my pace.

Zorba shook his head and growled something I did not catch.”

Yet, there is some silver lining in the just over 300 pages of Zorba the Greek. Kazantzakis’ Narrator finds meaning in, ironically enough, the soliloquies he finds so detrimental to his connection with the world. These poetic self-investigations are what I hoped for in the entirety of the novel. Though short, notice the confidence saturating the passage’s direction:

“I slowly worked some tobacco into my pipe and lit it. Everything in this world has a hidden meaning, I thought. Men, animals, trees, stars, they are all hieroglyphics; woe to anyone who begins to decipher them and guess what they mean…When you see them, you do not understand them. You think they are really men, animals, trees, stars. It is only years later, too late, that you understand…”

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Like nearly all writers, Kazantzakis made his characters out of real-life persons. In 1917, when low-grade coal was needed during the war, the author engaged “a  work-man named George Zorbas” to assist in mining for lignite. The Narrator’s friend, Stavridakis, also closely resembles fellow writer and poet Angelos Siklieanos, who traveled around Greece with Kazantzakis discussing various ways to enlighten the human conscious.

Under the torrid German occupation fro 1941-43, Kazantzakis is able to finish Alexis Zorbas, or Zorba the Greek. This text, like nearly all of the author’s books, is rife his philosophy. Kazantzakis was heavily influenced by “Nietzsche” and Henri Bergson:

“Central to Bergson’s theory, from which Kazantzakis develops concept of ‘God’, is the notion of the elan vi tal, a a pre-existent life-force that wills to become alive and ascend to higher levels of self-consciousness. Yet to become alive it must collaborate with matter, which it then seeks to “unmake”…(further) Kazantzakis believed that his was a transitional age in which one civilization was collapsing and another raw, untamed civilization was emerging. In every age, he claimed, it is our responsibility to seek out and work with the most vibrant ideological movement that enables life’s elan to ascend…(the author) seeks answers to the most profound questions that impinge upon our individual existence, whist recognizing the importance of the process of questioning itself. His work challenges the individual to act authentically in this ‘brief lightening flash’ of life. We are called upon to ‘save God’ by overcoming spiritual lethargy. Moreover, it is our existential duty to do so.”

As the Narrator seeks to come closer to people like Zorba, a descent from overly academic qualities in his life takes hold – much like the unmaking and the elan vi tal Kazantzakis puts faith in. 

Kazantzakis is best remembered in infamy, having been excommunicated for his novel ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, which received a similar backlash during the Scorsese film adaptation. When he passed away from leukemia in 1957, the Greek Orthodox Church refused to intern in his body. He was eventually buried outside the church in Heraklion, Crete, his home Island.

Though it was published in Greece and “Paris” in 1946, Zorba the Greek wouldn’t receive the English treatment until 1953. By then, though, the American literary conscious was becoming occupied with the rise of post-Modernism. That isn’t to say Zorba is Modernist literature, but rather a work of spiritual enlightenment, which was becoming old hat. And for a site dedicated to relevancy, Zorba the Greek, while admirable for it’s time, falls short of necessary reading.

The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac – Joyce Johnson

13589135When the new Sinclair Lewis biography was published in 2002, John Updike wondered what had the long-passed author done to deserve a new five-hundred-and-fifty-four page dedication? Readers must ask a similar question about Joyce Johnson’s latest work about Jack Kerouac, The Voice is All. Not only did the poster child for the Beat Movement write primarily autobiographical works, but it is not the first book Johnson has written on the iconic author – see Minor Characters and Door Wide Open

In the Introduction, Johnson admits most of Kerouac’s work is little known outside of On the Road. As a change of pace, the area of life emphasized in the biography sheds lights on the origins and life preceeding the publication of the celebrated novel. Though Ms. Johnson is not without the benefit of hindsight. Fellow biographers and writers read with envy at the unbelievably attained and enormous amount of anecdotes contained between the binding. Thanks to this more than admirable amount of research, an omnipresent structure emerges that enlarges the knowledge of long time Kerouac fans and first time readers:

“Miss Mansfield ran an after-school Scribblers’ Club that Jack had heard about from a sixth grader named Sebastian Sampas, whom he had once protected from some school bullies. Like Jack, Sebastian was beginning to write poetry. He was small, precocious, acutely sensitive, and a great reader, unlike any other boy Jack had run into. With the newfound confidence Miss Dineen had given him, he went with Sebastian to the Scribblers’ Club. When he showed Miss Mansfield a story he had written about an Irish copy, at first she couldn’t believe he had written it himself, but quickly she took him under her wing and sometimes borrowed his stories to read to the English class she taught Miss Mansfield introduced Jack to ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and the ‘Iliad’. That year he joined the Lowell Public Library, where he headed every Saturday, coming home each time with an armload of books.”

Johnson’s past works, on one-time lover and friend Kerouac, have an inherent personal tone, expressing opinion on the writer’s actions and words. The Voice is All once again takes a different stride from former prose to establish distance, a voluntary absence. Johnson proves powerful in this alternative approach by separating bias, yet still writing with emotion:

“Jack had told her a baby was out of the question, but by the time she returned to New York to pack her things, he may have been starting to change his mind. He asked her to meet him on the rooftop of Lucien’s building. She has assumed they would be talking about a divorce, but instead Jack surprised her by demanding, ‘What if I said you could have the baby? What then?’ When she told him she didn’t need or want his permission, he turned away as if he had been slapped and went downstairs, and she heard him yelling to Lucien that he was not responsible for her kid and never wanted to hear about it again. Joan was so sure of Jack’s indifference that she didn’t realize or care that she’d given him a devastating blow. He was a man who’d had a dream of family, whose own child would be a stranger to him. Although Jack had never had the kind of feelings for JOan that he’d had for Sarah Yokely, their relationship had given him something he needed badly. For a brief time during their months on Twentieth Street he had almost found a way to live with a degree of normalcy between the stark polarities of solitude and binge. The utter failure of this marriage would end his attempts to find that balance in his daily life.”

It is the synthesis of these two elements – the omnipresent structure and balanced tone – that complete such a biography as The Voice is All. Kerouac’s life unfolds like an engaging narrative in these carefully chosen vignettes and anecdotes. The book proves much more than simply a document of the iconic author and the Beat movement, but rather a framework, personality and soul from a period in history:

The Violent talk that shocked Temko arose from the conscious effort of those who lived in Apartment 51 to bring about a communion of souls in which what Jack called ‘Ultimate Reality’ could be explored. IN their urgent revelatory exchanges with one another, everything was out on the table – or rather out on the Oriental cover of Joan’s big bed in the living room., where they had taken to sprawling in an incestuous tangle of bodies, creating a zone where anything unmentionable could be mentioned without shame. As Allen listened to his friends’ stories – as they spoke of ‘their faggishness, or their campiness, or their neurasthenia, or their solitude, or their goofiness, or even…their masculinity,” he realized what he was hearing was everything left out of the literature and discoursed sanctioned by the official culture. There was a profound difference between the way they were talking to one another on Joan’s bed, ‘heart to heart,’ and the pronouncements of university professors or public figures for whom consciousness was only theoretical. Were they living in a real America, Allen wondered, or ‘in the midst of a vast American hallucination” where a sensitive human being like Huncke was hounded by the police and considered a criminal?”

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Joyce Johnson met Kerouac through a “blind date” set up by Allen Ginsberg in 1956. While only involved with the autor for two years, ending in 1958, Johnson would posthumously publish – while working as an editor at McGraw-Hill – Visions of Cody (“which is the novel that meant most to him”); as well as become characterized as Alyce Newman in Jack’s Desolation Angels. If my opinion isn’t obvious, The Voice is All is an amazing read, by far my new favorite biography. Johnson wonderfully illustrates that even though it is her third account of Kerouac and The Beat movement – there is always room for more.