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  Crucifixion 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 “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.”