Writing For Readers, Reading for Writers
I’d been asked to write about books by a friend who is a librarian, and as luck would have it, I’d just picked up this paperback at a local yard sale, called The Intimate Henry Miller, published by New Directions in 1959. Of course, if I want to write about books, I should start with Henry Miller. For I’ve read all his books, and recommend most of them. And thanks to Henry, I’ve read quite a number of other authors whose books I recommend. And as it turns out, this particular paperback, which had disintegrated within a couple of days after the usual rough handling from my clumsy mitts, is probably out of print.
Inside the book jacket is a list of Henry Miller’s books that had been
published by New Directions. I recommend all of them, so I’ll run down the
Now, it turns out that the little paperback that I’d picked up had an introduction written by Lawrence Clark Powell, who was the head librarian at UCLA. In this introduction, he talked about his literary friendship with Henry Miller and their collaboration on putting together The Books in My Life. So, it seems only fitting that having been asked by a librarian friend to write about books in my personal life, that I should include a few excerpts from Lawrence Clark Powell’s introduction:
“Sooner or later everything comes in and goes out
of a university library: books on French roulette and the dynamics of turbulent
flow, on vector-analysis and psychoanalysis, missals and missiles, on flood and
drought, law and disorder, books for and against, of good and evil, all free to
all, a storehouse as powerful as any uranium stockpile, each book awaiting the
touch of hand, the sight of eye which will release its energy.”
“Into this magnetic field there came one day in the spring of 1941 a small, erect man in conventional garb, carrying a checked cloth cap, who came to my desk and said, ‘I am Henry Miller. My publisher said when I reached
“‘Guilty,’ I said. ‘And sometimes on company time.’”
“‘Do you have any books by Jacob Boehme?’ was Miller’s first question.”
“‘We’ll go into the stacks and see,’ I said.”
“So into the great central book-stack we went in search of the German shoemaker-mystic of the 1600’s, whose books influenced English mystical thought from William Penn to William Yeats. Our quest led us to the second underground level where, like an ore deposit we found solid shelves of books on Religion and Philosophy, and one book in particular with a title Yeats thought one of the loveliest every conceived-Boehme’s Aurora, or the Morning redness in the Sky.”
“I have never seen a man change so fast as Miller did when I put that book in his hand. He settled down on his haunches on the floor and began to leaf through it, read phrases, and more to himself than to me. Up to then he had been rather insignificant as a person; now he began to fill out and expand, to communicate and radiate energy.”
“‘Somewhere in the Southwest I found myself wanting to read Boehme,’ he said, ‘and of course there was no library en route that would even have heard of, much less have Boehme on its shelves. It is worse than being without water, not to have a book when you want it. When are you through work? Four-thirty. Good. Come back for me then and we’ll go out for a cup of coffee.’”
“So I left Henry Miller reading on the cold floor, and when I returned two and a half hours later, he was still there, like the Buddha, smiling and joyful. And in the nineteen years since then our friendship, cemented in mutual bookishness, has flourished like the coast live oak, green the year round......”
“Books were every and always the bond between us. One night when we were driving from his home on Partington Ridge to the nearest telephone some fourteen miles down cast at Lucia, I asked Miller if he would write a piece on the importance of books and libraries in his life which I might have privately printed as a Christmas keepsake. He examined the idea with a few questions, punctuated by the characteristic meditative sound he makes-a cross between a groan, a grunt, and a sigh-and said he would have a try at it.”
“I returned to
“There is a dichotomy, but no contradiction, between Miller the writer and Miller the man, between the violence of his view of life as recreated in his prose and the gentle manner of his actual way of life. Live like a lamb, Flaubert said, so that you can write like a lion.
“This has been Henry Miller’s way, at least in the years I have known him. If he had not been fated otherwise, Miller would have made a good reference librarian, with a passion for knowledge, a sense of order, and a desire to communicate....”
“.....so many writers are stingy-dry, selfishly working their talent, giving out only when they are getting in. All the years I have known him, Miller has been generous to the point of prodigality, giving all to anyone in need, whether it was literary aid or the money in his pocket.”
Perhaps, I would start by recommending Miller’s book,
“Books in My Life.” And I’d like to mention that through reading Miller, I’d
come across the books of Knut Hamsun- Pan, Hunger and Mysteries. Hamsun
was considered the innovator of the modern novel. He’d once said that he’d developed
his style during a voyage in the U.S. where he’d been influenced by
the straight-forward, and simple style of American journalism. However, I must
add that Hamsun was no proponent of the American immigrant dream. I particularly
liked Mysteries, the translation by McFarland. I’ll quote from the
synopsis of the film version, directed by Paul de Lussanet-
“A strange young man arrives to spend the summer in a small Norwegian coastal town and from that moment on he acts as a catalyst that brings to the surface all the hidden impulses, thoughts and darker feelings of the local people. He is an intriguing mixture of arrogance and humility, virtue and depravity, sanity and madness, cursed with the merciless gift of insight into the human soul, especially his own. He can foresee, but cannot prevent, his own self-destruction.”
I have to add that this is just a plot synopsis, and doesn’t do justice to Hamsun’s book, which, as the title implies, deals with unexplored regions of the human psyche, and the fate of a psychically gifted man born in the age of the tyranny of Reason.
Miller had been a great admirer of Dostoyevsky, and I’ve read most of his novels. Dostoyevsky developed quite a following over the years. "To Dostoyevsky’s Christianity," predicted historian Oswald Spengler, "the next thousand years will belong." Even Frederick Nietzsche had quipped that “Dostoyevsky is the only writer that has ever taught me anything worth a damn about psychology”. The Possessed, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov were among my favorites. Lately I’ve been reading The Gambler. I’d like to mention that one of my two favorite short stories was White Nights, a truly funny, and sad story, about a lonely young man and a young woman who meet during midsummer in Saint Petersburg.
The other short story which I recommend reading is The Icicle by the author from the Soviet era, Andre Siniavsky, who’d written under the pseudonym of Abram Tertz. He was later to spend time in a Soviet gulag as a reward for this little comic masterpiece, which had elements of the psychic, reincarnation, and karma, subjects taboo under the Soviet Regime, where the official religion was dialectic materialism.
Now, that we’re in Russia, I must mention Bulgakov, and his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, along with The White Guard and Heart of a Dog. I suggest reading Shalom Aleichem, who was called the Yiddish Mark Twain. Old Country Tales and The Adventures of Menahem-Mendl, I found particularly entertaining, full of humor and humanity, written in a style of Russian/Jewish storytelling akin to the Sufi tales about Mullah Nasruden, Aesop's fables, mixed with a dash of Slavic peasant tales, told by a sympathetic sophisticate.
Among the Polish writers that I’d suggest reading, I should start with Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, based on his experiences at Auschwitz. He was a promising young poet when the Nazis invaded Poland, and Borowski and his lover were swept up in a Gestapo dragnet. For those people who naturally recoil at the thought of reading “another holocaust tale”, I suggest that you read this book by a young writer who was capable of capturing this human calamity with a style that was both ironic, yet absolutely honest, detached yet completely empathetic, written with a precocious wisdom and a deceptively simple style. From the beginning, you come to realize that the death camps were embedded in the history of the twentieth century, that they were a laboratory of our “New World Order” as the father of the American president once proclaimed. It’s not a despairing book, and in some ways, one can find more humanity in those camps than in our present world, which is presently suffering from the effects of the same social Darwinism that led to the extermination camps.
I’ll quote from the first-rate introduction from
“Borowski’s Auschwitz stories are
written in the first person. The narrator of three of the stories is a deputy
Kapo, Vorarbeiter Tadeusz. The identification of the author with the narrator
was the moral decision of a prisoner who had lived through Auschwitz - an
acceptance of mutual responsibility, mutual participation and mutual guilt for
the concentration camp.” ‘It is impossible to write about
Another Polish writer that I recommend reading is Stanislaw Lem, starting with his classic, Solaris, and secondly The Futurological Congress. Although considered a science fiction writer, Lem’s novels are critiques of the very technocracy and the eroticization of technology which are characteristic of most American science fiction. Like, Borowski, whose book is much more than another holocaust novel, but an allegory of de-humanization, where the industrialized world can be seen as one big concentration camp, Lem’s books deal with deeper questions of reality and consciousness.
I’d like to also suggest the works of Tadeusz Konwicki, particularly his Minor Apocalypse. A Minor Apocalypse was published in the eighties before the fall of the Soviet Empire and yet, it has a contemporary resonance. Konwicki’s style, like that of Borowski, is innovative, well-crafted, deceptively simple and very funny, if your taste runs toward black humor. I have to mention the books of Witold Gombrowicz, author of Ferdydurke, a twentieth century classic of black humor, in the style that would be later described as magic realism by his Latin American imitators.
Returning to Henry Miller, it was through his
writings that I was introduced to the books of the Indian philosopher J.
Krishnamurti. He had this to say in The Books in My Life-
“What distinguishes Krishnamurti, even from the great teachers of the past, the masters and the exemplars, is his absolute nakedness. ... If he had a mission, it is to strip men of their illusions and delusions, to knock away the false supports of ideals, beliefs, fetishes, every kind of crutch, and thus render back to man the full majesty, the full potency of his humanity. He has often been referred to as "The World Teacher." If any man living merits the title, he does.”
The first of his books that I’d read was, Think on These Things. I would also recommend The Awakening of Intelligence.
Not only did Miller quote J. Krishnamurti, but he had had this to say after
returning from Europe to America:
“This world which is in the making fills me with dread… It is a world suited for monomaniacs obsessed with the idea of progress - but a false progress, a progress which stinks. It is a world cluttered with useless objects which men and women, in order to be exploited and degraded, are taught to regard as useful. The dreamer whose dreams are non-utilitarian has no place in this world. Whatever does not lend itself to being bought and sold, whether in the realm of things, ideas, principles, dreams, or hopes, is debarred. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist an escapist, the man of vision a criminal.”
But, it seems that Mark Twain had said something similar, back at the end of the nineteenth century:
"Our civilization is wonderful in certain spectacular and
meretricious ways; wonderful in scientific marvels and inventive miracles;
wonderful in material inflation, which it calls advancement, progress, and
other pet names; wonderful in spying out the deep secrets of Nature and its
vanquishment of her stubborn laws; wonderful in its financial and commercial
achievements; wonderful in its hunger for money, and its indifference as to how
it is acquired;..........."
"It is a civilization that has destroyed the repose and simplicity of life; replaced its contentment, its poetry, its soft romance dreams and visions with the money-fever, sordid ideals, vulgar visions and the sleep which does not refresh; it has invented a thousand useless luxuries, and turned them into necessities; it has created a thousand vicious appetites and satisfies none of them; it has dethroned God and set up a shekel in His place." (Letters from the Earth.)
In Sexus, Henry wrote:
“We (Americans) take to dope, the dope which is worse by far than opium or hashish - I mean the newspapers, the radio, the movies. Real dope gives you the freedom to dream your own dreams; the American kind forces you to swallow the perverted dreams of men whose only ambition is to hold their job regardless of what they are bidden to do.”
Of course, one could find similar sentiments
expressed in the writings of Henry David Thoreau, and even of Walt Whitman,
Henry Miller’s favorite American poet. In the case of these writers, that
disillusion had set in after American military adventures. For Whitman and
Thoreau, it had been the Civil War, and for Twain the Spanish-American War.
Somehow, most of the American writers that I’ve enjoyed reading had been in
Lately I’ve been reading a book of short stories by the writer Terry Southern, called Red Dirt Marijuana. The title story, taking place in the countryside of East Texas was quite moving, contrasting with his New York hipster stories, of which the story Blood Of a Wig is a great little example of Southern’s macabre sense of humor. Another book that had been written during the sixties, Going to Meet the General, by Warren Miller seems to be out of print, although I’d recommend reading it.
The master of this genre, a type of American Magic Realism, was Thomas Pynchon, who’d written the book Vineland, an extraordinary novel taking place on the west coast during the Nixon era, dealing, in an entertaining, amusing, yet serious way with the encroaching technocratic police state and the destruction of the left and counterculture during the Nixon era.
Now that we’re on the subject of the corporate takeover of America which culminated with the election of the b movie actor twenty-five years ago, I’d like to suggest a couple of books which were published around 1970 and based upon interesting developments in the world of so-called alternative science. These two books are, The Secret Life of Plants, and Psychic Discoveries Behind the Iron Curtain, which, after the curtain dropped, has been re-published as Psychic Discoveries. These two books point to a deeper understanding of nature and the universe, which will be explored in the future when the present ruling corporate technocracy has run its self-destructive course. These books explore developments in the science of post-quantum physics and particularly in the case of Secret Life of Plants, the re-examination of our relationship to nature after the demise of the materialist scientific models from the so-called Age of Enlightenment, from Descartes to Darwin.
Returning to writers such as Dostoyevsky and Hamsun, I’d like to mention other books from that corner of Europe that I particularly appreciated. First I’d like to mention the person that had inspired Henry Miller to break with the rat race and have the courage to express his creative gift. And that was Emma Goldman, the anarchist. I’ve read her two volume autobiography, Living My Life, and recommend it, not only for its artistic merit, but as the personal testimony of an extraordinary individual, a free thinker in every sense of the word. Lately, I’d taken to reading the second volume, dealing with the period around the time of the First World War, when pacifists and anarchists were jailed, killed and deported. Her observations about Bolshevik Russia are incisive, since she’d been personally involved with many of the key players in that drama. Her description of going to the Kremlin to meet with the new Czar of Bolshevism, Lenin, was priceless.
And finally, I’d like to recommend a book which I am presently re-reading, The Satyricon, by Petronius. I’m reading the translation by William Wordsworth, “the brilliant classical scholar”, as the dust jacket blurb proclaims; and I am inclined to agree. He’s rendered this classic from the days of Nero’s Rome into American vernacular, and has captured the wit and humor of the great satirist, or satyrist, to complete the pun. I’ll give you this little description, from the introduction, by the historian Tacitus:
“The case of Gaius Petronius deserves further
brief mention. He spent his day in sleeping, his nights in work and the
enjoyment of life. That success which most men achieve by dint of hard work, he
won by laziness. Yet unlike those prodigals who waste themselves and their
substance alike, he was not regarded as either a spendthrift or a debauchee,
but rather as a refined voluptuary. Indeed, his words and actions displayed
such apparent casualness and unconventional freshness that people found them
all the more charming. Nonetheless, as governor of Bithynia and soon afterwards as
consul, he proved himself a capable and energetic administrator.
Upon later reverting to a life of vie (or of
apparent vice), he was admitted as effective arbiter of taste into the select
circle of Nero’s intimates. No imperial pastime or entertainment which lacked
Petronius’ approval could be regarded as either elegant or luxurious. And so
Tigellinus, jealous of a rival whose expertise in the science of pleasure far
surpassed his own, appealed to the emperor’s cruelty (Nero’s dominant passion)
and accused Petronius of friendship with the conspirator Scaevinus. A slave was
bribed to incriminate Petronius; no defense was permitted and most of the
prisoner’s household was placed under arrest.”
“At the time the emperor was in Campania. Petronius had gone as far as Cumae when he was apprehended. The prospect of temporizing, with its attendant hopes and fears, seemed intolerable; equally he had no desire to dispatch himself hastily. So he severed his veins and then bound them up as the fancy took him, meanwhile conversing with his friends, not seriously or sadly or with ostentatious courage. And he listened while they talked and recited, not maxims on the immortality of the soul and philosophical reflections, but light and frivolous poetry. He then rewarded some of his slaves and assigned beatings to others. He dined and then dozed so that his death, even though compulsory, might still look natural. Nor did he adopt the conventional deathbed routine of flattering Nero, Tigellinus, and the other worthies. Instead, he wrote out a list of the emperor’s debaucheries, citing by name each of his sexual partners, male and female, with a catalogue of his sexual experiments, and sent it off to Nero under seal. He then destroyed his signet ring so that it could not be used later for the purpose of incriminating others.”
I admit that I found myself often laughing out loud as Petronius followed the misadventures of a couple of hustler/academics through the orgy circuit in Rome. It’s a pity that we’re only left with fragments of the original, and the book leaves the readers literally hanging. But, as far as lampooning the decadence and pretensions of Rome, Petronius is a master wordsmith. And, upon reading this book, one realizes that decadence isn’t only found within the banquet halls of the nouveau riche. One can see the parallels with the end of the Roman Empire and the present Anglo-American Empire. And for those readers who’ve already seen Fellini’s version, I would suggest that you read the book. Fellini’s Satyricon, like Tarkovsky’s Solaris, are only loosely based upon the originals, which in many ways are impossible to transform to the screen. Particularly in the case of Satyricon, for Petronius mixes a variety of styles brilliantly, while maintaining the thin thread of narrative. I’d like to end this little book review with quotes from the character of Eumolpus, who is introduced as a shabbily dressed poet, given to spouting verse and being stoned by an unappreciative mob. As it turns out, even the poet isn’t what he seems, but is another hustler and opportunist. At one point he launches into a poetic screed on the decline of Rome, in the epic style of Homer, the cherished poet of Greco-Roman antiquity. And as one reads this offering from the character Eumolpus, one can’t help but see the similarity with our contemporary empire, which like Rome, had once been a republic. I will end with a few snippets from the poet’s lament.
merchant; you’re talking of money,
Say soldier, and valor is sold
Good money’s the gigolo’s meaning
The toady’s lies are gilded with gold”,
“Lord and master of the world, our Roman stood supreme,
On land, on sea, and where the daystar dawned and
But unappeased. Everywhere his cargo keels
Swirled the marble water white; but if beyond, unknown,
some landfall lay, some shore touched to amber by the
blaze of gold,
Rome called it foe, Rome dealt it fate, Through war to
We hacked our way,
Boredom and greed
Old pleasures palled,
Decayed. Attrition of dirty hands, pawing soiling,
And the savors eroded, the bloom of goodness rubbed away.
Vulgarity by plenty spawned.
Plunder of boredom born…
Gaping connoisseurs of bronze, collectors of antiques,
And the gashed earth bleeding:
The red rocks ripped away
The marbles, the rare, the rose, the porphyries pried up;
Peers of ocean’s purple.
And the plunder:
Numibia a waste;
Arabia ravished, the spices scattered.
On a victim world.
New shapes of slaughter everywhere,
Peace a pool of blood…..”
“Hunters, hawkers of death. And the market for murder at
Fangs in demand. At sea sheer hunger prowls the ships;
On silken feet the sullen tiger pads his gilded cage,
While the crowd goes wild.
I see the shame, unspeakable
The shame of
“…Or find the story in a table told:
a plank of citronwood, this limed and blonded board
whose every lovely blemish makes its gold comparisons
seem vile, snaring the senses, reflecting in its sheen
that slick, expensive glow, a society of slaves,
parvenus in purple and the raffish rabble guests,
drowned in drink: a barren and ignoble board,
for which the Roman sack the world with steel,
caterers of greed.”
rottenness, power garbled with gold.
Quirites of cash,
Romans bought by the sellers of sops, and the golden rain,
Staining the ballots yellow.
The people, the Senate corrupt,
Turned auctioneer, bidder for a fee,
Consulta for cash. And freedom lies withered in nerveless
While the elders grabble for gold….”
closing, I would like to reassure any potential readers of Petronius, that most
of his book is light and breezy, much like Tacitus’description of his death.
The book jacket called him “
Don't Read Books
Don't read books!
Don't chant poems!
When you read books your eyeballs wither away,
leaving the bare sockets.
When you chant poems your heart leaks out slowly
with each word.
People say reading books is enjoyable.
People say chanting poems is fun.
but if your lips constantly make a sound like an insect
chirping in autumn,
you will turn into a haggard old man.
And even if you don't turn into a haggard old man,
it's annoying for others to have to hear you.
It's so much better
to close your eyes, sit in your study,
lower the curtains, sweep the floor,
It's beautiful to listen to the wind,
listen to the rain,
take a walk when you feel energetic,
and when you're tired go to sleep.”