Last year I followed the advice of RC over at the great Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company: A Henry Miller Blog and shared a randomly chosen Henry Miller passage with you. This year the randomness comes from a YouTube clip suggested by Dave Monroe of the Thomas Pynchon Discussion Group. But first, I'd like to spend some moments writing about Henry Miller and Norman Mailer.
Though much was written about Mailer upon his death in November, not much was made of Mailer's championship of Henry Miller. Mailer "defended" Miller against the criticisms of Kate Millet in his 1971 book The Prisoner of Sex, then dedicated an entire anthology, Genius and Lust (1976), to Miller and Miller's writings. By that point, many of Miller's banned and largely autobiographical fictions had finally become available, yet Miller's identity remained much more of a myth than a reality to the general public. This was in part due to aura created by the censors, but it was also due to Miller's surrealistic blending of fiction and reality in his writings.
As Mailer wrote in the Foreword to Genius and Lust, "If all the writings are now available, they do not always provide a clear path into the unique heart of such a writer. He is after all a great writer and that heart is not so casually revealed—this 'diabolically truthful man' can be diabolically sly. Still, he is always there. It is the center of the power of his writing. Whether comprehensible or subtly and self-protectively out of focus, few writers in the history of literature speak with so powerful a presence."
Miller's feelings toward Mailer were more mixed. As captured by Twinka Thiebaud in the 1981 Capra Press book Reflections, Miller had the following to say about Mailer:
Norman Mailer is a seductive guy, full of charm. He has a mind like a steel trap. If you ask him a question, he gives a complicated answer, he's difficult to understand. Norman cannot simplify anything, especially when it comes to words.In the 1980s I wrote to Mailer to ask him about a screenplay he was supposed to have written based on Miller's Rosy Crucifixion trilogy. Mailer was kind (and organized) enough to send me a brief note back from his Brooklyn address, which was very close to many places Miller portrayed in his books, including the Brooklyn Bridge and the "Japanese love nest" where he lived with June.
I have tried to read him, but I had to put down his books. I couldn't make a bit of sense out of him. The forward he wrote to Genius and Lust was incomprehensible to me.
You know, the French word for fart is pet. A volley of farts is a pêterade. Well, Norman's writing is like a pêterade! He has a fantastic mind, but he overelaborates. He has what is known as logorrhea, he can't control his words, he's too much in love with them to let them go.
The two or us have many things in common. First of all, we're both great egos. The world revolves around us, doncha know? And then we're clowns, we have a lot of the actor in us and we can charm people right and left. Though we say the nastiest, do the nastiest things, there remains a kind of innocence that people are attracted to immediately.
Norman is a kind of leprechaun. That's why he can get away with things, outrageous things, like running for mayor of New York. He even challenged Gore Vidal to a fistfight on television! Vidal was above it all, he wouldn't stoop to such an act. But those are the sorts of things that give Norman the reputation as a kind of madman.
The thing that bothers me about him is that he won't give me credit for being a great writer in any realm other than in the realm of sex. A book like Colossus of Maroussi doesn't hold water in his opinion. Most people, including myself, feel that is my finest piece of writing, but Norman doesn't like it because it isn't sexy enough. His view is a rather narrow one, I feel.
Many people have written to me asking what I thought of Genius and Lust, they seem to be as puzzled as I was by his intent.
"What do you make of it Henry?!" they ask me.
It sure as hell beats me. I don't know what he was trying to get across. Sometimes I wonder if he himself knows. It's either too far over my head, or just a poor piece of writing.
I like Norman as a man, but as a writer I really can't recommend him.
Like Miller, I have mixed feelings about Mailer (who, it strikes me, had an extremely diabolical side that possibly haunted his conscience in his later years), but I did get a kick out of seeing him researching along with everyone else at the New York Public Library (unless that was someone else I spotted), and I very much enjoyed a short story of his that I remember as "The Geisha House" (but which might have been called "The Paper House").
I also appreciate the note that Mailer sent me, in which he signed off with the word, "Cheers." I've since picked up the habit of ending many of my own notes with that word, so I suppose I can safely say that Mailer influenced me as a writer in that respect.
Once I found Mailer's Brooklyn address and noticed, to my amusement, the name Mailer on the mailbox. The first time I saw him up close was at a Public Theater event later in the 1980s; he had amazing light blue eyes and a very solid-looking stance that I can still picture today.
And now for a random Henry Miller moment from Groucho Marx and Lord Buckley on You Bet Your Life.
Photo: David Marc Fischer