Brassaï's Henry Miller, Happy Rock presents a vivid portrait of two close friends through a number of warm, intimate conversations. Brassaï and Miller revisit their careers; discuss art, literature, Paris, Greece, Japan, World War II, and more; and consider the lives and works of many others in their circle, including Lawrence Durrell, Henri Matisse, Salvador Dalí, Georges Simenon, André Malraux, Hans Reichel, Paul Klee, and Amedeo Modigliani.
Sunday, April 19, 1959
Six years have gone by. Miller and his family have just arrived in Paris. And this morning, I am going to see them again at their home on rue Campagne-Première. A flurry of letters preceded this journey. All his friends were alerted. A month ago, Henry told me: "Yes, everything is arranged: passports, visas, tickets. All I need to do now is relax. Working feverishly to finish rereading Nexus before I go!"
As for Eve, she announced their return with this exclamation of joy, in capital letters: "WE ARE COMING BACK TO FRANCE!" And she added: "I say COME BACK because that's what this journey means to me. In Henry's mind, it's just one more trip. So there you have it!" And she ended her letter: "I want my children to have a real sense for what it is to live in France, and not only to be passing through" (letter to Brassaï, January 28, 1959).
When I arrive at the studio in Montparnasse, Henry exclaims: "What a pleasure to see you again. Most of the friends and acquaintances I saw in Paris are faring well. But just think if you lived in the United States! There, at forty you're prematurely old, used up."
Brassaï: How was your trip?
Henry Miller: It's the first time I've flown in a jet. San Francisco-New York: five hours and forty-five minutes. It's fantastic! Nine thousand meters up and not a bump. I felt like I was living in the future, the future that is becoming our present.
Brassaï: What do you think of Paris? Has it changed in six years?
Miller: So many cars in the street! It's astounding! People think New York's a frenetic city. But it's really Paris! The traffic is even heavier here and the police wave their arms to get people to go even faster. When I have to cross a street, I start to shake. I fear for me and my children. Fortunately, French cuisine hasn't changed, it still lives up to its reputation. But the odd thing is, I've lost my passion for Paris. I've changed. I don't like big cities anymore and I'm looking forward to being in the country. It's different for Eve! She loves Paris and wants to know it better. She'll stay here while I visit the Scandinavian countries with my children.
From the kitchen where she's been making breakfast, Eve appears, still as beautiful as ever. And Henry introduces me to his children: Valentine, called Val, a tall blonde girl the same age as Juliette, sparkling with life, and Tony, who reminds me of James Dean: straw-colored hair, rebellious locks sweeping across his transparent blue eyes, his grave voice breaking as he curses with adolescent grace. He has the seductiveness of the hero of Rebel without a Cause, and also the arrogance. When Henry calls him over to introduce him, he turns his back and walks away.
Miller: Regular savages. Ill-mannered, stubborn, unruly, undisciplined. I love them! Apart from Big Sur, they don't know very much of the world. Oh, that's not true! Once I took them to San Francisco. Sometimes I try to put myself in their place, to imagine their childhood memories. They're important your whole life! What could a kid from Williamsburg, that seedy Brooklyn neighborhood, dream about? The only images filling my childhood were gloomy vacant lots, smoking chimneys, mounds of garbage and trash being incinerated. But marvelous memories nonetheless. Other kids remember a beautiful garden, a forest, a trip to the seashore, a loving and tender mother. What will Tony and Val dream about, I wonder. Probably about cliffs, eagles, vultures, sea elephants warming themselves in the sun, whales passing off the coast, those terrible storms that come crashing down on the Pacific. For a long time I was hesitant to take them to Europe. Larry advised strongly against it: "Travel is already tiring in itself," he wrote me, "one must be free and without a care to take advantage of it." Obviously, without the kids it would have been less bother. But I adore them. And they like it in France. I'm looking forward to having them in the Midi. In the country we won't have to keep them on a leash. Larry has rented a house for us in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, I think. But I dread La Camargue. "You're going to see medieval France again, unchanged, intact," he wrote me. "The notaries are straight out of a Balzac novel and everyone shits outdoors." Well, no thank you! I can't adjust to medieval life again, to houses without the modern conveniences. America has spoiled me, corrupted me. Why live like idiots in the atomic age, without a minimum of comfort, of hygiene? I'm also afraid of mosquitoes. It seems La Camargue is infested with them."
Mosquitoes! Along with ants, flies, and drafts, mosquitoes are for Henry the "poison apples that spoil paradise." He wrote of Big Sur: "The flies wake me up at six o'clock in the morning." And when he was camping in Corfu: "The camping is fine, but why add ants, flies, etc.? I hate flies! I don't think there would have been so many if I'd been alone. I would have camped under the olive trees, not on the sand." He remembered Far Rockaway beach as a nightmare. Invited to the home of June's friends, they were eaten alive. "The instant I saw the mosquito net above the bed, I knew what we were in for. It started right away, that first night. Neither of us could sleep a wink."
Brassaï: Are you thinking of leaving Big Sur to settle in France?
Miller: Eve would like to and Larry has strongly advised us to go looking in Provence for a good spot to settle permanently. But I don't agree. I can't leave Big Sur just yet.
Brassaï: But you complain of being invaded there.
Miller: My wonderful solitude, my peace and quiet, haven't existed for a long time now. Success comes at a high price. They think I'm the Dalai Lama. And I'm too weak to resist. It's hell. As soon as I sit down in front of the typewriter, my work is interrupted. It drives you crazy. Impossible to collect your thoughts. And yet, despite its inconveniences, I'm attached to Big Sur. It's my haven. And the sea, the wind, the cliffs, the sky, the stars are irreplaceable! I'd never find a promontory like that in France.
Brassaï: How long are you thinking of staying in Europe?
Miller: Four months. We've reserved our return seats for August 20. I'll be delighted to see the Durrells and to meet Claude and the children. I look at the map, I measure the distance from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer to Nîmes and other places. There's a lot I'd like to visit: Le Puy, for example. Have you been?
Brassaï: An odd city, dominated by two volcanic cones. One bears a colossal statue of the Virgin at the summit—quite ugly in fact; the other has an adorable little eleventh-century chapel—Saint-Michel—a real Romanesque jewel.
This morning—a Thursday—he wants to take his children to the Eiffel Tower, and asks me to go with them. He's red with anger, fed up. Valentine played a practical joke in the building: she trapped the tenants in the elevator between two floors. Yelling, calls, complaints. The life of the building is disrupted. And now, out of breath, streaming sweat, Tony appears. Against his father's orders, he crossed the dangerous boulevard Raspail to go roller-skating the length of Montparnasse cemetery. Still an unfamiliar sight for me: Henry Miller, who could be their grandfather, in the role of father, grappling with these little devils. He bellows, explodes, scolds them. Tempers rise. He responds to Eve tit for tat, and she constantly criticizes him: "Just look at the result of how you raised them. They do what they like, naturally! Refuse to obey their father. You can shout all you like, you have no authority anymore." A fierce enemy of submission of any sort, deep down Henry undoubtedly approves of his children's escapades, even applauds them. And he's annoyed at himself for giving in to anger. He is about to explain himself when the doorbell rings. It's the telegraph boy. Henry reads a long dispatch from Stockholm.
"A few months ago, Sexus was seized as pornography in Sweden. My lawyer appealed. He found a good argument: a Swedish book, also banned for obscenity, was cleared recently and could be published again. So why not Sexus?"
Brassaï: And you won?
Miller: Wait, I don't know yet. [He reads the dispatch, shakes his head, grunts, and bursts out laughing.] No, we've lost for good! The argument was rejected by the appeals court, and do you know on what grounds? The judges did a sort of chemical analysis of the pornographic ingredients of the two books. According to that expertise, the Swedish book, which is really filthy by the way, contained only 10.3 percent obscenities, and Sexus 15.7 percent. My book was thus 5.4 percent filthier. Therefore, the appeal was rejected and the ban continues. It's really high comedy! Imagine all those grave magistrates, those high priests of justice, poking their noses into my novel, rifling through it, analyzing every page, every sentence to extract such and such a percentage of obscenities from it. Incredible, don't you think?
That bad news does not trouble Henry's serenity, however. He's seen enough already! With the slanted eyes of a Chinese sage, he laughs until he sheds bitter tears: "You'll see, one day I'll win the Nobel Prize all the same! And other grave magistrates will praise my books." He's joking. Yet I detect a glimmer of hope in his words. Five months ago, he wrote me: "We may see each other again when I receive the Nobel Prize (what a joke!)" (letter to Brassaï, December 2, 1958). After all, couldn't he get the award in Stockholm? Obscenity is no impediment. The winds can change. Wasn't André Gide among the elect despite—or because of—his defense of homosexuality? Wasn't he honored precisely for his courageous struggle against hypocrisy? The same arguments may one day work in Henry's favor.
Miller: The battle is now joined in earnest. My books had the same misadventure in Japan. They were all banned. My Japanese publisher held an exhibition of my watercolors and sold a lot of them. Now he wants to keep my money and even my watercolors, as "compensation." The ban has completely ruined him, he wrote. That's what I've come to.
Young Claire, the daughter of Maurice Nadeau, arrives. We set out to conquer the Eiffel Tower. Thursdays are the tower's big days! Hundreds of schoolboys and schoolgirls, flanked by men and women teachers, nuns, stand in line to go up. Finally they herd us into the elevator. Then we have to change cars because the kids want to go all the way to the top, to the sky, 320 meters up. The sight of Paris from bird's-eye view, the glistening ribbon of the Seine traversed by its bridges, the gilded Prussian helmet that tops the emperor's tomb at Les Invalides, its white replica at the Panthéon, the Arc de Triomphe with its twelve-pointed star, Sacré-Coeur perched on its Montmartre pedestal: all these monuments on the left and right banks, a pleasure for the eye to pick out on every side, interest them very little. For them, that ascent is only an amusement park ride and they're having a great time: they drink and eat everything offered—hot dogs, ice cream, lemonade, Coca-Cola—and buy out the gift shop: postcards, globes, miniature Eiffel Towers.
Brassaï: Do you know the Eiffel Tower was the result of a competition: design an iron tower three hundred meters high? At the Sainte-Geneviève library one day, I looked over all the plans. There were some astounding ones. An elephant, among other things, a hundred meters high, holding a sort of two-hundred-meter-tall pagoda on its back. Even Eiffel's original plan was rather different from the present tower. When they calculated the resistance, it produced purer forms, more beautiful curves. And do you know that, up above us, there's a little private apartment with several rooms, traversed by iron girders? I was able to visit it one time. Eiffel lived there for several weeks. It was his office. Now it's reserved for heads of state.
Miller: How old is it?
Brassaï: Just seventy years old, two years older than you.
Miller: And it hasn't been eaten away by rust?
Brassaï: No. It can survive another two centuries. It seems that steel lasts longer than concrete and the longevity of a steel tower is greater than that of a skyscraper. But only if it's repainted every seven years. A rather extraordinary acrobatic sight!
Miller exclaims: "The children, where the hell are the children?"
While we were talking, they wouldn't hold still and were running around the platform knocking into lovebirds and people contemplating suicide. Could they have ventured into the stairwells? We finally find them. Val and Tony beg their father to let them take the metal stairs down to the third floor, on foot. After a categorical no, Miller caves in and gives them the green light. We take the elevator and wait for them on the second platform.
Miller: You don't have children. So you don't have these problems.
Brassaï: Have you read Emile?
Miller: A few passages, and I found them very appealing. A fundamental book. I also read the books by Ferrer, Montessori, and Pestalozzi. The question of education interests me passionately. I agree with Rousseau. He was against pedagogues, against schooling, and, like me, he recommended the return to primitive virtue. I didn't see the usefulness of stuffing my head with school learning. I only wanted to learn what seemed of vital interest to me. I had to discover everything on my own. There's only one good pedagogue: life. I wanted to raise my children in the greatest freedom. That's what my wives always criticized me for: I thwart their efforts, I'm not ruthless enough, I take a malicious pleasure in seeing them misbehave. That horrible discipline I should have inculcated in them was really always the main reason for our quarrels. But I rejected such a cruel, stultifying upbringing.
Brassaï: So you took your own lack of upbringing as a model for upbringing?
Miller: Yes, my own experience. I grew up on the streets, that's where I learned what it means to be truly human. Until the age of nine, we were little rascals, budding young gangsters, but our own masters. None of us idolized our parents. We were hungry for knowledge, we discussed burning questions. Around a campfire in a vacant lot we were able to talk about serious things: love, death, life, birth, sex, God. I had the good luck never to have been spoiled by my parents! They gave me a free hand. I could wander, return any time of night without reporting to anyone.
Brassaï: Céline also claimed that high school is the root of all evil. And so did Nietzsche! As a young philologist in Basel, in five lectures he denounced the major defects of "modern" education, from elementary school to the university, the "gray and useless" erudition "of an impenitent barbarism."
Miller: School plunges us into a fog of words and abstractions. It debilitates us, and right at the age when people are burning with curiosity. Now, along with Rimbaud, I think that "everything taught at school is wrong," that everything of vital importance to the child is taboo both at school and at home. Yes, I went astray. How right I was!
Brassaï: And you became a writer. But you might have also become a gangster. Most of the young people in prison are there because the only school they had was the streets.
Miller: None of us became jailbirds that I know of. But, if given the choice, I prefer emancipated adults, strong men, even those on the fringes of society, to those who have become morons, braying asses, because of book learning.
Brassaï: You reject what you call "book" learning. Yet you always speak of certain books as vital experiences. You even said that reading Dostoevsky was a more important event for you than falling in love for the first time. After all, you learned more from Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Rabelais, and Knut Hamsun than from the little rascals on vacant lots.
Miller: Of course. But who propelled me toward those authors? It was the education of the streets, my revolt against society.
Brassaï: So you're for a rebellious childhood—unbridled, unfettered.
Miller: Normal, healthy children are naturally turbulent, naturally reckless, naturally disobedient. Yes, they're "rebels." They're not made for the egoistic discipline we require of them or for the cushy life we offer them. What would be the point of repeating: "Don't do this, don't do that"?
Brassaï: And yet this morning you were very annoyed that you couldn't make them obey. Val had the whole house up in arms and Tony almost got run over by a car.
Miller: That's true. My nerves were frayed and I let myself lose my temper. It happens sometimes, I too lose patience with my kids and, when I get fed up, I even spank them. But I've always felt ashamed afterward and have sworn to myself that I'd never do it again.
In front of the stairwell where the children are supposed to come out, Henry anxiously examines the forest of iron girders.
Miller: It's a difficult thing, bringing up children. Especially if you have a strong personality. There are so many sad examples of children born to men of genius! My biggest concern is not to dwarf them. They'd be ill-suited for life. So, instead of training them as a father, I have instead tried to be their pal. I've remained childlike myself and my books do battle with the adults who massacred the child living inside them. I try to join my kids in their own world. And I've succeeded fairly well. Obviously, I have no authority over them. They don't respect me. They often call me an idiot, an imbecile, a moron. I prefer that! Wouldn't it be disastrous for them to take me for a serious man, or worse, for a man of genius? I prefer to suffer on account of my lack of authority. Durrell wrote me one day: "You're going to make a rather crazy father." That's right. I act like a clown, a crackpot, and, as much as I can, I hide my "celebrity" from them. But since they aren't stupid or blind, they see that their moron father receives many signs of respect and consideration. And then there are all those people who make appeals to me, wine and dine me, flatter me. Television, interviews, photos. That must be a problem for them. And their suspicions bother me.
This problem of the "genius's son" has preoccupied Henry. He often asked me what had become of Picasso's son Paolo: "What's he doing with his life? What a tragedy for a son to have such an illustrious father!" (letter to Brassaï, November 13, 1964).
When I get home, I'm still thinking about Henry's relationship with his children. He abandoned his daughter Barbara, born during his first marriage, even though he adored her. Abandoned her not to a convent, as Rousseau did, but to her fate, without concerning himself about her anymore. Even in Paris, he still thought about that daughter he didn't really even know. And, in Big Sur, when he was exhausted by those unruly little savages and had to let their mother take them back, he suffered so much that he burst out sobbing: "I was . . . heartbroken. And with the dull ache came exhaustion and loss of spirits. The place now seemed like a morgue to me. A dozen times a night I would wake with a start, thinking that they were calling me. There is no emptiness like the emptiness of a home which your children have flown. It was worse than death. . . . I wept like a madman. I wept and sobbed and screamed and cursed. I carried on like that until there wasn't another drop of anguish left in me. Until I was like a crumpled, empty sack" (Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, pp. 190, 191).