Posts Tagged ‘Henry Miller’

Blaise Cendrars, on the life of the writer: “I never forget that work is a curse—which is why I’ve never made it a habit.”

Sunday, March 31st, 2019
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Before he lost his arm in WWI (Photo: August Monbaron)

Never heard of him? No surprise. He’s been somewhat overlooked since his death in 1961 at age 73. Blaise Cendrars was an influential  French modernist poet and novelist who was chums with Guillaume Apollinaire and Henry Miller. He was one of the first to praise Miller’s Tropic of Cancer – “A royal book, atrocious book, exactly the sort of book I love best…” In my research, I ran across this 1966 Paris Review Q&A from a 1950 radio interview with Michel Manoll. (You can read the whole thing here, but it’s subscription only, except for this snippet). You’ll love the tone:

Michel Manoll: All writers complain of the constraint under which they work and of the difficulty of writing.

Blaise Cendrars: To make themselves sound interesting, and they exaggerate. They should talk a little more about their privileges and how lucky they are to be able to earn some return from the practice of their art, a practice I personally detest, it’s true, but which is all the same a noble privilege compared with the lot of most people, who live like parts of a machine, who live only to keep the gears of society pointlessly turning. I pity them with all my heart. Since my return to Paris I have been saddened as never before by the anonymous crowd I see from my windows engulfing itself in the métro or pouring out of the métro at fixed hours. Truly, that isn’t a life. It isn’t human. It must come to a stop. It’s slavery … not only for the humble and poor, but the absurdity of life in general.

When a simple character like myself, who has faith in modern life, who admires all these pretty factories, all these ingenious machines, stops to think about where it’s all leading, he can’t help but condemn it because, really, it’s not exactly encouraging.

Manoll: And your work habits? You’ve said somewhere that you get up at dawn and work for several hours.

Cendrars: I never forget that work is a curse—which is why I’ve never made it a habit. Certainly, to be like everyone else, lately I’ve wanted to work regularly from a given hour to a given hour; I’m over fifty-five and I wanted to produce four books in a row. That finished, I had enough on my back. I have no method of work. I’ve tried one, it worked, but that’s no reason to fix on it for the rest of my life. One has other things to do in life aside from writing books.

Apollinaire, with a shrapnel wound, 1916

A writer should never install himself before a panorama, however grandiose it may be. Like Saint Jerome, a writer should work in his cell. Turn the back. Writing is a view of the spirit. “The world is my representation.” Humanity lives in its fiction. This is why a conqueror always wants to transform the face of the world into his image. Today, I even veil the mirrors.

The workroom of Remy de Gourmont was on a court, 71, rue des Saints-Pères, in Paris. At 202 Boulevard Saint-Germain, Guillaume Apollinaire, who had a vast apartment with large rooms and with a belvedere and terrace on the roof, wrote by preference in his kitchen, at a little card table where he was very uncomfortable, having had to shrink this little table even smaller in order to succeed in sliding it under a bull’s-eye window in the mansard, which was also on a court. Edouard Peisson, who has a nice little house in the hills near Aix-en-Provence, does not work in one of the front rooms where he could enjoy a beautiful view of the valley and the play of light in the distance, but has had a little library corner constructed in back, the window of which gives on an embankment bordered with lilacs. And myself, in the country, in my house at Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, I’ve never worked on the upper floor which looks out on the orchards but in the lower room which looks in one direction on an impasse behind a stable and in another on a wall which encloses my garden.

Among the very few writers I’ve had occasion to see much of, only one man of letters, celebrated for his frenetic cult of Napoleon, installed himself before a panorama to work—a historical one—the window of his study had a full view of the Arc de Triomphe. But this window was most often closed because the living spectacle of the glory of his great man, far from inspiring him, clipped his wings. He could be heard through the door coming and going in his study, beating his sides, roaring his phrases, trying out phrases and cadences, groaning, weeping, laboring himself sick like Flaubert in his “gueuloir.” His wife then said to the servants, Pay no attention. It is Monsieur castigating his style.

Henry Miller loses it. Eudora Welty looks for a job.

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013
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lettersI just discovered the website “Letters of Note,” thanks to a couple of recommendations from friends.

The website is exactly what the title promises:  famous letters, culled from a variety of sources.  Here are the two my friends recommended.

First letter: author Henry Miller’s 1932 message to diarist and novelist Anaïs Nin.   They’d just started a torrid affair.  (And to think I’d settled for a dozen roses.)

August 14, 1932

Anais:

Don’t expect me to be sane anymore. Don’t let’s be sensible. It was a marriage at Louveciennes—you can’t dispute it. I came away with pieces of you sticking to me; I am walking about, swimming, in an ocean of blood, your Andalusian blood, distilled and poisonous. Everything I do and say and think relates back to the marriage. I saw you as the mistress of your home, a Moor with a heavy face, a negress with a white body, eyes all over your skin, woman, woman, woman. I can’t see how I can go on living away from you—these intermissions are death. How did it seem to you when Hugo came back? Was I still there? I can’t picture you moving about with him as you did with me. Legs closed. Frailty. Sweet, treacherous acquiescence. Bird docility. You became a woman with me. I was almost terrified by it. You are not just thirty years old—you are a thousand years old.

Inamorata  (Photo by Elsa Dorfman)

Inamorata (Photo by Elsa Dorfman)

Here I am back and still smouldering with passion, like wine smoking. Not a passion any longer for flesh, but a complete hunger for you, a devouring hunger. I read the paper about suicides and murders and I understand it all thoroughly. I feel murderous, suicidal. I feel somehow that it is a disgrace to do nothing, to just bide one’s time, to take it philosophically, to be sensible. Where has gone the time when men fought, killed, died for a glove, a glance, etc? (A victrola is playing that terrible aria from Madama Butterfly—”Some day he’ll come!”)

I still hear you singing in the kitchen—a sort of inharmonic, monotonous Cuban wail. I know you’re happy in the kitchen and the meal you’re cooking is the best meal we ever ate together. I know you would scald yourself and not complain. I feel the greatest peace and joy sitting in the dining room listening to you rustling about, your dress like the goddess Indra studded with a thousand eyes.

Anais, I only thought I loved you before; it was nothing like this certainty that’s in me now. Was all this so wonderful only because it was brief and stolen? Were we acting for each other, to each other? Was I less I, or more I, and you less or more you? Is it madness to believe that this could go on? When and where would the drab moments begin? I study you so much to discover the possible flaws, the weak points, the danger zones. I don’t find them—not any. That means I am in love, blind, blind. To be blind forever! (Now they’re singing “Heaven and Ocean” from La Gioconda.)

I picture you playing the records over and over—Hugo’s records. “Parlez moi d amour.” The double life, double taste, double joy and misery. How you must be furrowed and ploughed by it. I know all that, but I can’t do anything to prevent it. I wish indeed it were me who had to endure it. I know now your eyes are wide open. Certain things you will never believe anymore, certain gestures you will never repeat, certain sorrows, misgivings, you will never again experience. A kind of white criminal fervor in your tenderness and cruelty. Neither remorse nor vengeance, neither sorrow nor guilt. A living it out, with nothing to save you from the abysm but a high hope, a faith, a joy that you tasted, that you can repeat when you will.

All morning I was at my notes, ferreting through my life records, wondering where to begin, how to make a start, seeing not just another book before me but a life of books. But I don’t begin. The walls are completely bare—I had taken everything down before going to meet you. It is as though I had made ready to leave for good. The spots on the walls stand out—where our heads rested. While it thunders and lightnings I lie on the bed and go through wild dreams. We’re in Seville and then in Fez and then in Capri and then in Havana. We’re journeying constantly, but there is always a machine and books, and your body is always close to me and the look in your eyes never changes. People are saying we will be miserable, we will regret, but we are happy, we are laughing always, we are singing. We are talking Spanish and French and Arabic and Turkish. We are admitted everywhere and they strew our path with flowers.

I say this is a wild dream—but it is this dream I want to realize. Life and literature combined, love the dynamo, you with your chameleon’s soul giving me a thousand loves, being anchored always in no matter what storm, home wherever we are. In the mornings, continuing where we left off. Resurrection after resurrection. You asserting yourself, getting the rich varied life you desire; and the more you assert yourself the more you want me, need me. Your voice getting hoarser, deeper, your eyes blacker, your blood thicker, your body fuller. A voluptuous servility and tyrannical necessity. More cruel now than before—consciously, wilfully cruel. The insatiable delight of experience.

HVM

Second letter:  23-year-old author Eudora Welty was looking for a job in 1933.  Where else but The New Yorker?  And what else could the magazine say but “no”?  I wouldn’t have hired her either.  It’s a bit too arch for me.

March 15, 1933

Gentlemen,

I suppose you’d be more interested in even a sleight-o’-hand trick than you’d be in an application for a position with your magazine, but as usual you can’t have the thing you want most.

welty

Older but wiser.

I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y. However, I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930-31 while attending advertising classes in Columbia’s School of Business. Actually I am a southerner, from Mississippi, the nation’s most backward state. Ramifications include Walter H. Page, who, unluckily for me, is no longer connected with Doubleday-Page, which is no longer Doubleday-Page, even. I have a B.A. (’29) from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in English without a care in the world. For the last eighteen months I was languishing in my own office in a radio station in Jackson, Miss., writing continuities, dramas, mule feed advertisements, santa claus talks, and life insurance playlets; now I have given that up.

As to what I might do for you — I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15¢ movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse’s pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple. That shows you how my mind works — quick, and away from the point. I read simply voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards.

Since I have bought an India print, and a large number of phonograph records from a Mr. Nussbaum who picks them up, and a Cezanne Bathers one inch long (that shows you I read e. e. cummings I hope), I am anxious to have an apartment, not to mention a small portable phonograph. How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning — a little paragraph each night, if you can’t hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave. I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.

There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down; I realize this will not phase you, but consider my other alternative: the U of N.C. offers for $12.00 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay’s Congo. I congo on. I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker.

Truly yours,

Eudora Welty