Black Spring – Henry Miller

Black Spring – Henry Miller

Book Review of Black Spring by Henry Miller

It is always a pleasure to read a new edition from One World Classics, particularly when the title is one I’ve not read before.  Black Spring was written between Miller’s more well-known Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn and while it has not gained the stature of the other books, it is well worth a read in its own right.

First published in 1936, the book consists of ten almost independent (though linked) episodes covering Miller’s early life in Brooklyn and the period when he was writing in Paris.

The Wikipedia description of Miller’s writing applies perfectly to this book: “mixture of novel, autobiography, social criticism, philosophical reflection, surrealist free association, and mysticism”.  I have little doubt that while the work may be rooted in personal experience, this is more like an excursion from the bare bones of Miller’s existence than a verifiable memoir rooted in the real-world.

The book was banned in the English-speaking world when it was first published in Paris, but the modern reader will again be surprised at what shocked earlier generations for there is nothing particularly salacious in it to the modern mind.  Perhaps American and British readers would have been shocked to the core at Miller’s description of the Parisian urinals?

I go to the urinal to take a leak.  As I stand there looking up at the house fronts, a demure young woman leans out of a window to watch me.  How many times have I stood there in this smiling, gracious world, the sun splashing over me and the birds twittering crazily, and found a woman looking down at me from an open window, her smile crumbling into soft little bits which the birds gather in their beaks and desposit sometimes at the base of of a urinal where the water gurgles melodiously, and a man comes along with his fly open and pours the steaminng contents of his bladder over the dissolving crumbs

Henry Miller – Black Spring

Ok, so this passage does go on for two pages, but it doesn’t seem particularly controversial to me.  Perhaps its the occasional references to other bodily functions, but the level of detail is far less than modern writers would cover.  

Incidentally the above passage seems highly improbable: as someone who has used the Parisian pissoirs, I have never seen a Frenchwoman do anything other than avert her eyes and pass hurriedly on!

Much of this book is set in Paris and Miller seems to transform this busy, commercial capital into an almost mystical place.  Never more so in fact than in the chapter, Walking Up and Down in China, where Miller experiences Paris as China, with its Great Wall of streets and boulevards which he wanders through and lives out a Chinese life, an incomprehensible opium-inspired dream of “a man who wakes from a long sleep to find he is dreaming”.

Like so many before him, Miller wanders all over the city creating wonderful word pictures from typical Parisian scenes.  He sits in the Café Wepler (the photograph comes from Walking Paris with Henry Miller) reading a book on “Style and Will” because is is a luxury to read in a noisy café, a whore breathing down his neck enquiring why he is alone, rhythmical music augmenting the sense of solitude, “trembling on the high notes, poised like a chamois above a ravine”.

As I read the book, I was reminded of James Joyce, for many of the passages are a sort of free meditation on a theme, creating rich word-pictures as powerful as any painting.

As Miller walks on through the streets of Paris, he faces “the homely women of Europe”, with,

. . . a worn beauty about their faces,  as if like the earth itself they have participated in all the cataclysms of nature.  The history of their race is engraved on their faces; their skin is like a parchment on which is recorded the whole struggle of civilization.  I see on their faces the ragged, multi-coloured map of Europe. a map . . . streaked with ineradicable prejudices and rivalries.

Henry Miller – Black Spring

This reminds me of Anne Michael’s new book, The WInter Vault, where she writes,

Please close your eyes . . . Your thumb is the Atlantic, your smallest finger, the Pacific.  Your fingertips are Egypt, and the heel of your hand is Africa . . . Your heart line is the Arabian desert, your fate is the river Nile.

Anne Michael – The Winter Vault

However, Miller’s writing has far more robustness  than Michaels’ rather introspective prose.  Where as Michael’s poetic passages seem rather ponderous and slow the reader down, with Miller you race on with image after image crowding into the mind.

Paris had a huge impact on Miller, and also he on the city.  Kreg Wallace has created a website Walking Paris with Henry Miller and I notice that Black Spring features in some of the walks presented.  Miller can be poetic in his descriptions of the city, for example, where he sees the city before him from Louveciennes,

Below me the valley of the Seine.  The whole of Paris thrown up in relief, like a geodetic survey. . . ring upon ring of streets; village within village; fortress within fortree.  Like the gnarled stump of an old redwood, solitary and majestic she stands there in the broad plain of the Seine.  For ever in the same spot she stands, now dwindling and shrinking, now rising and expanding . . . she stands soft, gem-like, a holy citadel whose mysterious paths thread beneath the clustering sea of roofs to break upon the open plain.

Henry Miller – Black Spring

As am amateur painter myself, I was amused to read the chapter, The Angel is my Watermark, in which Miller describes a period when he experimented with watercolour painting.  Evidently his approach was not exactly traditional,

We discovered how to get interesting results with coffee grounds, and breadcrumbs, with coal and arnica; we laid the paintings in the bathtub and let them soak for hours, and then with a loaded brush we approached these dripping omelettes and we let fly at them.  As a last experiment we walk over them, spilling a little wine as we go.

This is a strange passage because watercolour is not the right medium for this type of experimentation being far too delicate and fluid to achieve the rich textures Miller was seeking.  He claims Turner as his inspiration apparently unaware that the Turner paintings Miller had in mind were oils rather than watercolour.  I would describe Miller’s artwork as the primary school approach to painting and I’d be surprised if the results were much to look at!

Overall this is a fascinating book with much to interest. Its a book that could be read as a whole or could be dipped into over a period of months and is definitely one to return to – I suspect I will keep remembering passages and want to look them up, and my copy is now full of pencil marks side-lining notable quotations.