Quiet Days in Clichy - there is nothing quiet about Miller's days in Clichy.
Henry Miller is my 'one author who affected me the most' (and I am not using the word influenced on purpose). I've read and reread his novels countless times, always finding new meanings, hidden messages, obscure sentences that burst forth with life. Miller has the power to pick me up when I'm down, the power to make me laugh when I'm sad, the power to see beauty in our messed-up world. Why? Because his works are full of life; life unrestricted, untamed, like pure blood just drawn and spilled all over the pages while still warm. That's Miller for me.
Quiet Days in Clichy chronicles a period of about one year. As usual, Miller is broke, sharing an apartment with his friend, who in this book goes by the name of Carl (Alfred Perles, an excellent author himself). In Miller's own words: "When I think of this period, when we lived together in Clichy, it seems like a stretch in Paradise. There was only one real problem, and that was food. All other ills were imaginary. I used to tell him so now and then, when he complained about being a slave. He used to say that I was an incurable optimist, but it wasn't optimism, it was the deep realization that, even though the world was busy digging its grave, there was still time to enjoy life, to be merry, carefree, to work or not to work."
This statement, is straightforward Miller if you never read him. Miller, throughout his books and most of his actual life, has had problems with money, or rather the lack of money. As for being an incurable optimist? - no, Miller was not an optimist, he was a man who has lived life to the fullest, tasting all and baring nothing. If you are familiar with his books, you know it wasn't always easy.
"It was a period when cunt was in the air." Did I forget to mention that Miller was awfully honest when it came to matters of sex? Most of his works have an underlying sexual motif, a presence of sorts. Some more than others, and Quiet Days in Clichy is of the former category. While many call Miller obscene and even go as far as calling his books pornographic, I've never felt this way. Miller's sex scenes and encounters are spread throughout his work in a matter-of-fact way. He assigns them no importance beyond their occurrences and their consequences. His sexual encounters (while prolific) just happen, so to speak. Here now, tomorrow... It would be foolish to deny that sex played an important role in Miller's life and in his writing, but his writing of sex is not meant to arouse or to provoke, it just is. Sort of like Bukowski's drinking - it just is.
This short novella has a surprising amount of crazy encounters in it. Knowing that during this period Miller was writing my favorite book of all time, Black Spring, helps put things into perspective. There is sex peppered throughout the pages, but the sex itself is of no importance. The encounters, however, are. The people Henry and Carl encounter are all rather interesting, their interactions almost psychotic. Especially the episode which results in their departure to Luxembourg.
Here, we are offered a different side of Miller. Instead of the carefree, jovial Miller tasting all life has to offer, here, he sounds more like Miller in New York.
He's discontent, "...observing the quiet, dull life of a people which has no reason to exist, and which in fact does not exist, except as cows or sheep exist." and "All they were concerned about was to know on which side their bread was buttered. They couldn't make bread, but they could butter it."
And despite finding beauty in the Pfaffenthal, "A thousand years' peace seemed to reign over this somnolent vale. It was like a corridor which God had traced with his little finger, a reminder to men that when their insatiable thirst for blood had been appeased, when they had become weary of strife, here they would find peace and rest."
He compares Luxembourg to the gray city he dislikes so very much, "Luxembourg is like Brooklyn, only more charming and more poisonous." "Better to die like a louse in Paris than live here on the fat of the land..."
Upon arrival back in Paris, Miller states: "Better a good venereal disease than a moribund peace and quiet. Now I know what makes the world civilised: it's vice, disease, thievery, mendacity, lechery. Shit, the French are a great people, even if they are syphilitic. Don't ever ask me to go to a neutral country again. Don't let me look at any more cows, human or otherwise. I was that peppery I could have raped a nun."
What comes next is an insanely exaggerated scene where sex takes over and all boundaries cease to exist. Cheating a whore by giving her an uncovered check is not anything to be proud off, but Henry and Carl put on quite a show to disguise the fact that the check is bad. This episode, while seemingly unimportant brings to what I consider the best in Miller's writing - the words that resurface in Black Spring. "Head rolls off table-head rolls off...little man on wheels...wheels...legs...millions of legs..."
The surreal, creative Miller takes over here. This is the Miller I love. The sex scenes end, and he retires with this: " I got off my ass, yawned, stretched, staggered to the bed.
Off like a streak. Down, down, to the cosmocentric cesspool. Leviathans swimming around in strangely sunlit depths. Life going on as usual everywhere. Breakfast at ten sharp. An armless, legless man bending bar with his teeth. Dynamic falling through the stratosphere. Garters descending in long graceful spirals. A woman with a gashed torso struggling desperately to screw her severed head on. Wants money for it. For what? She doesn't know for what. Just money. Atop umbrella fern lies a fresh corpse full of bullet holes. An iron cross is suspended from its neck. Somebody is asking for a sandwich. The water is too agitated for sandwiches. Look under S in the dictionary!"
This reminds me I'll have to revisit Black Spring soon.
Overall, Miller's narrative in this novella is what one would expect from Miller. Being an early book, it appears as if he is holding back a bit, but not enough to be politically correct.