“If I adored Ulric because of his emulation of the masters, I believe I really revered him for playing the role of 'the failure.' The man knew how to make music of his failings. In fact, he had the wit and the grace to make it seem as though, next to success, the best thing in life is to be a total failure.” -- Henry Miller on Ulric (Emil Schnellock) in Plexus, p.15.
As an early booster of Henry Miller before he'd even begun to write seriously, it's no surprise that Emil Schnellock
should appear as a character in one of Miller's biographical novels. In Plexus
(Book II of The Rosy Crucifixion
), Miller covers the period in New York after which he left his first wife for June ("Mona"), soon followed by his escape from the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company and his earnest committment to become a full-time writer.
Schnellock appears in Plexus as "Ulric." It's a fond portrayal of an old-fashioned, good natured man (who says "Golly" way too often) who is passioinate about Art but not satisfied with his role in it, or in his life; he admires Henry's sense of adventure, dynamic spirit, and even the potential of what he may become. He and Henry have a mutual admiration. Reading the Ulric passages in Plexus helps create a deeper understanding of the muted Schnellock of Letters To Emil.
pp. 14-16: Henry and Ulric walk through the old neighbourhood and discuss painting and Art; Ulric works in his studio.
p. 67: Italians applaud Ulric at a restaurant when they overhear him talk excitedly about Italy.
pp. 196-205: Henry and Mona invite Ulric to dinner. They discuss Greenwich Village and Ulric's admiration for Henry's chaotic life (meanwhile, Henry feels Ulric listens with "bemused wonder" whenever Mona speaks--usually an interruption) . The dinner moves to Henry's apartment where Ulric seems fascinated by Henry's writing space. He stays the night.
pp. 372-386: Ulric tells Henry that his ex-wife "Maude" (Beatrice) has asked him to help get Henry back to her. Ulric is then invited to dinner, where he meets Mona's friend Marjorie. Ulric reminices about Henry's odd assortment of friends from Western Union, as well as the shy girls they would follow on Bushwick Avenue when they were kids. After Ulric has a nap, the four of them have a grand old time with a dinner that becomes an orgy of sorts (which is preceded by Ulric's story of having had sex with his former school teacher).
MILLER ON SCHNELLOCK
"What redeemed Ulric was a complete lack of ambition. He wasn't hankering to be recognized: he wanted to be a good painter for the sheer joy of excelling. He loved all the good things in life, and only the good things. He was a sensualist through and through. In playing chess he prefered to play with Chinese pieces, no matter how poor his game might be" .... "He chose everything he used with great care--clothes, valises, slippers, lamps, everything"
"His dubiety, his cautiousness, would be refreshing" ... "Ulric, the greatest stick-in-the-mud ever..." (p.49)
"Many of my friends referred to him as quaint--'charming and quaint.' Which meant, 'old-fashioned.' Yet he was neither a scholar, a recluse, nor a crank. He was simply of another time." (p.199)
SCHNELLOCK ON SCHNELLOCK
Upon hearing of Henry and June's failed candy-selling enterprise: "What a life! I wish I had the guts to venture out a little more. But then those things never happen to me" (p.196).
While trying to emulate Cezane
: "Damn it all, I'm nothing but an illustrator. Why in hell can't I capture something like [Cezane does]--just once. What's wrong with me, do you suppose? .... It's not just this painting, or the one before, it's my whole life that's wrong. A man's work reflects what he is, what he's thinking the livelong day, isn't that it? Looking at it in that light, I'm just a piece of stale cheese, eh what?"
"I'm the worrying sort, I guess. A guilty conscience, probably. I inherited all the old man's bad traits" (p. 378).
"The way I treat that girl of mine is a crime. We've been going together five years now--but if she dares to mention the word marriage, I take a fit. The very thought of it scares the life out of me .... I'll be a bachelor all of my life, I guess" (p.378).
SCHNELLOCK AS CRITIC
"To Ulric's appraisals I was particularly sensitive. It was foolish of me, perhaps, to give such keen attention to his comments, since our tastes (in literature) were widely different, but he was so very, very close to me, the one friend I had whom it was imperative to convince of my ability. He was not easy to please either, my Ulric" (p.55)
SCHNELLOCK THE ARTIST
On their walks through the old Brooklyn neighbourhood, Ulric would bring a sketch book: "to make a few notes." He found beauty in things like decayed urban landscapes. But his "notes" were rarelt used, as he was kept busy with advertising art (p.15-16).
Between jobs, he had women pose for him. "Before the easel he had all the gestures and mannerisms of the 'mastro.' It was almost terrifying to witness the frenzy of his attack" (p.16).
Ulric: "I suppose it will always be a thing of wonder and mystery to me how we ran into each other that day on Sixth Avenue after a lapse of many years. What a lucky day it was for me! (p.386). Ulric then goes on to describe how he'd thought of Henry during his travels, how he'd known that Henry would amount to "something or somebody."
Schnellock/Ulrich speaks with great admiration for Henry throughout these scenes.
Reference: Plexus. Grove Press paperback, 1987.
The great pulp cover image of Plexus is from a 1961 Italian edition, which I found on Italian ebay.