Saturday, July 07, 2007

Je m'appelle Henri Miller

"Henry ... spoke with an atrocious American accent ... but he never mangled the French language; it almost seemed as though the language--the living thing--knew that he loved it and willingly lent itself to his distortions without losing its expressiveness." --- Alfred Perles on Henry Miller (from My Friend, Henry Miller, p. 94)

Henry Miller could never shake the Brooklyn in him, even though he fully immersed himself in French thought and culture in the 1930s. His Americanism was always evident when he spoke French. The French language was something Miller initially taught himself from books before moving to Paris. Once in France, he picked up on it more and more, to a point where his friend Alfred Perles described his French tongue as "very eloquent" ([1] 94). "He read it quite fluently" ([1] (27) and "had a good ear for the finer points of grammar" ([1] 75).

Here's how Henry Miller learned to speak French.

"I never read a French book and I never had a French idea," describes Miller of himself in his youth ([2] 286). As a child, he read nothing about France or the French until he was sixteen. His friend, Stanley Borowski, loaned him a copy of Balzac's The Wild Ass's Skin. His father promptly seized the edition "because anything by a Frenchman, by Balzac particularly, was immoral" ([3] 339).

"France didn’t begin to penetrate my consciousness," wrote Miller ([3] 339), until he was almost 26 years old (circa 1917). At that time, a musician friend gave him "a handwritten folio containing the translation he himself had made of a book called Batouala" ([3] 340). *

In 1927, when June brought up the idea of moving to Paris, one of Henry's concerns was that neither of them knew a word of French ([4] 100). He never went on this trip with June, but Jean Kronski did. Jean use Henry for practice as she taught herself French, giving him his first exposre to learning the language. But Henry must not have been paying attention because, when he did accompany June to France the following year (1928), he has written that he didn't speak a word of French: "Not a word! I knew how to say yes, no, and thank you, but that was all" ([5] 92). Alternately, in Quiet Days in Clichy, he writes that he knew "only ten words of French then" ([6] 114).

After returning to New York from Europe, Miller shows an increased interest in French literature and its language. He teaches himself to understand French by reading novels in French and translating them as he goes. One of his very first attmepts to read French ([7] 154)was with the book Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars, of whom he will become a great fan. "How can I convince the sceptic that I was ravished by Cendrars’ Moravagine despite the fact that I had to consult the dictionary for almost every other word?" ([3] 347). He would continue this means of self-education while in Paris in the 1930s, with books like Celine's Voyage au but de la Nuit ([8] 29). When he returned to Paris in 1930, his conversational French was still "lame" ([3] 337). Brassai describes Miller's French upon arrival as "very rough" ([8] 29).

Thankfully, Miller soon "hardly found it necessary to speak French" because he fell in with a group of English-speaking expats ([8] 67). When he was stuck , he could count on Alfred Perles, and later Frank Dobo, to help translate for him ([8] 30). "[Perles] taught me French--the little I know," wrote Miller in What Are We Going To Do About Alf? in 1935 (qtd in [8] 10). But this is a humble assessment, as Miller's French had become proficient by 1935.

The first prolonged conversation Miller had in French was with a man at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, where he had gone to see Charlemagne's chess pieces ([3] 337-8). Henry met Anais Nin in 1931. In May 1932, he sent her a few letters written in French ([9] 55). Yet, a year later, he didn't feel confident enough to write in French to literary agent Frank Dobo-- "it is impossible for me to write in French" ([8] 31).

One day Henry was in Avignon, and found himself in a French conversation about Proust with a group of students. "There were no more limitations of language. What I couldn’t explain verbally I acted out. Sometimes I found myself saying the most complicated thing sin the most asinine way. But they understood" ([3] 345-6). Alfred Perles had observed this method: "When a proper word failed him he coined his own word, a French word that wasn't French but which everybody understood. He always managed to say whatever he had to say, even if he had to do it with a grunt, an exasperated gesture of the hand, or a physical exertion of his neck muscles" ([1] 94).

Miller went to Dijon for a short time to teach English in 1931. He was left without his English supports and forced to understand French completely on his own. When Henry returned to Paris, Perles noted a French improvement of "several hundred per cent," as well as a new lexicon of coloquial expressions ([1] 67).

Through Anais Nin, Miller eventually took formal lessons from a M. Lantelme, an elderly former secretary to Nin's father (Anais herself took lessons from him in 1937). Brassai: "Henry thought that [Lantelme] embodied the spirit and character of the French provinces" ([8] 29).

By the time Miller left Paris in 1939, he was entirely capable of communicating in French. It wasn't a pretty French--"atrocious American accent," as Perles repeats several times in his book--but you can hear it for yourself in Miller's French television interview.
* Bouala, written by René Maran, was not published until 1921 (and that was in French). This means Miller's timeline is probably off. Although he doesn't name the musician friend "from Blue Earth, Minnesota," it was very likely Harolde Ross.
[1] My Friend, Henry Miller (Alfred Perles; Belmont L92-546, 1962 [1956]).
[2] Tropic of Capricorn (Henry Miller; Grove Wiedenfeld, 1987 [1961]).
[3] Remember To Remember (Henry Miller; ND Paperback Sixth Printing [1941, 1961]).
[4] Nexus (Henry Miller; Grove Press, 1987 [1960, 1965]).
[5] My Life And Times (Henry Miller; Playboy Press, softcover [abridged], 1973).
[6] Quiet Days in Clichy (Henry Miller; Grove Press, 1987 [1956, 1965]).
[7] Wisdom of the Heart (Henry Miller; New Direction paperback 94 [1941, 1960].
[8] Henry Miller: The Paris Years (Brassai; Arcade Publishing, 1995).
[9] A Literate Passion (Henry Miller, Anais Nin; Harcourt Brace, 1987).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm in a similar situation. I'll be going to Paris in Dec-Jan, but my French is awful or nonexistent. Luckily, my library has some classics in French, and I'm going to go through them word by word. We'll see how far I get...

And while I'm there, I'll be walking in the steps of HM, of course...

2:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello RC!
Loving everything you write on Henry as usual!
I also want to add two comments on « Je m’appelle Henri Miller ».
First, Henry’s initiation to the French language took place in Canada. Yes, indeed, it was during his trip to Montreal and Quebec City with June Mansfield in May 1928. A memorable event (narrated in « Nexus ») where French food and wine had a powerful effect during their two-week vacation.
Second, one of Henry’s last books was written entirely in French. It’s entitled « Je ne suis pas plus con qu’un autre » (I’m not dumber than anyone else). It was published in 1980 simultaneously in Montreal (éditions Stanké) and Paris (éditions Buchet/Chastel). It is in a hand-written manuscript format (like « Insomnia ») and offers to francophone readers an hilarious compendium (70 pages) of his life and times when he tried to learn and speak French. I own the Canadian edition and I found out (on Amazon France) that the title of the French edition is spelled differently: « J’suis pas plus con qu’un autre »; the « e » is missing in « Je » and it thus sounds more colloquial. I have no idea if the latter is also in a hand-written manuscript format, but one thing is sure, this book (which was never translated) is unfortunately unknown to anglophone readers, biographers and bibliographers (even to Roger Jackson!).
Take care RC!

8:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Jackson's bibliography does mention the book, listing two entries in volume one and two more in volume two: A200a-d. The note remarks that "con" may be translated as "bloody fool" or as "cunt."

Jackson lists both the original 1976 (Editions Buchet/Chastel)and the later 1993 (ditto)titles as being J'Suis pas plus con Qu'un autre, while a 1980 (Stanké) Canadian edition is Je ne suis pas con qu'un autre. A second limited 1980 Canadian edition uses the latter title.

9:17 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I accidently omitted the word "plus" from the Canadian title.

9:19 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info, James.
And my apology to Roger Jackson...

11:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Suspect you've seen/read this:


9:51 pm  
Blogger RC said...

Thank you everyone for the comments. Thanks to Pierre and James for the info about Miller's French text, which I have never personally seen; in fact, it is like a fresh piece of information to me. I'm curious to find out more.

Eric, please feel free to send photos and thoughts from your Miller explorations in Paris; you can be my Paris Correspondant, if you're interested. Don't forgte to consult the Miller Walks website before you go.

2:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutely, RC. I already printed out the Miller Walks stuff and will be using it, of course. I will only be there for a few weeks (this time) but I will be writing about it, you can be sure. This blog will be the first to know.

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