"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" ( 94). "He read it quite fluently" ( (27) and "had a good ear for the finer points of grammar" ( 75).
Here's how Henry Miller learned to speak French.
OUI, NON ET MERCI
"I never read a French book and I never had a French idea,"
describes Miller of himself in his youth ( 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"
"France didn’t begin to penetrate my consciousness,"
wrote Miller ( 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"
( 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 ( 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"
( 92). Alternately, in Quiet Days in Clichy
, he writes that he knew "only ten words of French then" ( 114).
HENRY TEACHES HIMSELF FRENCH
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 ( 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?"
( 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
( 29). When he returned to Paris in 1930, his conversational French was still "lame" ( 337). Brassai
describes Miller's French upon arrival as "very rough" ( 29).
Thankfully, Miller soon "hardly found it necessary to speak French" because he fell in with a group of English-speaking expats ( 67). When he was stuck , he could count on Alfred Perles, and later Frank Dobo, to help translate for him ( 30). "[Perles] taught me French--the little I know," wrote Miller in What Are We Going To Do About Alf? in 1935 (qtd in  10). But this is a humble assessment, as Miller's French had become proficient by 1935.
MILLER BECOMES FLUENT
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 ( 337-8). Henry met Anais Nin
in 1931. In May 1932, he sent her a few letters written in French ( 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"
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"
( 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" ( 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 ( 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" ( 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.
 My Friend, Henry Miller (Alfred Perles; Belmont L92-546, 1962 ).
 Tropic of Capricorn (Henry Miller; Grove Wiedenfeld, 1987 ).
 Remember To Remember (Henry Miller; ND Paperback Sixth Printing [1941, 1961]).
 Nexus (Henry Miller; Grove Press, 1987 [1960, 1965]).
 My Life And Times (Henry Miller; Playboy Press, softcover [abridged], 1973).
 Quiet Days in Clichy (Henry Miller; Grove Press, 1987 [1956, 1965]).
 Wisdom of the Heart (Henry Miller; New Direction paperback 94 [1941, 1960].
 Henry Miller: The Paris Years (Brassai; Arcade Publishing, 1995).
 A Literate Passion (Henry Miller, Anais Nin; Harcourt Brace, 1987).