Monday, February 18, 2008

A Henry Miller Honeymoon

Today's guest posting comes from Eric Lehman. He sometimes finds himself on the trail of Miller's ghost, as was the case with a certain cistern in Greece several years ago. Very recently, his travels took him to the haunts of Miller's Paris. The footsteps were doubled, however, as he was in the company of his newlywed wife for the occassion of their honeymoon.
On the plane to Paris my new wife, Amy, read Tropic of Cancer. We had rented a small apartment in the Marais for our winter honeymoon, and she decided that the time had come to finally wade into the murky swamp of Miller’s masterpiece. Of course, I planned on rereading it, as well, and on visiting a few choice spots from the novel. I had printed out pages from the blog, “Walking Paris with Henry Miller,” and planned to do at least one of the tours. If I had been there by myself, on a pilgrimage, I might have done more, but this was our honeymoon, after all. I didn’t want to push it.
Paris in the winter had all the stark angles of bare sycamores and gray steeples, but we found it welcoming and friendly. So crucial to Miller during the Depression, food became our main preoccupation, being only a few blocks from the markets of Rue Montorgueil. The waiters at the cafés were polite and engaging, appreciating our juvenile forays into their language. We saw a ballet, a play at the Comedie Francaise, three cemeteries, ten churches, and a dozen museums.

Below left: Lehman at the door of 16 rue Henri Barbusse, where Henry Miller
used to call on Walter Lowenfels ("Cronstadt")

On finishing Tropic a few days in, Amy commented on how “sad” it was, full of hunger and longing. When I read it this time, I couldn’t stop laughing, noticing once again the sly humor and sharp jokes. Like all great literature, it is a tremendous multiplicity, a concoction of vitamins and poison, enriching the soul and wounding the heart. And now, I knew, the parks and cafés of Miller’s Paris would be alive inside my mind, and I could drink from that potent brew by just closing my eyes.

We decided it was the day to follow in Tropic’s footsteps and took the metro to Montparnasse, maps and pages from Miller Walks in hand. After a visit to the top of the Tour Montparnasse and the cemetery, we walked down the Boulevard Raspail to the collection of cafés at the center of the American expatriate culture in Paris. We were hungry, and decided on La Rotonde. Inside we found a feast beyond the hungry imagination of starving writers, and indulged heartily in a salad with goat cheese, prunes, and apricots in phyllo sheets, sea bass seared with candied lemon and wild rice, leeks with beet sauce and an egg, and a galette for dessert. I felt inspired to be in the same café that Miller and so many other writers and thinkers had dined at, and began working eagerly on a short story.

Heading down the Boulevard du Montparnasse after lunch, we saw the Tschann Librarie [at left] where the first copies of Tropic were placed, sans wrapper, in the window. Then, the Closerie des Lilas, where Miller wrote, and which features a brass plate on a table with his name. We walked past the Fontaine de l’Observatoire where Miller suffered a cold night in Tropic of Cancer. After turning onto the Rue Henri Barbusse, we found the house of Walter Lowenfels, the model for that hilarious caricature, Jabberwhorl Cronstadt. I knocked on the door, but no one was at home.

We strolled the edges of the Luxembourg Gardens, watched bocce players, and dove back into the maze of streets. There we found the house of Joseph and Bertha Schrank, known to Miller fans as Sylvester and Tania, which Miller had visited so often early on in the novel. We saw the hotel he shared with the ghost of August Strindberg, and then Otto Zadkine’s house [at right], now a museum bursting with his terrifying cubist sculptures. I had no idea the “Borowski” from Tropic had become famous enough to warrant his own museum, and was astonished by the quality and scope of the art.

We wandered back up the Rue d’Assas, and back along the Boulevard du Montparnasse to Le Select. It was time for deux café crème, and a talk about Anais Nin’s short stories, which Amy and I were also reading. The menu featured the name “Henri Miller” and we drank a rich, dark cup in honor of the two friends. Taking out notebooks, we wrote for two hours. Deciding to visit at least one more café, we walked across the street to La Coupole, which Miller frequented with Lawrence Durrell and Nin. We ordered drinks, and I finished writing the short story I had worked on all day, feeling that double satisfaction of completing a project, and doing it in the presence of a rich literary history.

Above: Le Select cafe. Below: Amy writing inside Le Select, Eric writing inside La Coupole.

Although the day in Montparnasse was the only day we specifically devoted to Miller, our paths seemed providentially intertwined. At a spot on the Pont des Arts, Amy took a photo of me. Later, I found a photo of Miller in nearly the same spot, framed by the Ile de Cite. A spot from the film of Henry and June appeared along the Seine. A Miller quote graced the floor of Shakespeare and Company. On the only day trip out of the city, we traveled to Auvers-sur-Oise to see the grave of Vincent Van Gogh, and the sculpture of the artist in the town park was by who else but Otto Zadkine.

On the last day, as we browsed the booksellers on the Seine, Amy called to me. “Do you have this one by Miller?” She pointed to Max et les Phagocytes, a title I had never seen outside of a bibliography, a book I knew was impossible to get in America. I immediately grabbed it and took it to the proprietor. “Ah, Henri Miller! Tres bien.” He laughed, and said something else in French that probably meant that I was in for a wild ride. I knew it. Miller was in the veins of Paris like a rogue blood cell, and even a pair of honeymooners in love could not escape him.

Lehman on the Pont des Arts.

As I walked those streets of Paris with my wife, I could almost see Henry there, and a thousand others like him, those legendary engineers of our personal mythologies. But they are not myths, these men and women who lived their bittersweet lives just as we do now, aware of their own debts to history and each other. That fact was never clearer to me than that day in Montparnasse, when I shared space, if not time, with an author whose landscapes had once only been literary dreams, but were now a lived reality.

Eric Lehman is a senior lecturer and Director of Composition at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. He writes fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry, and essays, which have been published in a number of literary journals. His essay, "Henry Miller and Jean Francois Lyotard: The Aesthetics of 'The Inhuman' in Tropic of Cancer" was published recently in Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal, Volume 5 (2008).


Blogger Ryan Rasmussen said...

E: Abounding trail magic -- and I'm glad to learn that the insomnia had no effect on your various appetites!

2:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Eric

It's great to see your story posted here! Excellent write-up and some nice photography too. I hope you had a great trip.

12:23 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this, really enjoyed reading that. Also very timely for me since I am going to Paris soon.

I was think that I should do something literary turist-y since it will be my first visit there. I intend to go see some LF Celine sights, then the Strindberg hotel and then some Henry Miller stuff.

Tony, London

7:59 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's Amy's website for her new book of poetry:

8:44 pm  

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