A. Craig Copetas
- Crazy Cock by Henry Miller
HarperCollins, 202 pp, £14.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 00 223943 4
- The Happiest Man Alive by Mary Dearborn
HarperCollins, 368 pp, £18.50, July 1991, ISBN 0 00 215172 3
A few hours before the Washington Redskins consummately humiliated the Buffalo Bills in the 1992 Superbowl, I unfortunately asked a fellow American, an editor who has lived in Paris for ten years, to join a group of men and women for a beer, place a few bets, and watch the game with us live on Canal+. ‘Football is a most distasteful sport,’ sneered the American expatriate. ‘The game has no place in my life.’
I don’t know if Henry Miller was a football fan, but after reading his long-lost novel Crazy Cock, which was located by Miller scholar Mary Dearborn, together with Dearborn’s biography of the quintessential American writer in Paris, I suspect that a couple of Buds combined with his romantic streak would have made Miller take the Bills without any regard to the point spread. Miller, as both Crazy Cock and The Happiest Man Alive amply illustrate, never got sucked into the limbo of ‘those insufferable American idiots at the Dôme and Coupole’.
‘Henry’s gravelly voice let everyone immediately know that he was an American,’ George Whitman, the owner of the Shakespeare Bookshop in Paris, recently recalled.
He never turned into one of those phoney American artists around town. Henry was a native American first, although he considered American air-conditioning a nightmare. He never pal’d around with the literati. He walked the streets to learn French like an itinerant scholar and hung out with astrologers and real characters.
Henry used to come over to Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Company in the middle of the night and wake us all up with bottles of wine. I think it was 1931 when Henry met another young expat writer by the name of Alfred Perles. Alfred was mowing the lawn at the American Golf and Country Club, and the expat members were putting out this horrible and pretentious literary magazine called the Booster. So Alfred told the club that he was a writer, and got Henry to help him re-do the Booster. The club members went crazy over Henry’s high jinks in the magazine.
Like many American writers in Paris before the advent of the computer, Miller landed his first Paris job as a proof-reader at the Herald Tribune, hoping for something better to come along and kick-start his career. For him it was the Booster. In a letter soliciting lifetime subscriptions for 500 francs each, he announced that the editors were planning to
boost, baste and lambast when and wherever possible. Mostly we shall boost. We like to boost, and of course to begin with we are going to boost ourselves. In general we are for things. But in our own cute way. We will publish poems, essays, serious articles, witticisms, philosophy or metaphysics, travel and diary notes, fragments, unfinished novels, rejected manuscripts, and ... the ripe and cheesy things which have been lying in trunks for years.
And what a powerpacked masthead! Managing editor: Alfred Perles; society editor: Anais Nin; sports editor: Charles Nordon (aka Lawrence Durrell); butter news editor: Walter Lowenfels; department of metaphysics and metapsychosis: Michael Fraenkel; fashion editor: Earl of Selvage (aka Henry Miller); and Lawrence Durrell and William Saroyan as the literary editors. As Dearborn notes in a wonderful chapter on life at the Villa Seurat, Miller’s Paris address, ‘most of the editors were appointed without first being consulted: Saroyan, for example, claimed never to have met Miller in Paris. Though outwardly comical, Miller as fashion editor displayed his not inconsiderable knowledge about the subject, gleaned from his early years as a tailor’s son and his stint in Heinrich’s shop. Although he wore used clothes and corduroys in his Paris years, he maintained a keen appreciation for fine fabrics and an eye for a good cut.’
The American Golf and Country Club holds the distinction of being the first institution to spit and fume over Henry Miller, and Crazy Cock will certainly continue to enrage the puritan crowd that he once said would fish-eye him as ‘the lowest of the low when they see Cancer. Crazy Cock is the roughly written but interesting Greenwich Village story of the relationship between a young man, his wife and her lesbian lover. It was Miller’s third novel, and it’s full of the sexual pitch and youthful literary eagerness which start café brawls and outrage high school librarians. Of course, the sheer force of Miller’s language in Crazy Cock didn’t fare too well in New York, which is one of the reasons he came to Paris in March 1930, returning in 1940 to California and an existence Dearborn sadly and accurately describes as a ‘life in poverty as America’s most famous banned writer’.
As Erica Jong writes in her foreword to Crazy Cock,