Alfred Perlès on Henry Miller, the Big Sur “family man…”

Alfred Perlès (1897-1990) was an Austrian writer who befriended Henry in Paris in the 30s.

He subsequently wrote a book about his pre-war Parisian circle entitled Henry Miller at Villa Seurat.

He and Henry remained lifeline friends, visiting Henry in Big Sur in the mid-50s.

It’s at this point where Arthur Hoyle picks up the story (on pg. 200) in “The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur.”

***

Perlès observes that while Miller’s literary reputation—and the sales of his books—expanded rapidly in Europe after the war, he continued to be neglected by both critics and readers in his own country, despite the fact that “his enthusiasm, his exuberance, his child-likeness, are essentially American.”

Perlès attributes the marginalization of Miller in America to his treatment of his native land. “In his entire bulky work there is not a single flattering reference to his country, let alone England. To people, yes, to individuals in both Britain and America, but never a word of praise for the Anglo-Saxon way of life. And this is naturally resented.”

Perlès implies that Miller has been ostracized by American officialdom as much for his scathing criticisms of American “civilization” as for his use of obscene language and his graphic descriptions of sex….

Perlès concludes his portrait of Miller with a description of the comfortable life that he has built for himself in his Big Sur “paradise.”

Miller is now a “man who owns a house, a high-fidelity record player, a car, a lovely wife, and a couple of exacting dogs,” but he is, in Perlès’s view, living in a sterile, if beautiful, setting. He closes with two emblematic scenes.

In the first, Perlès accompanies Miller to a branch of the Bank of America in Hollywood, where Miller, always unsure of himself when dealing with money, awkwardly cashes a check. Perlès is at pains to describe the bustling activity of the bank, busy with customers making transactions. They leave the bank and enter a nearby bookstore, which is deserted.

While Perlès browses, Miller asks the proprietor, whom he knows, if business is good. The proprietor rubs his hands and retorts, “Just had an order of eighteen and a half feet of books…Nine and a quarter feet of green books and nine and a quarter feet of red ones.”

He explains to the bewildered pair that the books were ordered by an interior decorator needing to match the color scheme of a film star’s boudoir. So much for American “civilization.”

Perlès urges Miller to return to Europe and find stimulation for his work. “You can find stimulus in a Paris hovel, in an Italian trattoria, in a London basement flat, but not in Hollywood, not in America. There is something in the American scene that kills the thing in the germ, or corrupts it, or turns it into something else.”

He parts from Miller with the line “Je t-attends—a la source.”

As if in proof of Perlès’s argument that Miller needed the stimulus of Europe to write, it was during Perlès’s visit that Miller’s long writing drought ended and he began work on his next major book, Big Sur and the Oranges of Heironymus Bosch.

Though the book would not be completed for another year, by August 1955, three months after Perlès had returned to England, Miller wrote to (James) Laughlin, “The book is growing…taking me over. I have now almost 400 pages and the end is nowhere in sight.”

 

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