For a dollar a page
Thirty-five years ago on June 7 1980, Henry Miller died at his home in Pacific Palisades, California. His had been an extraordinary life, and he left behind a body of work of unique character and quality.
Sadly, in the popular mind (if that term can be applied to the mainstream media commentariat) Miller is referenced too often as a notorious author of smutty ramblings. In reality he was in the first rank of radical 20th century writers, and many of his books would qualify as ‘the great American novel’, were they merely novels rather than semi-autobiographical works of polemic and social critique. Lawrence Durrell and Norman Mailer were both unreserved in their admiration of the meaning and power of his work.
Curiously Wikipedia, in a workmanlike resume of his life, omits one of Miller’s most extraordinary books – Opus Pistorum. Written for a Los Angeles pornographic bookseller called Milton Luboviski at a dollar a page when Miller was notably short of cash, the work did not see public issue until the early 1980s when the Miller Estate registered the copyright; the always courageous Grove Press published in the USA and in 1983 W H Allen & Co brought it to England. Their subsidiary, Star Books published it in paperback in 1984, and it went on sale in, among other places, WHSmith.
This provenance is noted if only because Opus is undoubtedly an extremely pornographic book – to express it mildly. That was its purpose, and it succeeds admirably. Miller was a writer who could mix and match the Baroque with asceticism at will. His prose was ever full of passion, rage and dark humour. Sex and his often tortured relations with women were always central to his narratives. Whilst he could match Rabelais and de Sade in scatological candour, he brought a unique intensity to his sexual writing: it was never less than fully engorged, brutally direct and leaking hot juices.
It is a convention of pornography to minimise context and narrative outside the sexual encounters. In Miller’s major works, though sex and women are never far away, there is a great deal of context, observation and reflection, conveyed with energy and a flair for a phrase, image and commentary.
In Opus, Miller eschews the embellishments of storytelling that were important to the works that brought him fame. This is a pornographic book and the women in it are there for the sex. Nonetheless, if his other books were symphonies, Opus is a solo jazz piece of great creative skill and economy of line.
Miller’s memoir of his time in Paris – Quiet Days in Clichy – provides the social backcloth, and he includes one of his Parisian expatriate chums as a protagonist and fellow debauchee. The stories are told in two short volumes of three episodes each and essentially the book is a tale full of sexual fury throughout which our hero remains baffled by the vagaries and arbitrariness of females in their lusts and responses to men (and occasionally other creatures).
Opus is not a book likely to find favour with moralists of any stripe. Readers with a more tolerant sexual imagination will find it hard not to be aroused in some degree by even its weirdest passages, so lean and hungry and savage are Miller’s descriptive powers. The author manages to distance himself from what we might shrink from in horror (and fear of prosecution – were it internet pornography); he invites us to contemplate events from the perspective of the protagonists.
Miller’s women know a lot about sex and are fully engaged with it. Much of his charm as a (male) writer of sex lies in his ability to fondly and credibly convey a sense of female abandon. His subjects might occasionally have reservations and quirks, but they really do get their rocks off. What’s more, we’re in Miller’s Paris of the 1930s. The women portrayed are almost certainly not so very different from the ones he encountered and knew.
Was Miller’s world of sex for real? Possibly not, but unlike bad porn writers, Miller knew how to make it seem real and human and fun – all in a very earthy way. But then, your reviewer is only a man. It would be interesting to read the view of my opposite gender.
Meanwhile, I think I need to get down to the Old Doom Bar to calm down.