Henry Miller believed that a real writer can find inspiration in anything, be it “a smokestack or a button”. I always enjoy Miller, whatever he’s writing about, because whatever the subject matter he’ll make it interesting. But some of his books I like more than others.
Aller Retour New York is Miller’s account of a trip he made from Paris to New York and back again. It is written in the form of a long letter to Alfred Perlès – whom he addresses mostly as “Joey” throughout, as was his habit – and this gives the book a conversational tone, making it appear somewhat more down-to-earth than some of his other works (such as the Tropics or Black Spring). Perhaps it is the matter-of-fact and less frequently psychedelic quality that makes this one of my least favourite of his books. But there’s another thing too.
As in all his books, Miller is writing about life. He restates here his philosophy that only being on “the streets” and seeing real life with your own eyes can make you understand it, since by living you learn the logic of life. And he paints a wonderful picture of what it means to enjoy life: for example, when drinking in Paris “I feel the friendliness of the wine and of the carved cutlass which stands in a corner by the window. I say now what I have never said in America: I feel a profound contentment.”
He’s never happy in America, and this spoils the book for me. I never get a feeling for the country. He never takes us beneath the surface. Half the book is about the USA, but he just repeats again and again the same message: America is dead, and all of its inhabitants are dead too, and anyone with any life will be crushed by the American way. He has very little positive to say, and this makes me think he just doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand what America is. I’d feel far happier reading a writer who loved his subject matter, in the way that Miller loves even “just a windowful” of Paris, enough to make his heart sing. Miller is better when he’s singing a joyful song inspired by the fullness he sees in the human spirit, than when he’s being mean-spirited, and griping about the society that rejected him.
(Image: The center of New York. In: “Flug und Wolken” (Flight and Clouds), Manfred Curry, Verlag F. Bruckmann, München (Munich), 1932 via Wikimedia Commons)