Occasionally people will ask about Henry Miller: was he even a real writer? Wasn’t he a fraud who fooled the world into believing he was the real thing?
Miller’s books are, on the one hand, like nothing else that had ever come before: sprawling and spiralling things without beginning middle or end, so that nothing he wrote could ever be called a “novel” or even really an “autobiography”. Miller found himself unable to write a story and so he played to his strengths and created his own way of expressing himself in writing.
On the other hand, Miller’s books can seem derivative of the avant-garde that had arrived long before him – Dada and Surrealism, for example – so that you could ask yourself: What did Henry Miller really contribute as an artist?
Miller’s books speak to me directly as almost no other writing does. And so I know that Miller was the real thing. But it’s interesting to see that Miller doubted himself as much as his critics did.
He knew that he was capable of lies and fraud, and he spent a lot of time bluffing his way through life before he succeeded as a writer, as we see in his “Rosy Crucifixion” trilogy (Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus).
The elevator attendant in Chapter 7 of Nexus is bizarrely rude to Henry. We wonder what exactly his problem is. Still, it’s strange to see Henry march back up to him and confront him with “Why do you hate me?” It seems like a sure way to start a fight.
But the encounter is quite revealing. The elevator attendant, a war veteran, has seen through him, he says. He knows a fake when he sees one, and literally has the scars to prove it. Henry is terrified and feels that the man has seen right into his soul.
After the encounter, Henry wanders the streets in a self-pitying mood. He’s now wondering: Does everyone despise me? Have they all seen through me? He’s thinking about the many acquaintances he’s made in his life and wondering what each one of them really thinks of him.
It’s a version of Miller we’re quite used to by Chapter 7. In Nexus, so far, Miller has been mostly weak, self-indulgent, and even suicidal. He’s looking in the window of a gun shop when a hand slaps him so loudly on the back that he thinks for a moment that one of the guns has gone off.
Tony Marella is pleased to see his friend and is sorry to hear he’s down on his luck. He offers Henry food and drink, and even a job. Tony gives his friend reassurance too: you’re born to be a writer, and your time will come one day. “And just when I thought the earth was ready to receive me,” thinks Miller, along comes a friend to help him.
It’s not just the food, drink, and money that revive him. Tony has come at a vital moment because Henry doesn’t have to pretend with him. He doesn’t have to compromise: Tony knows that Henry will be a writer one day, and just wants to help his friend out.
For all that Miller may have used tricks to get by – both in his writing and in his daily life, borrowing and stealing – we see throughout Nexus what it is that he really wants: to find the truth in himself and express it to the world. He is miserable for as long as he is forced to lie and pretend and play a part, and he has to become a writer not because of the expectations of others – since almost no-one expects him to succeed anyway – but because he must do it for himself, to raise himself up to a higher spiritual level. He needs to be able to tell the truth, and to live truthfully.
Miller’s books are an answer to a serious question he posed for himself, and answered truthfully as he could: Who am I? And because he struggled honestly, earnestly, and for so long with this question, a question we all ask ourselves from time to time, he was able, finally, to write books that are really worth reading.