Henry Miller always said that he couldn’t write stories: his books are huge spiral-formed stream-of-consciousness works that can’t really be called novels. And he tends to depict the grim and obscene realities of life rather than giving a sentimental view of things. So I was surprised, when I read Chapter 6 of Nexus for the first time, to discover that here we find a rather sweet story about a Christmas spent with his family.
Miller vs Christmas
It starts predictably enough, with Miller explaining why he’s always hated Christmas and pouring scorn upon it as he does all the other traditions Americans are supposed to hold dear. Like them, he couldn’t seem to escape it: “Christmas Day always found me in the bosom of my family – the melancholy knight wrapped in his black armour, forced like every other idiot in Christendom to stuff his belly and listen to the utterly empty babble of his kin.”
Even those of us who tend to enjoy Christmas can probably relate to Henry’s disgust with it: we’ve probably all had Christmases at times when life wasn’t so good for us, when the idea of going home to be jolly with the family seemed impossibly forced, when the commercialism of Christmas made the event seem rotten, when it might have seemed a better idea to cancel all plans and stay in bed all day. And Henry Miller’s life isn’t going well at the time this story is set: he is in a disastrous ménage à trois with Mona and Stasia, his writing is going nowhere, and he is without any other kind of meaningful work.
We can understand why Henry might have preferred to just stay in bed on Christmas Day.
In fact it turns out that he is up first, and has to work hard to drag Mona and Stasia – who were out drinking until 3am the night before – out of bed and into their clothes and into a cab. As much as he hates Christmas, Henry seems determined not to let his family down by being late for dinner.
Things seem to be going OK at first: he is surprised at how well Mona and Stasia are getting along with his family. It’s polite conversation all around the table. His only worry is how to escape: as soon as possible, but not so soon as to be rude. It’s only 3.30pm! “I wondered how on earth we would manage to keep the conversation going until it was time to go.”
It’s strange to think of Henry Miller, rebel and iconoclast, worrying about the conversation around the Christmas dinner table. But he’s worried that when the polite conversation stops the bullets might begin to fly – starting with his mother asking him difficult questions about his writing, a side of his character she cannot and will not understand.
Mona and Stasia ask to be allowed to take a nap, and so Henry is left to carry the conversation with the relatives. He seems to do OK at this, because it’s a few hours until things start to fall apart. Mona – she and Stasia having woken up now – declares that Henry is a genius, to which his mother replies with sarcasm: “He certainly is no genius at making money.”
Henry can see it’s turning into a row, but he’s glad of it. He’s finally had enough of the small-talk, the “empty babble”, and he’s hoping an argument will be “revivifying.” And those who are familiar with Miller’s other books are probably expecting carnage and chaos at this point, some kind of Christmas horror story culminating in a minor crime being committed.
Things don’t work out like that. Henry’s father ends up taking the side of Henry and his artist friends, and he and Stasia have an enjoyable conversation about painting. Henry’s mother retreats from the room for a while, defeated for the time being. The family albums come out and the rest of the evening is spent merrily. Henry is able to abandon any drastic escape plan he might have entertained when his father finally says: “Let’s have something to eat… I’m sure they’ll want to be getting home soon.”
Perhaps I was so little expecting a story with any Christmas cheer at all that my expectations were very low for this one. Perhaps a real “magic of Christmas” type story would involve Henry finally reconciling with his mother once and for all, rather than winning the day by forcing her to retreat. It always seems a shame to me, reading Miller, to think how much he apparently hated her.
And yet this story stands out, resting as it does amid so many stories of despair, for being a true story of reconciliation. If not a reconciliation with his mother, perhaps it is at least a tale of Miller’s reconciliation with Christmas itself, his usual grim expectations of the world banished for at least a few hours.