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Writing For Readers, Reading for Writers

by: Douglas Winspear

April 2007

Douglas Winspear is also a painter of Dreamscapes and photographer.


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I’d been asked to write about books by a friend who is a librarian, and as luck would have it, I’d just picked up this paperback at a local yard sale, called The Intimate Henry Miller, published by New Directions in 1959. Of course, if I want to write about books, I should start with Henry Miller. For I’ve read all his books, and recommend most of them. And thanks to Henry, I’ve read quite a number of other authors whose books I recommend. And as it turns out, this particular paperback, which had disintegrated within a couple of days after the usual rough handling from my clumsy mitts, is probably out of print.

Inside the book jacket is a list of Henry Miller’s books that had been published by New Directions. I recommend all of them, so I’ll run down the list:

These books do not include his novels, the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, along with the three volume, The Rosy Crucifixion -Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus, or Quiet Days in Clichy.

Now, it turns out that the little paperback that I’d picked up had an introduction written by Lawrence Clark Powell, who was the head librarian at UCLA. In this introduction, he talked about his literary friendship with Henry Miller and their collaboration on putting together The Books in My Life. So, it seems only fitting that having been asked by a librarian friend to write about books in my personal life, that I should include a few excerpts from Lawrence Clark Powell’s introduction:

“Sooner or later everything comes in and goes out of a university library: books on French roulette and the dynamics of turbulent flow, on vector-analysis and psychoanalysis, missals and missiles, on flood and drought, law and disorder, books for and against, of good and evil, all free to all, a storehouse as powerful as any uranium stockpile, each book awaiting the touch of hand, the sight of eye which will release its energy.”
     “Into this magnetic field there came one day in the spring of 1941 a small, erect man in conventional garb, carrying a checked cloth cap, who came to my desk and said, ‘I am Henry Miller. My publisher said when I reached L.A. to go out to UCLA and see Larry Powell, a librarian who read books.’”
     “‘Guilty,’ I said. ‘And sometimes on company time.’”
     “‘Do you have any books by Jacob Boehme?’ was Miller’s first question.”
     “‘We’ll go into the stacks and see,’ I said.”
     “So into the great central book-stack we went in search of the German shoemaker-mystic of the 1600’s, whose books influenced English mystical thought from William Penn to William Yeats. Our quest led us to the second underground level where, like an ore deposit we found solid shelves of books on Religion and Philosophy, and one book in particular with a title Yeats thought one of the loveliest every conceived-Boehme’s Aurora, or the Morning redness in the Sky.”
     “I have never seen a man change so fast as Miller did when I put that book in his hand. He settled down on his haunches on the floor and began to leaf through it, read phrases, and more to himself than to me. Up to then he had been rather insignificant as a person; now he began to fill out and expand, to communicate and radiate energy.”
     “‘Somewhere in the Southwest I found myself wanting to read Boehme,’ he said, ‘and of course there was no library en route that would even have heard of, much less have Boehme on its shelves. It is worse than being without water, not to have a book when you want it. When are you through work? Four-thirty. Good. Come back for me then and we’ll go out for a cup of coffee.’”
     “So I left Henry Miller reading on the cold floor, and when I returned two and a half hours later, he was still there, like the Buddha, smiling and joyful. And in the nineteen years since then our friendship, cemented in mutual bookishness, has flourished like the coast live oak, green the year round......”
     “Books were every and always the bond between us. One night when we were driving from his home on Partington Ridge to the nearest telephone some fourteen miles down cast at Lucia, I asked Miller if he would write a piece on the importance of books and libraries in his life which I might have privately printed as a Christmas keepsake. He examined the idea with a few questions, punctuated by the characteristic meditative sound he makes-a cross between a groan, a grunt, and a sigh-and said he would have a try at it.”
     “I returned to Los Angeles, and then I witness by mail the way Miller works. An idea rises in him like a river, first the merest trickling flow, gradually increasing to brook to stream to river, and finally to confluence with the sea. A page or two arrived, a few more, a chapter, another, and then, page after page, chapter upon chapter, the torrential manuscript which was to become The Books in My Life....”
     “There is a dichotomy, but no contradiction, between Miller the writer and Miller the man, between the violence of his view of life as recreated in his prose and the gentle manner of his actual way of life. Live like a lamb, Flaubert said, so that you can write like a lion.
     “This has been Henry Miller’s way, at least in the years I have known him. If he had not been fated otherwise, Miller would have made a good reference librarian, with a passion for knowledge, a sense of order, and a desire to communicate....”
     “.....so many writers are stingy-dry, selfishly working their talent, giving out only when they are getting in. All the years I have known him, Miller has been generous to the point of prodigality, giving all to anyone in need, whether it was literary aid or the money in his pocket.”

Perhaps, I would start by recommending Miller’s book, “Books in My Life.” And I’d like to mention that through reading Miller, I’d come across the books of Knut Hamsun- Pan, Hunger and Mysteries. Hamsun was considered the innovator of the modern novel. He’d once said that he’d developed his style during a voyage in the U.S. where he’d been influenced by the straight-forward, and simple style of American journalism. However, I must add that Hamsun was no proponent of the American immigrant dream. I particularly liked Mysteries, the translation by McFarland. I’ll quote from the synopsis of the film version, directed by Paul de Lussanet-

“A strange young man arrives to spend the summer in a small Norwegian coastal town and from that moment on he acts as a catalyst that brings to the surface all the hidden impulses, thoughts and darker feelings of the local people. He is an intriguing mixture of arrogance and humility, virtue and depravity, sanity and madness, cursed with the merciless gift of insight into the human soul, especially his own. He can foresee, but cannot prevent, his own self-destruction.”

I have to add that this is just a plot synopsis, and doesn’t do justice to Hamsun’s book, which, as the title implies, deals with unexplored regions of the human psyche, and the fate of a psychically gifted man born in the age of the tyranny of Reason.

Miller had been a great admirer of Dostoyevsky, and I’ve read most of his novels. Dostoyevsky developed quite a following over the years. "To Dostoyevsky’s Christianity," predicted historian Oswald Spengler, "the next thousand years will belong." Even Frederick Nietzsche had quipped that “Dostoyevsky is the only writer that has ever taught me anything worth a damn about psychology”. The Possessed, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov were among my favorites. Lately I’ve been reading The Gambler. I’d like to mention that one of my two favorite short stories was White Nights, a truly funny, and sad story, about a lonely young man and a young woman who meet during midsummer in Saint Petersburg.

The other short story which I recommend reading is The Icicle by the author from the Soviet era, Andre Siniavsky, who’d written under the pseudonym of Abram Tertz. He was later to spend time in a Soviet gulag as a reward for this little comic masterpiece, which had elements of the psychic, reincarnation, and karma, subjects taboo under the Soviet Regime, where the official religion was dialectic materialism.

Now, that we’re in Russia, I must mention Bulgakov, and his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, along with The White Guard and Heart of a Dog. I suggest reading Shalom Aleichem, who was called the Yiddish Mark Twain. Old Country Tales and The Adventures of Menahem-Mendl, I found particularly entertaining, full of humor and humanity, written in a style of Russian/Jewish storytelling akin to the Sufi tales about Mullah Nasruden, Aesop's fables, mixed with a dash of Slavic peasant tales, told by a sympathetic sophisticate.

Among the Polish writers that I’d suggest reading, I should start with Tadeusz Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, based on his experiences at Auschwitz. He was a promising young poet when the Nazis invaded Poland, and Borowski and his lover were swept up in a Gestapo dragnet. For those people who naturally recoil at the thought of reading “another holocaust tale”, I suggest that you read this book by a young writer who was capable of capturing this human calamity with a style that was both ironic, yet absolutely honest, detached yet completely empathetic, written with a precocious wisdom and a deceptively simple style. From the beginning, you come to realize that the death camps were embedded in the history of the twentieth century, that they were a laboratory of our “New World Order” as the father of the American president once proclaimed. It’s not a despairing book, and in some ways, one can find more humanity in those camps than in our present world, which is presently suffering from the effects of the same social Darwinism that led to the extermination camps.

I’ll quote from the first-rate introduction from Jan Kott,

“Borowski’s Auschwitz stories are written in the first person. The narrator of three of the stories is a deputy Kapo, Vorarbeiter Tadeusz. The identification of the author with the narrator was the moral decision of a prisoner who had lived through Auschwitz - an acceptance of mutual responsibility, mutual participation and mutual guilt for the concentration camp.” ‘It is impossible to write about Auschwitz impersonally,’ Borowski wrote in a review of one of the hagiographic books about the camp. ‘The first duty of Auschwitzers is to make clear just what a camp is…But let them not forget that the reader will unfailingly ask: But how did it happen that You survived?...Tell, then , how you bought places in the hospital, easy posts, how you shoved the “Muslims’(camp slang for prisoners who had lost the will to live) into the oven, how you bought women, men, what you did in the barracks, unloading the transports, at the gypsy camp; tell about the daily life of the camp, about the hierarchy of fear, about the loneliness of every man. But write that you, you were the one who did this. That a sad fame of Auschwitz belongs to you as well.”

Another Polish writer that I recommend reading is Stanislaw Lem, starting with his classic, Solaris, and secondly The Futurological Congress. Although considered a science fiction writer, Lem’s novels are critiques of the very technocracy and the eroticization of technology which are characteristic of most American science fiction. Like, Borowski, whose book is much more than another holocaust novel, but an allegory of de-humanization, where the industrialized world can be seen as one big concentration camp, Lem’s books deal with deeper questions of reality and consciousness.

I’d like to also suggest the works of Tadeusz Konwicki, particularly his Minor Apocalypse. A Minor Apocalypse was published in the eighties before the fall of the Soviet Empire and yet, it has a contemporary resonance. Konwicki’s style, like that of Borowski, is innovative, well-crafted, deceptively simple and very funny, if your taste runs toward black humor. I have to mention the books of Witold Gombrowicz, author of Ferdydurke, a twentieth century classic of black humor, in the style that would be later described as magic realism by his Latin American imitators.


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