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Books: Dithyrambic Sex

7 minute read

Last week publishers’ trade papers announced that New Directions of Norfolk, Conn, would soon publish Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. This was sensational news, since publishing Henry Miller is a task that might well make any publisher blanch. Brought out in Paris four years ago, Tropic of Cancer has a bigger subterranean reputation than any recent book, based partly on the extravagant praise of critics like T. S. Eliot, partly on the difficulty of buying smuggled copies, but mostly because it is a low book, “the lowest book,” in the words of Edmund Wilson, “I can ever remember to have read.”

Announcement of the U. S. publication of Tropic of Cancer was surprising literary news not only because of its underground reputation. It revealed the recent revival of interest in the neglected field of experimental writing—that cloudy area of modern letters with its little magazines, obscure poems, defiant manifestoes, communications from Ezra Pound. In Manhattan a plump, handsome periodical, Twice a Year, took up where The Dial left off a decade ago. In Paris appeared The Black Book, a novel by Lawrence Durrell, who gave promise of outdoing Henry Miller in the form that admirers call the dithyrambic novel and that others call plain old-fashioned pornography.

Publisher. Centre for experimental writing in the U. S. is New Directions. In a roomy rebuilt stable on his uncle’s estate near Norfolk, Conn., James Laughlin IV runs New Directions between sessions at Harvard, where he has been in intermittent attendance for the last six years. Born in Pittsburgh 24 years ago, James Laughlin IV is a descendant of the founder of Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp.— a tall (6 ft. 3 in.), dark, personable young man with an earnest, attentive manner, a stubborn jaw and much practical business sense. He grew up on Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill and Laughlin says that he never read a book until he was 16. Then, at Choate, he studied under the erudite poet and translator Dudley Fitts, read Pound and Eliot before he read Wordsworth, began to write with such success that he won an Atlantic Monthly prize at 18.

Thereafter his career sounds like something by Evelyn Waugh, filled with wrecks, broken legs, poetry, rebellion, with great leaps from continent to continent, and terms at Harvard sandwiched between visits to New Zealand for skiing, to Rapallo, Italy to see Ezra Pound. Recovering after breaking his legs skiing down Mt. Washington, he got a job as literary editor of New Democracy, a short-lived weekly preaching Social Credit. When New Democracy folded, he decided to keep on publishing his own department as a literary annual.

As a publisher, Laughlin brought out well-printed books of obscure verse by Dudley Fitts, Kay Boyle, essays by Yvor Winters, a novel, White Mule, by William Carlos Williams, three anthologies of new writing. Loading his car with copies of his books, he sells them himself, arguing with hard-boiled booksellers from Manhattan to Detroit, who almost unanimously urge him to get out of the book business. Books are merchandise, they say, which clearly rules out New Directions publications.

Tropic of Cancer. How New Directions will get around the obstacles that have previously prevented publication of Tropic of Cancer in the U. S. is still unclear. This strange book is the work of a 47-year-old expatriate who was born in New York, worked as a tailor, personnel manager, ranchman in California, newspaperman, six-day bicycle racer, concert pianist and who settled in Paris “to study vice.” Short, bald, shrewd and bespectacled, with something of the air of a country editor, Henry Miller says he wants to go off the gold standard of literature, to write the things that are left out of books.

In Tropic of Cancer he deals primarily with matters which, while not exactly left out of modern books, are usually slurred over, and in his pages four-letter words are as common as the things they stand for. Narrator of the story is a penniless, sex-obsessed writer living in Paris, who encounters an extraordinary crew of neurotics, prostitutes, perverts, poets and painters, with many of whom he has sexual relations, meanwhile borrowing money, cadging drinks and exploding into hysterical laughter at the misfortunes of his friends. Miller’s prose, with its queer combination of unrestrained rhetoric and dry Yankee humor, the appalling clarity with which he records grotesque doings in dirty bedrooms, the fervor with which he communicates moods of despair and disgust, lift this mess above ordinary pornography.

The first copies smuggled into the U. S. created considerable critical stir. The Saturday Review of Literature called Miller “the largest force lately risen on the horizon of American letters,” while Pound announced: “At last an unprintable book that is fit to read.” But when Edmund Wilson wrote that it possessed “a strange amenity of temper and style which bathes the whole composition even when we may find it tiresome or disgusting,” Miller wrote an angry reply: “Damn all the critics anyway! The best publicity for a man who has anything to say is silence.”

The Black Book. With an underground reputation like Miller’s, Lawrence Durrell writes less of the subject that has kept Tropic of Cancer out of the U. S. But he puts in enough words to prevent The Black Book from being published anywhere except in Paris. Less shocking than Tropic of Cancer, The Black Book follows a similar pattern, with realistic scenes giving way to tumultuous passages of invective and bitter rhapsody.

Durrell is a 27-year-old Anglo-Irishman, born in Burma and raised on the border of Tibet, now working as clerk at the Ionian Bank in Corfu. Insofar as it has a story, The Black Book tells of a group of people living in a stuffy English hotel —all neurotic, frustrated, savage and obsessed with sex. The narrator brings home an 18-year-old tuberculous prostitute, Gracie, speculates about his neighbors, suffers a baffled, angry grief at Gracie’s death.

But The Black Book is primarily a volume of lamentations, breedings, prophecy, in which coarse, brutal or banal happenings at the hotel launch thoughts on the sickness of the age:

“In such moments I can tell you for certain that this is the breakup, the cataclysm, the drop-curtain on the world. . . . In the Abbey they are stillmarking the places in the hymnbooks, oblivious of the fact that tomorrow we shall have forgotten how to read. . . . In London they are dancing round the Walpole. . . . In Calcutta the black sweep is wandering with crumbs in his eyes,touching the untouchable, and eating the uneatable. . . . It is all being washed up towards a madness never before seen. The heretics themselves are appalled: are building themselves Arks from the flotsam of the imagination, and hanging their viscera out for sails; they are trying to escape, choosing what is frugal rather than countenance the ferment here, where life bubbles with the effervescent rhapsodic idiocy of soda from the siphon. . . .”

What this type of angry, incoherent prose will prove is anybody’s guess. Thus far it has resulted—in the work of Durrell and Miller—in dismembered passages of isolated brilliance, lit with lurid imagery and standing out sharply above records of life that are often dull and usually obscene. It stems from James Joyce’s Ulysses, but represents a type of curdled romanticism foreign to Joyce—more brutal, less artful, pervaded by a sense of hopelessness and despair beside which Joyce at his most pessimistic seems blithe and full of spirit.

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