“Brassai” is the pseudonym of Gyula Halasz, a Hungarian photographer who lived in Paris at the same time as Miller did, in the 1930s. Henry Miller was quite enamored of his photos depicting the streets of Paris, which Brassai published in his first book, “Paris By Night”. They met often, took long walks together (one of Miller’s favorite activities), ate, drank, and discussed anything and everything. Brassai, as a result, knew all of the people
that Miller turns into characters in his books, and so is able to provide a fascinating insider’s look into Miller’s writings.
I found this book at the Strand Bookstore in New York, the one that advertises “18 miles of books”, though they neglect to mention that these books are stacked on shelves so high and claustrophobically close that it is difficult even with a high ladder to reach them. For a book lover, of course, it’s worth the cliff scaling and neck craning and so on, because they really do have an enormous collection of used books. The adventure started earlier, though, for my son and I, as we couldn’t find it at first and walked block after block in the blistering New York summer sun, baking between the towering buildings. All part of the thrill.
This book though, the Miller book, was right out on a display table in a large pile. They must have been remaindered copies; they were on sale for half price. When I first spotted it, and up until I began to read it long afterwards in the wilds of the village country east of
Thessaloniki, Greece, I thought it was a biography of Henry Miller. I have long been searching for such a biography, a comprehensive one that would lay bare the many secrets of his life so I could compare the man’s life with his work. I thought maybe this would be at least a partial one, and figured the illumination of a few years was better than nothing. Alas, that biography has still not yet been created.
This book by Brassai is not a biography but a series of essays on various aspects of Brassai’s relationship with Miller and on what he knew of Miller due to his association with him. At first, upon discovering this, I was disappointed, but later when I took the book on its own terms I found much of interest. The essay on Miller’s second wife June, for example, who provided the impetus to push him to relocate to France and was the
inspiration for the dark, conniving, complex, many-faceted, sexy, deceitful main female characters in several of his works, is alone worth the price of the book. It’s also fascinating to read about how much trouble it was to get “Tropic of Cancer” published, how it was delayed time and again, how everyone except Miller, even the publisher, was afraid of censorship. It’s interesting too when Brassai launches into comparisons between fact
and fiction in Miller’s works, bringing out the extreme exaggeration Miller indulged in for the sake of effect. Brassai also writes of Henry Miller’s inspiration, his “voice”, when he would get into an almost trancelike state and pour forth some of his most effective prose.
In the end, entertaining though this book is, it is not the book I was looking for, and still look for. I would like to see a detailed, comprehensive biography of Henry Miller by someone who loves the man’s work and has the patience to do the research necessary to separate fact from fiction. That person is not me, alas. I can envision the project, but I would not have the patience to see it through. It would take much time, travel, and financing as well as patience. But it is a sore need. Miller is one of the most enigmatic writers of the twentieth century – even more, one of the most enigmatic and powerful writers ever. His life deserves the attention of a serious study. Some day soon, I hope, someone will undertake that great work.