It began with Cricket magazine, as so many early literary discoveries did. It was the story of a young girl, meeting the writer Henry Miller and his beautiful dancer wife, at a home (I forget whose) on the Big Sur. I remember a description of a terrace in the sunlight, flowers and a view, twirling around, dancing for Henry Miller. I was in middle school, and I was years away from the dollar-per-page erotica I would discover much later. I didn't know that he was a famous writer, author of Tropic of Cancer and other books. In the story he was an old man in the twilight of his life, being kind to a shy little girl who danced before him for a little while.
Later, when I was in my teens, I happened across something by Anaïs Nin. Little Birds. It was erotica, but it was so beautiful I had to read more. (Like so many other writers I found her in my favorite bookstore in the world). I kept reading, discovered that she had been the lover of Henry Miller, and I turned to his works. (I like to read writers who are connected to each other somehow, as lovers, friends, rivals, together). I have to say that they made little impression on me, and I moved on to different worlds. Another decade would pass before I came back to him again, and it would be yet another writer who led me there.
Some time at the end of last year I began reading the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. I came across A Coney Island of the Mind, and I was well on my way in love. A note inside said simply that the title came, out of context, from Miller’s Into the Night Life. It haunted me. While searching for Miller's book I found two others, Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, and Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch. It took a little while to find Into the Night Life; it turned out to be part of a collection called Black Spring. When I found it I was swept into a dizzying whirl; it was less a story and more a stream of words that rocketed my mind from place to place, left me drunkenly reeling.
I read Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch on a long flight, from Seattle to London. It was late January. Stand Still Like the Hummingbird had been read the week before, in the bath. The cover of Big Sur has figures from a painting by Hieronymous Bosch superimposed over a photograph of the Big Sur; the Bosch figures reminded me of a Ferlinghetti poem I had read years earlier. (Always these two writers sending me back and forth between each other). Curious glances kept coming my way; I have gotten less attention while reading Playboy in mid-flight. Finally, my neighbor leaned over and said, I'm sorry, but I just had to ask. WHAT are you reading? And then, of course, the inevitable What's it about, then?, which is my least favorite question, impossible to answer coherently, particularly when you've just gotten through the first few chapters and have as yet no idea what's going to happen. (My other least favorite question, to paraphrase Umberto Eco, is when people ask, What a lot of books! Have you really read them all?).
By now I have read quite a lot of Miller, and I am old enough to not be shocked by anything. (We are a long ways away from Cricket magazine). But Big Sur is the one I love most, a different Miller, yet underneath the same Miller of Tropic of Cancer and that Into the Night Life which had sent Ferlinghetti off towards his "circus of the soul." It is about love and friendship and writing, about being a writer and husband and father and friend, and his love of what was still an Eden, that stretch of California coast, the hills above the ocean. It captures that moment when you discover a place before everyone else does, when the streams of people in search of a different life come pouring in to change everything into a replica of the life they left behind. The Big Sur of Miller's time no longer exists, except in books and memories. But when I read it I found I could close my eyes and hear the waves against rocks, wind through tall grasses. There is a gentleness to his words, a beautiful tenderness; it is like a slow embrace, a twirling dance on a sunlight terrace.