Saturday, January 20, 2007

Reading. Miller.

(one last time).

When you see a book called Crazy Cock in the dusty neighborhood used bookstore, with fathers reading aloud to their small children while sitting hunched over on brightly-colored plastic chairs not meant for anyone over the age of five, you grab it and run (of course stopping to pay). I feel vaguely as though I should hide it inside my jacket as I slouch towards the cashier, and distract the gray-haired, bespectacled lady at the cash register from my motley assortment of books by mentioning that I found a copy of The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller mis-shelved over in the Young Reader's section. She is aghast that someone had thought that Henry James wrote children's books, but does not turn a hair at my choice of reading material.

Posthumous works are tricky. I always feel a pang of mistrust when I open one, but then I am lost to the words and forget everything but the story. The author has no control over how his previously unpublished works will be presented, edited, received by their readers. Sometimes it is a lost manuscript, written and shuffled aside, left and forgotten in some trunk gathering dust in an attic. Perhaps not even meant to published. Crazy Cock was written during Miller's marriage to June Smith, whom he had met in a dance hall while still entangled in his first, unhappy marriage. She would appear in his other novels, for all his characters come from his own life, including himself. In this forgotten manuscript, he seems to be working through the despair that befell him when his wife and her lesbian lover (the original title of this novel was Lovely Lesbians; its changed title returned the story's focus on the writer himself) abandoned him. They had been living together, all three of them, in an increasingly emotionally difficult and complicated ménage, until the two women left for Europe, leaving Henry to move back with his parents at the age of thirty-six.

In a way this story unfolds as a curious muddle. I am distracted from the twisted triangle of Tony and Hildred and Vanya, the walking shades of the real Henry, June, Jean. Such is the danger of the autobiographical novel, of all of Miller's works, where the lines between truth and fiction blur until they merge and become indistinguishable. What moves you beyond the confusion is Miller's gift for monologue, the way he uses words, language; I have come to see that this is what I love him most in him. It seems that while each of his works is based on himself and those close to him, each story is a little different, another skin that he has shed, although that voice that is so clearly, uniquely his remains the same, his identity as a writer unaltered (so he wrote in the foreward to Stand Still Like the Hummingbird, which I revisited a few nights ago). Crazy Cock would pre-figure his later works, both the Tropic novels and the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy; it is a glimpse of something yet to come.

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