Patterns and Shapes: On Reading Nabokov and Henry Miller

Twenty-plus years of reading leads to a peculiar sense of awareness. Patterns begin to emerge that when in the midst of them seem to be simple shapes—at the present moment, this is a circle; now, a square; now, another square, shaded slightly darker. Time passes in those moments, but it isn’t really time passing, it’s my mind and my body, present in a reality composed of the reading of the moment. One day it’s Nabokov, another day it’s Henry Miller, and beyond the examinations and analyses of the present book and its relation to myself, there is simply the author and his book. But twenty years on, the patterns slowly resolve as one looks back with personal history and the events of book combining into design that resembles the spirit of thing.

Younger, I read Nabokov. Devoured him. First the American years, then the Russian years, which were actually chimeras, given that they were translated, transformed, by thoroughly American Nabokov and Nabokov the younger. Lolita first, and what a thrill, saucy story, intellect chiseled into sentences, a mind at serious play constructing forts out of cushions that are too heavy to lift. Pnin next, a flattering tale of too smart and too little. Laughter in the Dark later in the year, a Hollywood story that still resembled the Nabokov who symbolized my future writing self. And all the while, I wrote my own stories, translating and transforming the Nabokov style into a Hischier style that elevated my ego…

A year later, three years into a failing marriage, the Russian novels. The grace of Mary, the torpor of Glory, attempts at King, Queen, Knave, and then a quick return to the American novels, Look at the Harlequins, Transparent Things, and lastly Ada, or Ardor, a Family Chronicle. That last book sunk its fingers into my bones, my skeleton made of wet sand, my brain unresisting as teeth pried apart the hemispheres and shoved luscious black hair into the gaps…

All the while, concurrent to Nabokov, his antipodes, Henry Miller, kept stopping by with another book to weigh me down. Tropic of Cancer, finished on the grass next to the rushing waters of Niagara Falls, a feeling of exhilaration and hope that I hadn’t felt since finishing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a younger man. I was aware that my fascination with Tropic of Cancer came from the dual nature of Miller’s writing, the pornographic and the philosophic. Dualities held me in their grip during my twenties, several years before hearing whispers of a transcendent third. The icon: Aubrey Beardsley’s life of drawing erotic images and separate catholic images thrilled me: a double life that added layers to each opposing side. Tropic of Capricorn somehow outdid Cancer by being perfect in ways I couldn’t describe. And how to relate this to the intellectual structures and sequences of Nabokov? There was no way, there was no pattern, I lived in circles, in squares, along dashes, curled up in wavy vectors that simply bore the titles of books, the signatures of authors, occasional common themes…

And so I played with the themes that haunted my own life, the way songs rise unbidden in the head, circling around the better thoughts, driving them out. The books formed no pattern in my life, they served only to please in the moment, my appetite growing with every last page, even the cud was worth chewing, its anti-nutrients exercising the jaw, the esophagus, the esophageal sphincter, going down, coming up, chewing some more. Books sampled like wine, sniffed, swirled around in the mouth, spat out again, the library merely fodder for an amateur sommelier. And yet, all that reading, all that time away from human beings somehow nourished. The fatty tissues of Henry James, hard chicken bones of Bataille, the family style breakfasts of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien, the rich delicacies of Shakespeare read to orgasm on the floor of my unswept studio.

How human was that experience? How rooted in the utility of three meals daily were these shapeless explorations? I never thought to look for patterns in my self, in what I needed. I loved to read, I loved myself, and it seemed only natural to read for myself, to fill myself up.

At thirty-seven, I began reading Miller’s The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy. Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus. A good friend recommended it to me when I was twenty-five. I tried reading it, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t the Miller of Cancer or Capricorn, it wasn’t even the Miller of Assassins or Oranges. Most everything Henry Miller wrote worked for me, but the Rosy Crucifixion did not. Until I was thirty-seven, that is. And I have read those 1500 pages on and off, in order, for the last four years. Throughout all my recent readings in literary theory or Hemingway or David Foster Wallace, Henry Miller has come to visit. He brings three packs of cigarettes and he opens his mouth to speak and I listen. There is nothing spectacular about these books. The prose is strictly Henry Miller, the story the same one he has always told, but he speaks like a friend, not a writer. And though I may read only a hundred pages every few months, those hundred pages are holidays, high holy days, the very opposite of nourishment for the mind, they add the fundamental qualities of life that make life worth living: conversation, other human beings, a myriad faults and a few crowning glories, all leading nowhere but ending up somewhere. When I drink with friends, I don’t analyze our conversations, I live it and I love it. When I drink with Henry Miller, it is the same.

And so the pattern emerges, and it is neither a judgement of myself or any author. It is simply the recognition that Nabokov satisfied my rampaging ego, flattered my intellect, allowed me to condescend, encouraged me to excel in my writing, to approach the craft as a craftsman, and to hold anything less than excellence in contempt. That’s fine. That stuff is valuable. But the pattern of Nabokov interlaces nicely with the patterns haphazardly spun by Henry Miller. Miller never made me want to write like him. Writing like Miller would be like adopting his conversational tics, interlacing profanity where he might, adding sex because he added sex. Of course I wanted to write like Nabokov, the crystalline spiderwebs that grew across his pages could be transferred via frottage onto the tissue paper of my own works. Not Henry Miller. Henry Miller simply makes me happy. I can relate to him. I feel my own humanity being justified as I turn the pages. All of my foolish behavior, all of my idiotic notions, all of my hopelessly romantic yearnings, even at the age of forty-one, are encouraged by Henry Miller, and he slaps me on the back and laughs aloud when I write a stupid page. He says, “Hey, at least you wrote, who cares, now let’s hop on our bicycles and fly down the city streets like wraiths. There is life to be had!”