In August 1935 Lawrence Durrell read Tropic of Cancer and decided to write Henry Miller a fan latter. Durrell, then 23, was living in Corfu; his first novel was to appear that year. Miller, 20 years older, had only published his first hook the year before, but was now well launched on his most creative period. An inveterate letterwriter, he sent Durrell a prompt and appeciative reply. One letter led to another, and before long they were writing back and forth at a prodigious rate, exchanging manuscripts, watercolors and opinions.
The first three letters which follow give some idea of the correspondence during its first two years—before Durrell and Miller met. The first is one of several in which Durrell prepared Miller for The Black Book, begun at the same time as the correspondence and now nearing completion.
c/o Ionian Bank, Corfu, Greece
I was born 27th February, 1912, at one o’clock of the morning. The Indian blood must have been a mistake. I’m Irish mother, English father. God-fearing, lusty, chapelgoing Mutiny stock. My grandma sat up on the verandah of her house with a shotgun across her knee waiting for the Mutiny gang; but when they saw her face they went another way. Hence the family face. I may have a touch of Indian in me, who knows? I’m one of the world’s expatriates anyhow. It’s lonely being cut off from one’s race. So much of England I loved and hated so much. The language clings. I try and wipe it off my tongue but it clings. O what the hell, I was born to be Hamlet’s little godchild. The horoscopes can’t touch me, I’m already mad!
This morning I feel better. Much better. I shall take a stroll with the gun later on and shoot a couple of snipe to give my courage a flip. I read “Max” today in bed before breakfast. It’s terrifying—and the “Eye of Paris” too. Are these recent? How can you stay in the ant-heap? Myself, I shall go lonelier and lonelier ultimately—to some white Parian little island with nothing but a set of clean togas and a few brainless flutegirls for company. I shall not teach or heal or anything. Just eat watermelons and fondle the second from the left, and learn the flute maybe. Please H.M., don’t crack up The Black Book until you see it yourself, will you? Because I don’t want to let you down, and the book mightn’t be so good after all. One is so familiar with the story of the young author no great man will help that when you are so damn generous I feel an obligation to live up to your opinion of me, that’s all. You shall have it the second it’s done.
My birth and upbringing? I was born in India. Went to school there—under the Himalayas. The most wonderful memories, a brief dream of Tibet until I was eleven. Then that mean, shabby little island up there wrung my guts out of me and tried to destroy anything singular and unique in me. My so-called upbringing was quite an uproar. I have always broken stable when I was unhappy. The list of schools I’ve been to would be a yard long. I failed every known civil service exam. I hymned and whored in London—playing jazz in a night-club, composing jazz songs, working in real estate. Never really starved, but I wonder whether thin rations are not another degree of starvation. I met Nancy in an equally precarious position and we struck up an incongruous partnership: a dream of broken bottles, sputum, tinned food, rancid meat, urinals, the smell of the lock hospitals. And so... well, we did a bit of drinking and dying. The second lesson according to St. Paul. Ran a photographic studio together. It crashed. Tried posters, short stories, journalism, everything short of selling our bottoms to a clergyman. I wrote a cheap novel. Sold it. Well, that altered things. Here was a stable profession for me to follow. Art for money s sake. I began. My second I finished when we reached here. After that, the deluge. All this epic Iliad of course took about three or four years. Feels like a million.
Well, there it is. My life is like a chopped worm. Until eleven marvellous memories. White white the Himalayas from the dormitory windows. The gentle black Jesuits praying to Our Lady and outside on the frontier roads the Chinese walking stiffly and Tibetans playing cards on the ground, the blue fissures in the hills—God, what a dream—the passes into Lhasa blue with ice and thawing softly towards the holy forbidden city. I think Tibet is for me what China is to you. I lived on the edge of it with a kind of nursery-rhyme happiness. I wanted to go one summer into the passes. They promised to take me. But I left without going—alamort—it is a kind of unreasoning disease when I think of it. I am the illogical again like a child. I whimper. I pant. And so on.
And now, illustrious, came the day when Tropic opened a pit in my brain. It freed me immediately. I had such a marvellous sense of absolution, freedom from guilt, I thought I’d drop you a note.
Tropic taught me one valuable thing. To write about people I knew something about. Imagine it! I had this collection of grotesques sitting inside and I hadn’t written a line about them—only about heroic Englishmen and dove-like girls, etc. (7/6 a volume). The whole collection of men and women opened up for me like a razor. I borrowed the historic present and sat down to it. You mustn’t judge this book from very high standards. It’s only a beginning. But I can feel it all beginning to unroll inside me at last. I am entering into my autistic self without responsibility. The rest should follow. I tell you two years ago God couldn’t have prophesied more than a Hugh Walpole income for me. Now I don’t know. Rimbaud’s solution is always in the air. If there’s a war now, I suppose I’ll be among the killers.
I send you a few pamphlets that might amuse you. One poem about the night-club I worked in. I send you also a copy of an early volume of poems. with good will and apologies for poor quality. I have atoned since by one or two real poems.
Don’t bother to write. I know How fagged you must be. Just a postcard if anything crops up.
March 8, 1937
The Black Book came and I Have opened it and I read goggleeyed, with terror, admiration and amazement. I am still reading it—slowing up because I want to savor each morsel, each line, each word. You are the master of the English language. Stupendous reaches, too grand almost for any book. Breaks the boundaries of books, spills over and creates a deluge which is no longer a book but a river of language, the Verb broken into its component elements and running amok. You have written things in this book which nobody has dared to write. It’s brutal, obsessive, cruel, devastating, appalling. I’m bewildered still. So this is no criticism. And did you want criticism? No, this is a salute to the master! I will tell you more calmly, when I get finished, when I reread and sponge it up more thoroughly. Now it’s an onslaught.
Of course I don’t expert to see Faber and Faber publishing it. Did you? No English or American publisher would dare print it. We must find the men for it! I am pondering it over already. And right Here a problem presents itself. You say this is the only copy there is. You frighten the life out of me. I can, of course, send it on to Faber registered and all that, but even so, I wouldn’t rest easy putting it into the mails. Before I do anything, tell me if you don’t think I had better have a copy made, several, in fact? I could arrange it, if” you like, with some one I know I can trust. It’s a big job—I don t know how many pages, because you didn’t number your pages. But, if you deem it advisable, I will go ahead with it and defray all expenses. You could square that off, if you so wished, against my indebtedness to you. On the other hand, you may wish to get it to Faber’s in a hurry. So let me know pronto what to do.
My dear Durrell, you’ll never do something more to their liking, as you put it in your note. You’ve crossed the equator. Your commercial career is finished. From now on you’re an outlaw, and I congratulate you with all the breath in my body. I seriously think that you truly are “the first Englishman!” This is way beyond Lawrence and the whole tribe. You are out among the asteroids—for good and all, I hope.
The whole thing is a poem, a colossal poem. Why you should ever want to write little finished poems I don’t know. Anything you write as poem can only be a whiff, after this. This is the poem. It’s li:e the Black Death, by Jesus. I’m stunned. My only adverse reaction is that it’s too colossally colossal. You have to be Gargantua himself to take it all in.
It seems to me, at the moment, that Kahane would be the only man to do it. Possibly Fraenkel. That’s why I’d like to have extra copies of it. No commercial, legitimate publisher can possibly bring it out. I can see them fainting as they read it. Unfortunately Kahane, my publisher, is rather set against you. Very unfortunately, and partly my fault. Seems he doesn’t like any one who admires me too much. Curious thing that, but a fact. Sort of professional jealousy. He writes too, you know, under the name Cecil Barr. Vile, vile crap, the vilest of the vile, and be admits it, but with that English insouciance that makes my blood creep. But, if you assent, I will try him. I will wheedle and cajole and jig for him, if necessary, because I believe in it wholeheartedly. And I see no one else on the horizon. Only Fraenkel. Again we will be up against the professional problem. Fraenkel, however, is more capable of being objective, capable of admiring something he could not do himself. He has the money and the press. Has he the courage, the initiative? Perhaps it could be brought out in a deluxe edition, through subscription. All this I must think about.
Anyway, now I understand the Himalayan background. You should thank your lucky stars you were born there at the gateway to Tibet. There’s a new dimension in your book which could only have come from such a place. It’s like we’re out among new constellations. How long, for Christ’s sake, did it take you to write this? I can understand that you must be exhausted. It’s a tour de force.
Well, more when I finish. And salute!
...O High and Mighty Lama, how did you come by your great wisdom? Give us a tangible, personal statement of the condition of your soul today. Are you still standing there on the top-most tip of Mt. Everest? Does the snow still dazzle you? Have you passed out of snow and into the blue? What is the favorite color now? What is the password?
In replying send a new and unabridged volume of Funk and Wagnall’s Dictionary. I am beginning to relearn the English language. Aboulia, masma, floccus! When you finally felt the Ark grounding on Mt. Ararat what a consolation it must Have been to find that all your marvellous words were also rescued from tlie Flood! The Picassos on the wall! Yes, and with it floccus, masma, aboulia, alexia, aphasia, amusia, anoi, and Miss Smith’s red coon slit, her conk, her poll, her carnivorous ant-eating laughter. Her Chaucerian Africa with Freudian fauna and flora, with Chamberlain’s agrapHia, Chamberlain hanging on a hook by his own navel-string, listening with dead mastoid to the Ninth Symphony of fluked-fin futility. I must read it all again a hundred times. I sit here with a bag of dynamite and fear to mail it out. I wait for the command. It must be retyped. More carbons, more personal readers, more alexia, more aboulia, more iconography, more snow, more coon slits and coon-slatted laughter. Immense. Colossal. Kolossal Mots, zero hour! God the illogical lost in the schizophrenic rush. Alors, up with the womb and hail to the divine osmosis!...
c/o Ionian Bank, Corfu Greece
The magnitude of my achievement deafens me. At least your letters anent it do. Well, if we are not to bluff or become mock-modest, I knew it was a good book. I felt that virtue had passed out of me. But so good...? This is a discovery which has illuminated today, yesterday and the day before. I am inclined to say: “Good. Destroy it. If YOU like it, then hardly anyone else will understand it.
AS FOR THE GRAND LAMA, I’M IN A SLIGHT COMA, SOMA, OR TRAUMA ABOUT YOUR LETTER. I’m tremendously grateful you find so much meat in the book. It is rather a mystery, I suppose. I don’t pretend to solve it. I look at myself in the mirror from time to time—no clue whatever. A short fat obelisk with the features of a good-natured cattle driver. I am 25 but I feel much older. Zarian has just sent me a huge Viennese briar pipe and I have been making Nancy photograph me at all angles, with it in me. Perhaps some clue will emerge from the subsequent photographs. I’ll send you one. The state of my soul is shaky just now. I’ve come down several thousand feet below snowline, and intend to stay as long as I can. Buoyancy does me no good. I get over-emotional and shaky and liable to rages and fears and psychological tics—all due to this damned writing. I used to be so healthy and full of a sort of gawkish je m’en foutisme. The summer inaction will bring it back. Am planning a monastic summer. Boxing at dawn with Capt. McGibbon. Diving. Swimming. No smoking. Actually the thing which will heal me is a visit to Calypso’s grotto on the lonely island north of us. As soon as the boat’s ready we go. No more books, no more writers, no more anything, i WANT A GOOD STEADY JOB WITH A LITTLE HOUSE LOTS OF CHILDREN A LAWN MOWER A BANK ACCOUNT A LITTTLE CAR AND THE RESPECT OF THE MAN NEXT DOOR.
The Black Book took about I8 months to write: 4 rewrites: altogether in quantity I wrote about four times the amount, but it’s a very short book. I’m afraid it’s overpacked with lard. Well, that’s a technical problem. I admire the effortless way you butter your bread, not too much, not too little. Myself, I’m so scared of the butter not showing or being mistaken for mere margarine that I over-cloy the works. A sense of proportion will come, however.
It is when I face the author of the original deluge that my real modesty begins. Anything positive I have as a writer I owe to your books—my stance, a new emotional attitude, the way I hold my gloves up at the world. As for the wisdom— my God—it is all a question of induction, convection, you might say contagion. I shall do better yet, I hope. Don’t lose sight of the ardent disciple in me, and mistake a fledgling for a full-grown phoenix. It’s a point I labour because the influence is there—rather more than I would care to admit to a jury I What affects me most is the complete selfless generosity which you all shower on me. I fatten on it. Gratitude is no reply. You shall have a book, if possible, a bigger book. Dedicated to Miller, Edgar, and Nin, Inc., Paris, specialists in plasm, germ-plasm, mind-plasm, ectoplasm, soul-plasm. I have planned AN AGON, A PATHOS, AN ANAGNORISIS. If I write them they should be The Black Book, The Book of Miracles, The Book of the Dead. Perhaps I shan’t write them.
As for my vocabulary, mea culpa. Words I carry in my pocket, where they breed like white mice. But there isn’t a single neologism in the whole book. Every word is. Aboulia and Co. are from brain-surgery manuals. Words belonging to trades stick to my tongue. I’m a fiendish reader for mere syllables. Anoia, alexia and Co.
I’m afraid you can’t talk, because you have the same assimilative power. More anon.
Yours sincerely and excitedly,
I’ve moved my machine out on to the terrace under the vine leaves. Uneasy blue sea. Lizards sucking in warmth on the wall. Spring opening quietly. It is impossible to think of writing—my writing that is. Been reading you again lately without so much fear of contamination. Growing up, I suppose. Feel a bit jaded, but pleased as hell you like that little book of mine. I carry the letters around with me chewing them over slowly and smiling to myself. I feel so exclusive with that book; no one will understand a word of it. One thing I’ve hammered home is that there is no word-coining in it. The vocabulary may be Elizabethan, Middle-English, Dutch, etc., but EVERYTHING MEANS SOMETHING. I don’t like neologism except used as an occasional hand-grenade. That is why Laughlin’s dream-writing contributors bore me stiff with their “wingle wangle obfuscating inspissate hungermarching shitshat.” Come, we demand more than chewinggum. WE ARE HUNGRY.
Perhaps this fall we can meet and arrange some sort of campaign to take the skin off the public’s behind. Another thought struck me: you see, it must be water-tight—like those ads you read. An eminent doctor says: “I always take Tropic of Cancer in a glass of water before going to bed. A marked tonic effect.” A famous divine writes: “Sire, I have used Black Spring now for a number of years and find it good for swollen joints. My wife’s arthritis, for many years crippling, has vanished after a single application.” In my quiet, annoying, knowing, pious little way I have been doing some quiet crusading. The one livid paradox which starts up from your writing 1 have been at great pains to express to my correspondents. None of them see it. Religion, I mean. Tropic of Cancer and B.S. as the most religious books written since the Authorised Bible. Must keep these people red hot. Alan Thomas, a friend and an influential bookshop owner in England, is another man I’m laying for. He doesn’t like your stuff yet, but he will.
I’m still stunned by your letter. I can’t help feeling a bit of a fraud, because the book DOBS seem damn good, and what I personally have to do with it is a mystery. You will shriek with laughter when we meet. It’s so curious, after all. That the thing should have been dictated to ME of all people. I get slightly hysterical when I think of it. How soon will you have a copy? Never mind if nobody wants it. It’s a written fact and I feel shriven by it, absolved, free. And so happy you people were moved by it, and excited. I suppose I am with God, but only during consulting hours, not all the time, tell Edgar. The surgery has a white door with the hours of attendance painted on it. At the moment everything that is me is breaking up. The spring opens up today and I open up with it—Durrell the novelty, whatever that means. Leave for Athens Saturday to buy a tent, etc. Then the black sleek douce Van Norden will be launched and off we go. In june Alan Thomas comes down here. l’ll send your MSS back to you by hand with him. Safer. New Fascist restrictions open everything up and scatter it about, and you can’t afford to lose originals. Send you photos of our trips this summer. Plan to leave for England in the fall, stop off a day or two in Paris and meet you and Have a meeting of soul-shareholders.