At some point in my teens I read a number of books by Henry Miller — though not as many as I read, at around the same time, by Hermann Hesse, despite the fact that Hesse’s books, in contrast to Miller’s, were not reputed to convey much information about sex. However, the prospect of a visit to Greece later this summer prompted me to pick up this travelogue I passed over all those years ago. The colossus of the title is not some ancient ruin but George Katsimbalis (1899-1978), a writer and editor who was a great figure in the Greek literary world of Miller’s day (the magazine Katsimbalis edited before the war, Modern Letters [Ta Nea Grammata] has been compared to The Criterion and The Dial). But it is his talk, rather than traces left on paper, that Miller finds exemplary: “He seemed to be talking about himself all the time, but not egotistically. He talked about himself because he himself was the most interesting person he knew. I liked that quality very much—I have a little of it myself.” His talk, according to Miller, “was a sort of devouring process: when he described a place he ate into it, like a goat attacking a carpet. If he described a person he ate him alive from head to toe. If it were an event he would devour every detail, like an army of white ants descending upon a forest.” This is Miller’s ideal aesthetic, and what’s amazing is that he managed to transfer to the printed page something of the termite energy he discovered in Katsimbalis’s monologues. Sense and madness, sly fabrication and an almost demonic accuracy mingle promiscuously. Written in 1939 as war was breaking out, “one of the lowest moments in the history of the human race,” the book is irradiated with the desire for a peace that can only come, Miller believes, in the very distant future. Yet he never courts agreement or consensus, and his endless, more-than-Whitmanesque lists aim not to overwhelm the reader with truths, let alone facts, but to display their own excessiveness to the point of self-parody. Miller’s sometime grandiosity and his shameless prejudices can be ridiculous, and he knows it. Laugh with him. Miller reminds us that, paradoxically, “nonfiction” such as The Colossus of Maroussi lays far fewer constraints on the imagination than the novel, since narration can display itself in any manner whatsoever rather than harnessing itself to characters, their actions, their points of view, and so on: “The best stories I have heard were pointless, the best books those whose plots I can never remember.” Anyway, having gotten into the habit of ending some of these entries with possibly pedantic complaints about how books are published these days, I’ll point a finger of shame at New Directions, which has deprived its current edition of The Colossus, dating from 2010 but apparently scanned from an earlier edition, of proper proofreading. “Mr. Athos?” No, that’s Mt. Athos to you. And how about “We art wed at the door of the hotel at top speed?” Well, Miller wert wed numberless times, but never, I’d guess, at the door of a hotel, and certainly not à trois to Lawrence and Nancy Durrell, the rest of the “we” in that sentence. But they did arrive at the door…
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