Rewind, book: 'Black Spring' by Henry Miller (1936)
by Henry Miller
When attentive bookstore clerks line their shelves with literature as complements to city guides, the Paris selections are often chosen from favourites of the 1920s and '30s: Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast, Orwell's Down & Out in Paris and London, the short stories of Fitzgerald.
Rarely if ever does Henry Miller's Black Spring make the cut. Coming between his two infamous Tropic books - Cancer and Capricorn - the collection is one of Miller's shortest, and thus most approachable. A series of short vignettes acting as a memoir of sorts, it's initially set in Brooklyn, but finds its true balance between poetry and depravity during the author's time as a young man in the French capital.
A dark and dissenting portrait of the City of Lights, the book juxtaposes its bleak portrayal with the liberated love letters of his fellow lost-generation comrades, and finds little in common with their drunken and unrealistic ideals.
While they painted absinthe- tinged portraits with their words, Miller sought to smear his stream- of-conscious thoughts through the bleak Nietzschean philosophy which had emerged between the two world wars: the conflicting chaos of our world and the hopelessness of existence, the lack of any true meaning and the need for a new sense of harmony.
He does this by searching deep within himself to find the "real" through any means possible: having sex with a widow on the day of her husband's funeral, imagining Paris as China while stumbling through the city in an opium-infused nightmare, touring pissoirs and letting women watch him urinate.
But as Nietzsche spoke of a harmony between the active and reactive, so too does Miller find his balance of sorts: "You strike a balance in order to add a hypothetical weight," he writes in the chapter The Angel is My Watermark! "In order to create a reason for your existence."
The "black spring" of the title is telling: while each chapter initially feels unrelated, the reader finds their connection at the end, when the book reveals itself as an exploration of Miller's early years during a time in one's life of new beginnings.
But in a similar sense, the book is the "spring" of Miller's works: not as erotic as his more controversial books, nor as confusingly surreal as his Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, Black Spring stands as the ideal starting point for those new to the author.