The Colossus of Maroussi – by Henry Miller

This was another experience with a book unfinished, delightful in some ways, educational in others. But unfortunately, I have too little time to re-read a book unless I am extremely excited by it. So far, most of my endeavors of reading books I read once in my youth have been disappointing. The memories seem to be far more flattering than the actual works. Why destroy those?

I read Henry Miller’s Maroussi in a German translation a long time ago, perhaps thirty years or longer, during the phase in my life when I really devoured Henry Miller books. I remembered little about it, except that it was the most amazing, delightful, inspiring travel description I had ever read about any country. I remember telling people about it over the years. But since my paperback of the time was in German, and I kept very few German books around me and with me, I could not just pick it up and thumb through it and confirm to myself that those feelings I remembered were real. And as it often goes, a story vividly told over and over again grows, small details get added and next thing you know you are telling a tall tale and you can’t quite remember what is real and what is imagined.

So I went on Amazon.com spent a dollar plus shipping and handling, and received an English copy, Miller’s original language, of The Colossus of Maroussi. I also bought a copy of The Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch for good measure, which will be the next “old book” I will try to re-read, but that has to wait for another entry.

Here I should note that I read Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Sexus, Nexus, Plexus, Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, and Colossus of Maroussi (and probably a few others I am forgetting here) all in German. I have never read a Miller book in English.

Reading it again, I find some passages that are great and clever story-telling, others Millerian monologues of nonsense, meandering on for pages, like this:

Mycenae, like Epidaurus, swims in light. But Epidaurus is all open, exposed, irrevocably devoted to the spirit. Mycenae folds in on itself, like a fresh-cut navel, dragging its glory down into the bowels of the earth where the bats and lizards feed upon it gloatingly. Epidaurus is a bowl from which to drink the pure spirit: the blue of the sky is in it and the stars and the winged creatures who fly between, scattering song and melody. Mycenae, after one turns the last bend, suddenly folds up into a menacing crouch, grim, defiant, impenetrable. Mycenae is closed in, huddled up, writhing with muscular contortions like a wrestler. Even the light, which falls on it with merciless clarity, gets sucked in, shunted off, grayed, beribboned. There were never two worlds so closely juxtaposed and yet so antagonistic.

Huh?

Sorry, I can’t read this stuff anymore nowadays. I just don’t have the time. So I turn the pages after just looking at them, picking out words like hydra, vomit, beast, breast, phantasmal hue, demarcation, metaphysics as my clues that he’s still babbling, moving on.

There are some curiosities that I enjoyed. For instance, the book is copyrighted 1941 (and my paperback is about that old, cool, huh?) and he talks about “the World War.” World War II is just starting to happen and some events in the book are woven into the story, but at that time nobody, including Miller, knew that this was going to turn into World War II, so there was only one World War.

Here is another curious passage, which has particular significance to me typing these very words while sitting in an airliner traveling from Chicago to San Diego:

In Greece you have only to announce to someone that you intend to visit a certain place and presto! in a few moments there is a carriage waiting for you at the door. This time it turned out to be an aeroplane. Seferiades had decided that I should ride in pomp. It was a poetic gesture and I accepted it like a poet.

I had never been in a plane before and I probably will never go up again. I felt foolish sitting in the sky with hands folded; the man beside me was reading a newspaper, apparently oblivious to the clouds that brushed the window-panes. We were probably making a hundred miles an hour, but since we passed nothing but clouds I had the impression of not moving. In short, it was unrelievedly dull and pointless. I was sorry that I had not booked the passage on the good ship Acropolis which was to touch at Crete shortly. Man is made to walk the earth and sail the seas; the conquest of the air is reserved for a later stage of his evolution, when he will have sprouted real wings and assumed the form of the angel which he is in essence.

Another passage for the road warrior in me:

At Patras we decided to go ashore and take the train to Athens. The Hotel Cecil, which we stopped at, is the best hotel I have ever been in, and I have been in a good many. It cost about 23 cents a day for a room the likes of which could not be duplicated in America for less than five dollars.

Ouch. I just spent 4 nights on the road, $167 plus tax on night one and two, $155 plus tax for night three, and $125 – I got a great deal – for night four.

Here is a crackup:

Now and then I would get excited and, using a melange of English, Greek, German, French, Choctaw, Eskimo, Swahili or any other tongue I felt would serve the purpose, using the chair, the table, the spoon, the lamp, the bread knife, I would enact for him a fragment of my life in New York, Paris, London, Chula Vista, Canarsie, Hackensack or in some place I had never been or some place I had been in a dream or when lying asleep on the operating table.

So: New York, Paris, London, Chula Vista? Chula Vista is a southern suburb of San Diego, close to the Mexican border, and in 1940 it must have been a very small rural cowboy town indeed. Miller naming Chula Vista long with Paris and New York made me crack up and laugh out loud.

Of course, further study reveals that Miller went to San Diego in his youth from Brooklyn, New York, around 1913 or so, I can’t tell exactly what year. He tried to attend lectures by Emma Goldman. But mostly, he worked “like a slave” in Orange Groves in Chula Vista for a while, and wrote about some of those episodes decades later in Tropic of Capricorn. So it makes sense for him to pull out a colorful name of a locale of his youth in his writings from time to time.

Delightful as some of the reading was, I tired of it, and so, halfway through, I folded a dog ear on page 134, and put it on the shelf of books done reading. Perhaps long after I am gone, somebody will buy this book which has the name A. Schwartz penciled inside the front cover, from a descendant company of Amazon, and wonder who it was that stopped reading on page 134. By then it will be a true antique, a very old book, which had a short midlife awakening, an airplane trip to New York and back to San Diego, before sinking back to a long sleep.

3 thoughts on “The Colossus of Maroussi – by Henry Miller

  1. Eric Petrie

    A great read, Norbie. You make me almost want to pick it up. Since I traveled to Greece last summer for the first time, I am especially interested in some of the descriptions, but the world will have turned too many times since 1941–the price of a room, now equivalent to the price of a small tootsie-roll candy–just about says it all.

    But my peeks into Miller always made me think that he was a self-indulgent writer with the inability to revise. He lacked the necessary shit-detector, as one famous American put it.

    But what I just said is nearly total ignorance. Maybe I can sound off with more authority when I have actually read more than a page of his prose.

    And I love the concept of you reading in English on a flight from Chicago to San Diego what you had read in German decades before. What a strange life this is, eh, old friend?

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