When Henry Miller stopped off in Barcelona in late April of 1953, during a European tour, he was in a situation both enviable and depressing. Although, at age 62, he had long been acclaimed by many fellow writers – and some literary critics - around the world as one of the 20th century's most important living authors, the books on which this reputation rested (Tropic of Cancer, Black Spring, Tropic of Capricorn, Sexus and Plexus) could not be published in any English-speaking country, whose censors, prudes to a man (none were women), objected strongly to Miller's strong language. In Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Japan, though, these same books were freely available in translation; and in France, and France alone, the unexpurgated English versions had been on the open market since Miller wrote them (in Paris, in the 1930s) thanks to a curious loophole in Gallic law, which at that time banned all obscene books as long as they were in French, giving other, presumably less serious, languages a free erotic rein. In Britain and the US, his readers had to make do with that handful of his titles which were unsullied by rude words and ruder episodes, such as the collection of essays The Cosmological Eye (New York, 1939) or his chaste book about Greece, The Colossus of Maroussi, which sold 50,000 copies in the UK alone, when published in 1950.
Miller lived in California – in a shack on Big Sur – and his European and Japanese royalties were arriving infrequently, irregularly and in quantities too small to live on. Especially complicated was the situation with the French royalties, which had been accumulating considerably over the years, but which were unavailable to Miller due to currency export restrictions. His friend Lawrence Durrell had urged him to buy somewhere in France and move there, before the French government devalued the franc, an imminent economic measure which would have wiped out Miller's small French fortune. That was one reason for Miller's trip to Europe in the early 1950s; the other being that most of his closest friends – whom he had not seen since his Paris days - lived there. On top of which he had just separated from his third wife and started up a relationship with the woman who would end up being his fourth: Eve McClure, a young, long time admirer of his work. So the European trip, which was to last seven months, also became a kind of extended honeymoon.
The first stop, unsurprisingly, was Paris, the city in which Miller had found his written voice twenty years earlier. After hob-nobbing it with the painter Fernand Léger and the photographers Man Ray and Brassaï – and having been greeted with a flurry of enthusiastic articles about his work in the French Press – Henry and Eve moved on to Brussels, which neither of them had visited before (Miller, having observed the Belgians for a few days, concluded they were 'neither fish nor fowl, more like potato balls'). They then crossed the French Midi and drove into Spain, where Miller had one overriding objective: to meet up with his oldest and closest friend, Alfred Perlès, in Barcelona, after a separation of thirteen years.
Alfred Perlès was an Austrian-born writer (his parents were Czech Jews) who Miller had briefly met during an exploratory visit to Paris in 1928. Two years later, Miller had settled in Paris without a penny to his name, and was sitting one day on the terrace of the Dôme café, drinking brandy after brandy in order to drum up enough Dutch courage to tell the waiter he couldn't pay for them, when Perlès came across him quite by chance, settled the bill, and invited him to move into his rented flat (Perlès, unlike Miller, had an income, being a proof-reader for the Paris edition of the Herald Tribune). Together with the young Lawrence Durrell and Anaïs Nin, Perlès would form part of Miller's Parisian inner circle in the years 1930 to 1938.
This was the period that saw the publication of much of Miller's finest autobiographical work, in some of which – Tropic of Cancer and Quiet Days In Clichy – Perlès himself plays a prominent part (under the pseudonym 'Carl'). Their close friendship was to last until Miller's death in 1980, but went through its shakiest patch precisely in the years before the reunion in Barcelona. Since the 1930s, Perlès had renounced his anarchistic and pacifist views, had moved to England, married, settled down (in Wells, in the county of Somerset) and had enlisted in the British Army during the Second World War. Miller saw this as a kind of betrayal of what he saw as Perlès's true self, or, at the very least, as a completely inexplicable change in his old friend. Throughout much of the '40s, then, they had kept a certain distance from each other.
In Miller's description of their Barcelona rendezvous, 'Reunion in Barcelona' (finally published in London in a limited edition of 500 copies, in 1959), the author is at pains to stress that all that distance-keeping had been quite unnecessary and that he was relieved and indeed overjoyed to find that Perlès hadn't changed one bit. This is the persistent, laudatory leitmotif of the entire 40-page text, written in the form of a long letter to Perlès. In 'Reunion', Miller lays on the praise with an unusually large trowel: Perlès is described as Miller's 'Saviour', a 'true Master', belonging to an order of 'emancipated beings'. For 48 hours, Miller says, they laughed and laughed in Barcelona, but, he assures Perlès: 'I laughed not as a man does who is happy to find an old friend, a copain, a fond scallywag, I laughed as a man would laugh who suddenly met a messenger of the gods bringing him on a platter the most vivid, detailed memories of all the golden days of his life.' Later in the text, Perlès is transformed into 'a playful dolphin...or should I say: a celestial porpoise?'. No wonder that Perlès, in his reply to 'Reunion in Barcelona' ('Reunion in Big Sur', also published in London in 1959), mildly berates Miller for 'the generous, albeit inflated portrait you gave of me, far too generous, in fact, to be taken without a pinch of salt by someone who knows myself as well as I do'.
Aside from all this acclamation of Perlès, 'Reunion in Barcelona' also contains some revealing comments about Miller's ambivalence about his life in the States since 1940. America, for Miller, is '...an alien world. And I mean an alien world.' He describes himself staring at a magnificent view of the Pacific and wishing it were the Mediterranean.
The piece ends with a humorous swipe at England, a country Miller loathed, but visited a few weeks after he did Barcelona, in order to see how Perlès was getting on in his adopted habitat. Miller's opinion of the UK remained much as it always had been: of a visit to a pub, for example, he writes 'Even if it seemed a bit like going to chapel, even if the beer and ale were detestable (to my taste), even if the talk that went on smacked of dementia, the warm, cosy, intimate air of the pub was definitely most agreeable'. Faint praise was never so damning.
Curiously, the one element that is all but absent from 'Reunion in Barcelona', is Barcelona itself. Miller stayed in a pensió on the Carrer del Carme, a few doors up from the fabric shop – still there – called 'El Indio'. The city he saw for a brief two days was the drab, neglected, permanently muzzled Barcelona of the early 1950s, described so accurately by Víctor Mora in his novel 'Els plàtans de Barcelona' (Barcelona, 1966): a poverty-stricken place whose identity had been snuffed out for years by Franco's dictatorship. Apparently oblivious to this political situation, Miller notes his disappointment that it was not the 'Spanish city' he had 'dreamed it would be', and adds: 'Barcelona impressed me as a hodgepodge of Brooklyn and Brussels'. And we already know what he thought about Brussels.
In 'Reunion in Barcelona', indeed, the city is nothing so much as an invisible backdrop to his and Perlès's endless laughter as they recall the good old Parisian days. There would, perhaps, be nothing exceptional about this, if Miller hadn't had quite a bit more knowledge than most casual visitors about Barcelona and even Catalonia, having had an intense ten year affair with Anaïs Nin, who not only spoke fluent Catalan and knew Barcelona well, but whose father, the pianist Joaquim Nin, had been a personal friend of Jacint Verdaguer (as Nin mentions in one of her letters to Miller, in which Verdaguer is described as 'a great Catalonian poet'). Despite this, there is no mention – or awareness – of Barcelona being a Catalan city. (Indeed, Miller didn't seem to notice the existence of the Catalans at all until he was translated into their native language in the mid '70s; it was then that, in a comment on the Spanish transition to democracy, he wrote the following to his translator, Jordi Arbonès: 'I see the Basques and Catalans are giving the Spaniards a hard time, eh?').
After Barcelona, Miller moved on to Toledo, writing to Lawrence Durrell that he had 'met Fred and Anne [Perlès's wife] in Barcelona and had full 2 days with them. Fred was just as always – even more so...We laughed from the time we met...Haven't laughed that way in many a year'.
That, indeed, is 'Reunion In Barcelona' in a nutshell: a meeting in a little-known city between two writers who, according to their own accounts, spent the best part of their time laughing their heads of. Having said which, and grim though the Catalan capital must have been in 1953, I can't help suspecting that if this meeting had been in, say, Brussels or Brooklyn, they wouldn't have felt quite so free to laugh quite so much. Barcelona, at least, is on the Mediterranean.
Matthew Tree, Barcelona INK Issue #5, hivern de 2010
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