How might one describe the style of writing in Henry Miller's novel Black Spring?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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The style of Henry Miller’s novel Black Spring is famously varied, and some of its variety is suggested by passages reported in the review cited below.  One of those passages, for instance, reads as follows:

I go to the urinal to take a leak.  As I stand there looking up at the house fronts, a demure young woman leans out of a window to watch me.  How many times have I stood there in this smiling, gracious world, the sun splashing over me and the birds twittering crazily, and found a woman looking down at me from an open window, her smile crumbling into soft little bits which the birds gather in their beaks and deposit sometimes at the base of of a urinal where the water gurgles melodiously, and a man comes along with his fly open and pours the steaming contents of his bladder over the dissolving crumbs.

Here the phrasing of the first sentence is surprisingly frank (at least for Miller’s day), while the phrasing in general is clear and straightforward. The narrator is attuned to beauty of various kinds (such as that of the “demure young woman” and various aspects of nature). Yet the phrasing is also surrealistic, as in the description of how the woman’s smile crumbles into bits which are then deposited on the urinal by birds and then urinated on by another man. The passage begins, in short, realistically, but soon evolves into something impossible to take at face value. It begins with something shocking, moves to something beautiful, and concludes with something shocking again.  Here as elsewhere in the novel, Miller’s writing can often prove unconventional and unpredictable.

In contrast, a passage describing the faces of “the homely women of Europe” is far more consistently realistic, as when the narrator notes

. . . a worn beauty about their faces,  as if like the earth itself they have participated in all the cataclysms of nature.  The history of their race is engraved on their faces; their skin is like a parchment on which is recorded the whole struggle of civilization.  I see on their faces the ragged, multi-coloured map of Europe. a map . . . streaked with ineradicable prejudices and rivalries.

Similarly conventional are passages such as this one:

below me the valley of the Seine.  The whole of Paris thrown up in relief, like a geodetic survey. . . ring upon ring of streets; village within village; fortress within fortress.  Like the gnarled stump of an old redwood, solitary and majestic she stands there in the broad plain of the Seine.  Forever in the same spot she stands, now dwindling and shrinking, now rising and expanding . . . she stands soft, gem-like, a holy citadel whose mysterious paths thread beneath the clustering sea of roofs to break upon the open plain.

Even the following description of unconventional practices of painting is not, itself, as unconventional in phrasing as the practices it describes:

We discovered how to get interesting results with coffee grounds, and breadcrumbs, with coal and arnica; we laid the paintings in the bathtub and let them soak for hours, and then with a loaded brush we approached these dripping omelettes and we let fly at them.  As a last experiment we walk over them, spilling a little wine as we go.

In short, Miller’s style in Black Spring can vary from realism to surrealism (often in the same passage) and then back to realism again.



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