How might one describe the style of Henry Miller's novel Black Spring?
George Wickes has written that “Stylistically, Black Spring is a dazzling book, the work of a rampant imagination intoxicated with words.” Miller, Wickes continues,
is a poet of reckless abandon, his language exuberant and prodigal, often used for sound rather than meaning. Fond of jargon and parody, he readily spins off into nonsense and jabberwocky. . . . Like the great parodist [James Joyce], Miller writes not in one style but in many. Not only is each section of Black Spring written in a different style, but individual sections are written in a chameleon style that borrows its constantly changing colors from a dozen sources. Besides Joyce the authors he most frequently resembles are Proust and Whitman. Miller’s rhetoric is like Whitman’s, with long rhythmic lines pulsing along through present participles . . . . Like Whitman, too, Miller is fond of catalogues [that is, lists].
Some sense of the stylistic flavor of Black Spring is already evident in its second paragraph, in which the narrator describes his youth:
But I was born in the street and raised in the street. “The post-mechanical and beautiful street, where the most beautiful and hallucinating iron vegetation,” etc. Born under the sign of Aries which gives a fiery, active, energetic and somewhat restless body. With Mars in the ninth house!
Some of the traits outlined by Wickes are already evident here. The focus is autobiographical, but even the first sentence here, with its repetitions, shows Miller’s interest in sound effects. The emphasis on the verbs “born” and “raised” gives the sentence a kind of verbal energy. The immediate and unexplained shift to a quotation – a quotation without a cited source – already signals that this book will not be organized in any conventional, predictable way. This fact is also suggested by the fact that the quotation is broken off before it is finished. The phrase “hallucinating iron vegetation” is almost surrealistic. Apparently the narrator assumes that the quotation is familiar enough to his readers that he need not continue citing it. (Apparently it comes from an essay by the surrealistic artist Salvador Dali.) The narrator seems to presume that his readers are interested both in the world of the streets and the world of sophisticated art. Meanwhile, the narrator’s love of lists is exemplified in the next sentence, as is his exuberance and energy. Finally, the italicized final sentence continues to display an interest in, and familiarity with, astrology, and perhaps the italicized phrase, too, is an unexplained allusion to some other text.
In short, even in this brief second paragraph, the narrator is writing in a style that is original, unorthodox, and unpredictable – traits found in the rest of the book as well.
I just finished reading BLACK SPRING. It blew me away. Henry Miller's storytelling style is so personal, it's kind of like taking an unexpected medium punch in the gut. The geography becomes local, the imagery is rough, obscene and poetic, and goes on for pages at a time. Miller becomes larger than life, powerful through his honesty and vulnerability. I am amazed with his unique ability to effortlessly paint such vivid pictures, wander aimlessly through haunting nightmares, and relive pleasure and passion. From sitting around in the Parisian home of friend Jabberewohl Crondstadt celebrating each other's conquests and madness, to wandering the dark bum-piss hooker-lined streets of forbidden America, I found myself constantly stopping, re-reading and wondering how he took me there. Eventually I stopped raising my hand to ask questions, and just sat back and listened.
Black Spring is written in a totally unique style. Fragmentary, with the unities of time and place cracked asunder, and influenced on Miller’s own admission by the prevailing surrealism and existentialism of the thirties, the scenes which follow each other in bewildering succession are thinly disguised (though, some believe, heavily embroidered) auto-biography, and carry a consistent message. Better by far, says Miller, to be poor, hungry and homeless if in being so one can find understanding and fulfilment, than to be wealthy and successful if this simply wraps one in so many layers of social convention and platitudes that one has no hope of ever seeing the world as it really is.
Yes, of course there are objections and drawbacks. It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Miller’s frequent use of bad language is gratuitous, and intended solely to shock, particularly in the context of the prevailing mores of the 30s. His attitude to women would inflame many of the school of political correctness. The fragmentary nature of the novels often makes it difficult to string together any coherent long term narrative. Yet Miller is undoubtedly a writer of genius, and the fact that he paints life in the raw is an important part of that. He puts me in mind of Céline, the depiction of life in New York by a Frenchman ironically echoing the description of life in Paris by an American. Black Spring should be on the reading list of anyone interested in twentieth century literature, or indeed in the evolution of the novel.