Henry Miller was one of the great letter writers of all time, both in prodigious volume and majesterial exposition. But in English novelist Lawrence Durrell, Miller had met his match. Miller and Durrell carried on a correspondence from the time just after they lived in Paris in the ’30’s to well into the 1960’s. Many of the letters have been published; the following is from the ill-titled Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller A Private Correspondence.
Spring 1944, Alexandria, Egypt
Yes, I got your letters…
Here we are sweltering in an atmosphere that demands a toast – great passions, short lives. Everything is worn thin as eggshell; it’s the fifth year now and the nervous breakdown is coming out into the open. Old women, ginger dons, nursing sisters begin to behave like bacchantes; they are moving in and out of nursing homes with a steady impetus. meanwhile we are crippled here by an anemia and an apathy and a censorship which prevents the least trace of the human voice – of any calibre. We exist on a machine-made diet of gun bomb and tank – backed up by the slogan.
The atmosphere in this delta is crackling like a Leyden jar. You see, in normal times all the local inhabitants spend six months in Europe a year, so they are as stale and beaten thin as the poor white collar man. The poetry I exude these days is dark grey and streaky, like bad bacon. But the atmosphere of sex and death is staggering in its intensity. Meanwhile the big shots come and go, seeing nothing, feeling nothing, in a money daydream; there is still butter and whisky and cafe viennois. A kind of diseased fat spreads over the faces and buttocks of the local populations, who have skimmed the grease off the war efforts in contracts and profiteering. No, I don’t think you would like it. First the steaming humid flatness – not a hill or mound anywhere – choked to bursting point with bones and crummy deposits of wiped out cultures. Then this smashed up broken down shabby Neapolitan town, with its Levantine mounds of houses peeling in the sun. A sea flat, dirty brown and waveless rubbing the port. Arabic, Coptic, Greek, Levant French; no music, no art, no real gaiety. A saturated middle European boredom laced with drink and Packards and beach-cabins. NO SUBJECT OF CONVERSATION EXCEPT MONEY. Even love is thought of in money terms. “You are getting on with her? She has ten thousand a year of her own.” Six hundred greaseball millionaires sweating in ther tarbushes and waiting for the next shot of root-hashish. And the shrieking personal unhappiness and loneliness showing in every face. No, if one could write a single line of anything that had a human smell to it here, one would be a genius. Add to all this a sort of maggot-dance of minor officual place hunting, a Florentine atmosphere of throat slitting and distrust, and you will have some idea of what anyone with a voice or tongue is up against. I am hoping the war will be over soon so I can quit; I’m glad of this little death for all the material it’s put in my way about people and affairs in general. But I’m worn thin with arse-licking and having my grammar corrected by sub-editors from the Bush Times in South America. Here in Alexandria though, I have my own office and almost no interference; so I can run things the way I like. You always used to laugh when I said I was an executive man, but I was right; my office runs like a top; and the people working for me LIKE it. The basic principe is that of the old blind pianist in Paris – remeber? Edgar’s friend Thibaud or some such name. ” Anything that needs effort to do is being done from the wrong centres; it is not worth doing.” Sometime I’ll tell you how I applied that to the running of an effortless speed organization.
How about a year in Poros now – baked hard rock and glittering sea; followed by autumn in Athens…? No more writing but lying about and taking a long myopic and unbiased view of the universe. Or do you prefer Savings Bonds, Maximum Employment, better plumbing and a prefabricated spiritual life in tune with the Stock Exchange graphs?
If you somehow haven’t read Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, you should be ashamed. And as always, love your neighbor, read your Miller.