Serious students of Henry Miller well know his enthusiasm for the Parisian avant-garde poet-turned-novelist Blaise Cendrars. However, we have so far missed the full implications, for both authors, of what may look like a mere passing reference to Cendrars's novel Moravagine in Miller's Tropic of Cancer, written before the two writers met. Likely a recommendation to read Moravagine came from the eccentric and ubiquitous bohemian Conrad Moricand, friend of Anais Nin in the early thirties and later a maddening squatter at Miller's in California (see Miller's A Devil in Paradise). Cendrars knew Moricand well, published his astrological essay Les Interpretes in 1919 at La Sirene editions, and used his name as the artist of a sketch of Moravagine appearing in chapter "y" of the novel.
The recently published correspondence of Cendrars and Miller permits a closer look at their relations, even while it obscures to a large degree what is most important for the discussion that follows. It begins with a crucial letter from Miller to Cendrars written in Paris two months after the September 1, 1934, publication of Tropic of Cancer; almost all the subsequent letters from Miller are written from America, where he returned in 1939. Obviously we owe the correspondence to the physical distance between the men; but even when Miller was in Paris there seems to have been little contact, this over a 27-year friendship. There is but one meeting of note, prompted by that first letter from the American and immediately described by him in a letter to Anais Nin. The last of Miller's correspondence, written in Paris, reveals a man hesitant to approach the dying Cendrars, concerned with imposing his presence, yet perhaps hoping for an invitation. For there is an imbalance in these exchanges. Miller writes voluminously and often; Cendrars, known as an overwhelming conversationalist, writes infrequently and tersely. Miller runs on, elaborates, makes everything more than explicit; Cendrars's few words are blunt and to the point, with depths behind their restraint, or their impatience. On Miller's side we sense a form of debt, one that he does not seem to be able to discharge but only acknowledge, over these many years; he is always searching to please, for example to obtain an American publisher for his French friend. For his part, Cendrars seems secure in his sense of himself, but also somewhat aggravated at being the object of such unflagging adulation. Ironically, though, the first concrete sign of appreciation comes from Cendrars, in the form of a review of Tropic of Cancer that is the very first recognition of the novel in print. Miller's 25-year epistolary effusion can thus appear as the extended sign of his profound thanks. Thanks for what? we may well ask. Of what relevance is the figure of Moravagine for the infamous Tropic of Cancer?
To a certain degree Miller may be mistaking Moravagine for Cendrars--a mistake that Cendrars himself had to work at avoiding, as the addition of a Pro Domo to a later edition of Moravagine attests. This confusion of author and character lies behind the uses of Moravagine by Miller, and behind the lesson of Tropic of Cancer for Cendrars. These palimpsests are what I should like to examine, the fused layers the two authors traded. Miller takes a personal message from Moravagine, and he responds in Tropic of Cancer with a personal message of his own, as if the novels were the actual beginnings of the authors' correspondence. While Cendrars definitely gets his message in Tropic and answers it with a very personal review, I will suggest he did not fully digest its import for some 10 years.
In his long 1952 essay about Cendrars for The Books in My Life, Miller writes that Moravagine was among the first books he read in French. Moravagine was certainly not an easy choice, and Miller freely admits that his French was then poor. He read slowly, dictionary at hand, sitting at the Cafe de la Liberte at the corner of rue de la Gaite and the boulevard Edgar Quinet, in the impoverished neighborhood behind the Gare Montparnasse. Writing 18 years later, he quotes Moravagine from memory (he claims, though he has a copy in front of him):
"I tell you of things that brought some relief at the start. There was also the water, gurgling at intervals, in the water-closet pipes.... A boundless despair possessed me." (Does this convey anything to you, my dear Cendrars?) (Books 59)
The ellipsis actually represents 25 lines of text, entirely devoted to the water in the toilet pipes, a Beckett-like story of counting and reckoning that, when it fails to measure out, leads to "boundless despair." Miller appears to be publicly proposing to Cendrars that he knows the whole passage by heart. He has, of course, chosen well for himself.' life defined in the toilet flow. And he has chosen the character of Moravagine to speak for him. Moravagine is recounting his imprisoned youth to Henry Valentine Miller, who is ensconced in "that dingy hole" (Books 58) named, significantly, the Cafe de la Liberte. Miller, at least as he remembers it in 1952, is not so much reading another's text as grafting his own persona of the thirties onto this fictional character. About this time Cendrars, in his Pro Domo to the 1956 reissue of Moravagine, writes that Moravagine had taken his place as author, "had set himself up deep inside me, in his armchair.... In the end, I could no longer tell which of us was plagiarizing the other" (Pro Domo 435). (1) What a powerful, parasitical figure this fictional man is, taking over the identity of his author, then that of another--but with this difference between Miller and Cendrars, that the American identifies the character with the object of his autobiographical writing, whereas for Cendrars Moravagine displaces himself as the writing author.
Miller's 1952 essay is the product of retrospection, of a proposal that he write a sort of biography through books he read, now that he is famous. The passage cited above is full of nostalgia for the "heroic" days of his beggarly existence in Paris. In 1952 he is famous by virtue of being infamous, and he lives a different sort of bohemia, contented if poor, in his shack above the California coast. The first letter of the correspondence dates, of course, from much closer to the actual history of Tropic of Cancer. It is dated November 26, 1934, and Miller intends it to accompany a copy of his newborn book. It is a thank you, "a slight recompense for the great pleasure I have had in reading your books." He recalls Moravagine in particular: "You will find a slight reference to it somewhere in my book" (Cendrars and Miller, Correspondance 358). No doubt Miller has been led to hope for some public sign of recognition. Indeed, Marcel Duchamp seems to have suggested that he himself, or another, might write a review for the Dada journal Orbes (Cendrars, Correspondance 70-71). In any case, Moravagine is certainly in Miller's text, and his vagueness, or humility, as conveyed in the phrasing of "a slight reference to it somewhere," is an amusing or disingenuous way of referring to it in light of his apparent ability to quote the novel …