Perambulatory Christmas Books, part 3
By J. C.
The hebdomadal challenge is to find a neglected work or curiosity by an established author, in one of London’s secondhand bookshops, for about £5. Last Sunday, we stepped on to Hampstead Heath close to where Keats used to play cricket, crossed Kenwood, hoping to avoid the old bletherer Coleridge, finally quitting the sweet pastures for that hideous millionaires’ arcade, the Bishops Avenue. We survived the traffic when crossing Lyttelton Road, ducked under East Finchley railway bridge, and entered Black Gull Books at 121 High Road.
Despite recommendations, we had never visited Black Gull before, and were happy to find it in a reasonable state of what pleases us most: disarray. There are piles of books on the floor, next to boxes of unsorted items – a good sign, for it means the shop is buying (and therefore selling) and that new stock will soon be on display. There is an emphasis on art, with sections for music, history, philosophy, literature, children’s books, etc.
A number of items tempted us, including a hardback of The Rock by T. S. Eliot (1934), which seemed a bargain at £4 until we saw the red inkings. Instead, we chose The Time of the Assassins: A study of Rimbaud by Henry Miller, published in serial form in 1942, and issued as a book in 1956. A TLS reviewer referred to Miller then as “an important bad writer”. More than half a century on, you would be hard pushed to find many in agreement with the first epithet. Once embraced as a pioneer of sexual liberation, he has fallen foul of history and been dumped in the bin of misogyny. Even those with fonder feelings are apt to judge him a windbag.
It has been years since we read Miller, but we would still speak up for Tropic of Cancer, “Via Dieppe-Newhaven”, Quiet Days in Clichy and others. These works had a glad feeling for life on the margins. The Time of the Assassins grew out of a failed attempt to translate Une Saison en Enfer into English. Miller had tried to find a tone close to the blues – as he put it in a phrase sure to displease some readers now, a language “proximate to Rimbaud’s own ‘nigger’ tongue”.
The study of Rimbaud is as much a study of Miller. “When I think of [Rimbaud’s] repeated sallies, like a beleaguered army trying to burst out of the grip in which it is held like a vise, I see my youthful self.” The poet tramping through Germany, Italy, Cyprus, Egypt is but a forerunner of Miller marching “from the heart of Brooklyn to the heart of Manhattan”. The Time of the Assassins gives the impression of having been written in about a fortnight – not always a bad thing. The experience of reading it is like being in conversation with someone who talks rhapsodically, little interested in your response. Our Black Gull find was the seventeenth printing of a New Directions paperback (1962), for which we paid £5.