We’ll always have Paris — as long as we have Henry Miller

Actor and antiquarian bookseller Neil Pearson wrote and presented a BBC4 programme on Jack Kahane and the Obelisk Press last week. It is only 30 minutes long but managed in that short space of time to convey all the excitement of literary Paris between the two world wars, as well as laying bare — ahem — the bizarre notions of obscenity prevalent at the time.

He starts the programme — available on the BBC’s iPlayer until the end of November — by reading a juicy paragraph from Tropic Of Cancer, probably the first real masterpiece published by Kahane in Paris. Henry Miller’s prose still has the power to shock, not so much in the rich but basic vocabulary of sex but in its brazen accuracy in presenting how sex is thought about and done. The shock, therefore, remains one of recognition rather than revulsion.

It was published in Paris in 1934 but didn’t make it to the UK until John Calder published it in 1963, despite acclaim by literary figures such as Orwell and Beckett. An unlikely pairing, perhaps, as blurb writers but not a bad recommendation or a book.

My Granada paperback is rather tattered now. I bought it in 1979 and I’ve never replaced it. There are loose pages but I have a fondness for it. For one thing, it is in the handily sized format that fits into a pocket. Later paperbacks are of the annoying slightly shrunken hardback size that is good for neither man nor beast.

There are only 16 years between the book’s first publication in the UK and my purchase of a copy but 37 years have passed since I first read it. I don’t know how many times I’ve read it. The first paragraph still gives me a chill to read:

I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.

I love that ‘crumb of dirt’ when food would be the expected word to follow crumb. Miller loved tempting and then subverting clichés.

I first read Miller before my second attempt to live in Paris. The first try was aborted after a week. The second lasted longer but I got little writing done and I failed to duplicate Miller’s erotic success. But Miller’s Paris still colours my memories of the city. The topology of Paris remains much the same, even as the districts assume different characters.

The Neil Pearson programme had it all, really: Paris; sex; Miller; drinking; writing; and books. In fact, sex, drinking, writing, and books was how I thought of Paris for most of my early life. That version of Paris still takes up space in my head.

Like one of China Miéville’s cities within another city; my imagined Paris is one glance away from reality but, fantasy or not, in this case its presence remains reassuring.