Remember Max!

I’ve read and reread Henry Miller. He was a natural storyteller. For me, Miller’s fly in the ointment, or his flies in the ointment, are the erotic passages. And speaking of flies, there are puns better left unsaid. Miller flies consist of athletic feats in which the female partner is the adversary. When the adversary is laid flat, Miller goes into detail with a magnifying glass, if not a microscope.

When I first encountered Miller, I read the purple passages with disdain and discomfort. In the blurry-whirl of the tryst, the women cease being human and become a blend of the Medusa, Lady Macbeth and the Witch of Endor. When I reread Miller, I gloss over his blow-by blow accounts. Actually, they have probably lost their tang in this day and age of explicit detail and activity.

Reading Miller did not open any erotic doors for me. In my callow days, when I first came upon him, I thought that I would like to go about ringing gongs, but I soon found out that ringing was not for me. Frankly I simply didn’t have the knack for one-night stands and fleeting encounters, nor did I have the perseverance necessary for the pursuit. Aside from describing athletic feats in his naughty manner, Miller is unmatched when it comes to writing about losers and the nitty-gritty of city life.

Max is a marvelous story by Miller. It’s about a down-and-out Jew in Paris in the Thirties, who was keeping himself afloat with odd jobs. It has been termed by some as an anti-Semitic story. Miller cannot warm up to Max, and he describes his suffering with incomprehension and even disdain. It is perhaps, the authors distance to his character, that makes Max more moving and touching to the reader. As the story progresses, Max becomes more tangible. Miller did not invent Max. Max has a hat which he wears with the brim up. Miller takes the hat and tries to make it look like a snappy fedora by pushing in the crown and turning the brim down. But the next time he sees him, of course the crown has its old shape and the brim is turned up again. And so forth and so on.

Miller takes Max to his friend Boris, who’s also a Jew, and Boris does nothing for him. The story closes with an “illiterate” letter from Max to Miller, in which he describes his aching loneliness and despair. In my opinion, the letter is one the most heart-rending and eloquent codas in literature.

“…the rain is talking to me but morning wont come-it seems that night will never end I am afraid the french will do me away in case of sickness because being a forinner is that so? Miller tell me is it true – I was told that if a forinner is sick and has nobody they do him in quickly instead of curing him even when there is a chance. I am afraid the french shouldn’t take me away, then I shall never see daylight. Oh no, I shall be brave and control myself but I don’t want to go out in the street now, the Police might take a false statement, else I should go out now of my Room out in the street, for I cant stay in my Room, but I’m much afraid every night, I’m afraid. Dear Miller, is it possible to see you? I want to talk to you a little. I don’t want no money, I’m going crazy. Sincerely yours, Max.”

The letter was must have been genuinely written by Max, and Miller used it as he had received it. Quoting it with all the flaws was a brilliant decision. (In history, didn’t Sacco and Vanzetti say and write what they had to say well in broken English?) The story ends with the letter, and we know how Max ended.

Now I’ll bring an incident to the fore that occurred in 1988, the Golden Anniversary of Austria’s annexation by Nazi Germany. That year, 1938 …and the Consequences by Elfriede Schmidt was published. The book contains interviews with those who had the privilege of being in Austria half a century earlier. I was three years old when the coupling of countries occurred. In my interview I described the ransacking of my grandmother’s apartment by SA-men, which stays in my mind as clearly as today. By recounting my experiences as a remigré in present day-Austria, I tie the past to the present. In the summer of that “Memorial Year,” I took part in a symposium at the Riverside Campus of UCLA with the author of the interview book. I read excerpts from my non-fiction novel, Memoirs of a 39er.

The Austrian consul was there to explain to the emigrés and remigrés present how things had transpired at the time. Only a small minority of the population favored the annexation of Austria. The majority stayed in their homes and gnashed their teeth. Right he was! As we know, there were only a few well-wishers on the streets to welcome Austria’s favorite son back. After I had read from the novel, the Austrian representative asked the organizer of the conference what I was doing there. The story I had to tell concerning my remigration had to be a fabrication!

After the conference, the author of the interview-book was been invited to the home of one of the interviewed who resided on the Palisades near Los Angeles. Dr. Schmidt insisted that I accompany her, but I had compunctions about appearing uninvited. However, she was stubborn and I gave in. An emigré and a remigré would meet and exchange views. If I had had my way, I wouldn’t have been able to write this piece. When we arrived, she went in, and I waited in the car. She came back with the man’s wife, who hopped into her car and led us to a hotel where I was deposited. Then they drove their cars back to the man’s castle.

I wasn’t looking for help or a handout like Max. But after the long drive, a glass of water and the use of the facilities might have been nice. I guess I had been too candid in my interview. I’m Uncle Harry and not Uncle Tom. My fellow emigré wasn’t going to have the culprit, who had told the story I had told, stepping over his threshold. I didn’t even get to meet my Boris.