In 1939, with Europe already sinking into World War II, 46-year-old Henry Miller left Paris, knowing that a cycle of his life had come to an end. As an expatriate in Paris he'd found his voice, and published the novels — "Tropic of Cancer," "Black Spring" and "Tropic of Capricorn" — which made his name. He'd had his legendarily steamy and dangerous affair with Anais Nin, and George Orwell had fired a salute on his behalf, hailing him as "a Whitman among the corpses."
Miller, although banned in America, had arrived, and then, restless as ever, he accepted the invitation of another writer, his friend Lawrence Durrell, to visit Greece and the island of Corfu. Miller, being Miller, didn't merely nibble and float in Lotus-land: First published in 1941, "The Colossus of Maroussi" (New Directions: 240 pp., $12.95), which has been reissued with accompanying essays by Will Self and Ian S. MacNiven, documents his attempt to devour the Hellenic experience and turn it to advantage.
The book falls into three parts, each section climaxing with a visit to a great center of Western history, "navels of the human spirit": Mycenae, Knossos ("Knossus" in Miller's spelling) and Delphi."The fact that these places still existed, still bore their ancient names, seemed incredible," Miller writes, and he feels their mystery and power in his bowels. Each has a sublime stillness. Each is pocked with ruins. Above each, birds wheel in "the unbroken vault of blue." Yet each works with a different force:
"Mycenae, after one turns the last bend, suddenly folds up into a menacing crouch, grim, defiant, impenetrable. Mycenae is closed in, huddled up, writhing with muscular contortions like a wrestler. Even the light, which falls on it with merciless clarity, gets sucked in, shunted off, grayed, beribboned."
This is where the great king Agamemnon was slain in his bath by his wife, who was in turn murdered by their son. Miller — seeing the hummocks and hillocks, the burial mounds that surround what's left of the city — yanks hard at this thread of darkness and brings it right into his own present:
"I am a native of New York, the grandest and emptiest city in the world; I am standing now at Mycenae, trying to understand what happened here over a period of centuries. I feel like a cockroach crawling about amidst dismantled splendors. …Are we going the same way?"
At Mycenae, Miller reckons, secret murder blasted the hopes of man. Yet, like everywhere in Greece, Mycenae is openly a place of before and after. Two worlds lie juxtaposed. "The crime contains the riddle, deep as salvation itself," he writes. "I say the whole world, fanning out in every direction from this spot, was once alive in a way that no man has ever dreamed of." Miller's journey leads him away from the darkness in search of light and salvation: energies that are represented by the Falstaffian figure of George Katsimbalis, poet and storyteller:
"He kept on mumbling and muttering, just to keep the engine going until he had decided on his direction. And then somehow, without being aware of the transition, we were standing on the aerial verandah overlooking the low hills, on one of which there was a lone windmill, and Katsimbalis was in full flight, a spread eagle performance about the clear atmosphere and the blue-violet hues that descend with the twilight, about ascending and descending varieties of monotony, about individualistic herbs and trees, about exotic fruits and inland voyages, about thyme and honey, and the sap of the arbutus which makes one drunk, about islanders and highlanders, about the men of the Peloponnesus, about the crazy Russian woman who got moonstruck one night and threw off her clothes, how she danced about in the moonlight without a stitch on while her lover ran to get a strait-jacket."
The incantatory style, with its rolling sub-clauses, mixed Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence in a way that was fresh at the time; it seems familiar now because it predicts Kerouac, Ginsberg and Snyder. Like the Beats who would follow him, Miller looked out for the possibilities of human holiness. Like them, he embraced risk and never minded going over the top. Katsimbalis almost drowns Miller in a boat, but Miller doesn't mind, because Katsimbalis shows him the Greek earth, the stoic Greek carelessness in the face of death and gives him Greek retsina and cognac to drink while intoning the glories of Greek literature and history. It's silly stuff, sometimes — but heady.
"I never knew that the earth contains so much," Miller writes, having soaked up his lessons. "I had walked blindfolded, with faltering, hesitant steps; I was proud and arrogant, content to live the false, restricted life of the city man. The light of Greece opened my eyes, penetrated my pores, expanded my whole being. I came home to the world.…"
Here we glimpse Miller preparing for his return to America, and the solitude of the cabin at Big Sur. "The Colossus of Maroussi" would remain his favorite book, and certainly it's his most joyous. Cocksure sex plays no part here. Miller takes swipes at the English (pompous and insufferable), the French (arrogant and ungrateful), the Germans (sauerkrauts, disguised as human beings) and his fellow Americans (gadget-obsessed baboons), seeing the divinity of man only in the Greeks and, of course, in himself. As Will Self points out, Miller was notably self-absorbed, even for a writer who specialized in rebooting his own life in literature.
Miller was prophetic and outward-looking too. He saw that no good would come of go-getting American imperialism. At the same time, he propelled his prose forward with that most American of desires — to see the world, even the ancient world, afresh and ablaze:
"Our stay at Spetsai was prolonged because the boat for Nauptia failed to appear. I began to fear that we would be marooned there indefinitely. However, one fine day about four in the afternoon the boat finally did show up. It was an unserviceable English ferry which rolled with the slightest ripple. We sat on deck watching the sinking sun. It was one of those Biblical sunsets in which man is completely absent. Nature simply opens her bloody, insatiable maw and swallows everything in sight."
"The Colossus of Maroussi" stands as one of the great travelogues precisely because the moments that are readily identifiable as travel-writing happen almost out of the corner of Miller's eye. He's hunting bigger game, on a quest for meaning, in his own life, and in a world that is plunging headlong into violence and chaos. The moments of peace and beauty that he feels or hears or sees, and then records, glow with undiminished power. It may be that this book seems especially relevant and handy right now. Miller went to an ancient landscape, regenerating himself and using the fierceness of that energy to light a beacon in grim times; that beacon still shines.
Rayner is the author most recently of "A Bright and Guilty Place." Paperback Writers appears at http://www.latimes.com/books.