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Henry Miller and a Sunday in Big Sur

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Leaving for a wedding in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, last weekend, I decided it was finally time to read a book whose jacket and title had piqued my curiosity some years before: Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch by Henry Miller. I had seen the book lying in a hotel lobby bookshelf on a family trip in, appropriately, France, where Miller lived for years, and was tempted to filch it, but I didn't (it was easy enough to find in a bookstore in New York more recently). The cover, in black and white, depicts some cheerful-looking figures from one of Bosch's more paradisaical paintings who have been superimposed on a photograph of a foggy beach at Big Sur, California. It is an eccentric cover design that nonetheless conveys just what it is meant to--the feeling of a paradise found in the New World.

I had not read any Miller before, and I don't think many people my age have. The kind of titillation his writing used to represent seems almost quaint now--what curious adolescent these days needs to turn to literature for this sort of enlightenment? His parents might have a crumbling copy of Tropic of Cancer on a high shelf but is there anything terribly surprising in this once-forbidden book? Yet perhaps I am overemphasizing the steamy side of this author--for what I discovered in Big Sur, which is essentially a memoir of Miller's years there, is a writer of great naturalness, charm, and vitality.

I was not far into the book by Sunday, the day after the wedding, but I was sufficiently delighted by what I had read that I decided I must visit this place. The brilliant sun and cool weather, combined with the urging of a fellow guest at my inn, a woman who knew the area well and had been vacationing there over thirty years ("...with my first husband, my second husband, my kids, my third husband, and sometimes by myself," she said) confirmed my plan. The same woman gave me a piece of advice: to stop for the view whenever I was tempted to, as this was a big part of the thrill of this drive.

I followed her advice once I was twenty miles south of Carmel and the Pacific loomed into view. For most of the drive you are very high up, above cliffs that tumble into a rocky shoreline and, in places, wide, wind-swept pastures leading out to the sea. The ocean takes up your entire field of vision, choppy and white as it crashes against the irregular shoreline, deep blue elsewhere, and pale white again as as it reaches out toward the horizon. There are frequent turn-outs, and you see the same cars at each one. A thirty-mile drive easily takes two hours when the scenery is this spectacular.

The nature of Big Sur, the town, is such that you are not quite sure when you are in it or when you are past it, because it is only perhaps a dozen buildings--restaurants and inns, a shop or two and a post office--on either side of the two-lane highway. I knew that Henry Miller had lived south of the town and wondered if his house could be visited. It cannot but the Henry Miller Memorial Library, an enchanting small house which is also a bookshop and music venue, had some of the flavor I was looking for. It had been the house of Emil White, a painter friend described in Miller's memoir, who left the place for this purpose on his death in 1981 (Miller died the year before). It is not a shrine, nor is it only about Henry Miller. Rather, there is a carefully curated, somewhat European-leaning selection of books (one table had Voltaire, Dumas, Witold Gombrowicz, Kundera, Montaigne), some LPs and bits of artwork, sculptures outside in a quiet glen-like setting, and overall a mood which evokes the kind of engaged and creative life that Miller lived and commended to his readers.

Under this spell I started to feel that what would be very nice, instead of having lunch at the crowded Nepenthe, a Big Sur restaurant famous for its view, would be to go to the beach, read a little Henry Miller, eat a sandwich, and otherwise not do anything. This seemed, in short, the Big Sur thing to do. The girl at the Miller Library counter said there was a road down to the beach a few miles north, and there was even a deli just before the turnoff. Early in his book, Miller laments the lack of a good Jewish delicatessen in Big Sur. He would be pleased at this improvement.

Since the main highway is so high, you drive two miles on a winding narrow road to get down to the beach. The ever-present wind was absent at the beach, as it is sheltered by large rocks. The sand, as in Carmel, was fine and white, and you are happy simply to lie on it--in late October! At one point a seagull jolted me awake from my nap, making off with a pickle, but otherwise all was calm and contentment. Henry Miller sums up the feeling perfectly:

A few hours of communion with the elements eliminates all the detritus accumulated at the base of the skull as a result of entertaining visitors, reading boring manuscripts, answering letters from poets, professors, and imbeciles of all denominations. It's amazing how easily and naturally the inner springs resume their functioning once you surrender to sheer idleness.

Even after two hours, getting up from this reverie seemed highly unnecessary and unpleasant, but it had to be done if I was to make my flight. I had time, though, for a few minutes' walk up the beach and back. Walking north, you pass immense rocks thirty feet out into the water, where waves crash first on one side, then on the other, erupting through a small passage in between, which delighted the children watching. A bit farther up the beach, there were fewer children, and, scattered among the clothed bathers, several women of a more free-spirited sort. It must be said that they were the rare semi-nude bathers whom one would not wish to see thoroughly covered in a Snuggy: in short, it was clear even from some distance, before I did my polite best to look elsewhere, that they were California beauties of the first order.

Henry Miller, who seemed to have scripted this moment, would surely have said not to bother being so discreet--but learning to be as unfettered as Henry Miller might have required a few more days in Big Sur. Anyway, it was time to head back, and though I regretted it, I felt at least that I had really seen Big Sur--in fact, more of it than I had ever expected to.