Friday, August 27, 2010

Henry Miller and Crystal Palace

A fine day off work spent on the book and coffee trail, starting off at the excellent Bookseller Crow in Crystal Palace, then on to Kirkdale Bookshop in Sydenham and the various charity shops nearby (with refreshment stops at Domali in Crystal Palace and Blue Mountain in Sydenham). Came home with Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers and Adorno's The Culture Industry (the latter a 50p snip at the hospice shop), among other things. Pleased to report that Kirkdale still got lots of second hand London books downstairs, at Bookseller Crow they are doing a good line in new paperback editions of beat classics (Burroughs, Kerouac) at three for a tenner. What are you waiting for?

Anyway in a brief conversation with the Bookseller himself, I mentioned that the American author Henry Miller refers to Crystal Palace in his novel Sexus, first published in Paris in 1949. Here's the quote:

'It is to Covent Garden I go a few hours after landing in London, and to the girl I single out to dance with I offer a rose from the flower market. I had intended to go direct to Spain, but circumstances obliged me to go straight to London. A Jewish insurance agent from Baghdad, of all places, is the one to lead me to the Covent Garden Opera which has been converted into a dance hall for the time being. The day before leaving London I pay a visit to an English astrologer who lives near the Crystal Palace. We have to pass through another man's property to get to the house. As we are walking through the grounds he informs me casually that the place belongs to Thomas Burke, the author of Limehouse Nights' .

Of course the work is novel, albeit a fictionalised account of episodes in the author's life. So did Miller himself visit the Crystal Palace area? Quite possibly, as he was a friend of the writer Lawrence Durrell. According to Norbert Blei's blog 'Durrell had come to London with Henry Miller, another writer whom Dylan [Thomas] greatly admired. They were at that time editing an English language magazine in Paris together, originally called The Booster and later Delta.'

Durrell's novel The Black Book (1938) was written in 1935-6, a period during which he lived for a while at the Queens Hotel on Church Road, Crystal Palace (the work features local scenes). So as a friend of Durrell it's quite likely that Miller would have visited and been familiar with the area. The Covent Garden Opera was indeed turned into a dancehall at the start of World War II in 1939. Thomas Burke (1886-1945) was a South London born writer of books set in London's Chinese communities.

In a post on The Crystal Palace in Literature, Sarah J Young discusses other literary references, including George Gissing’s The Nether World (1889), E Nesbit's The Ice Dragon, or Do As You Are Told (1900) and The Enchanted Castle (1907), and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda (1988). She has also discussed the differing perspectives of the Russian authors Dostoevsky and Chernyshevsky on the Crystal Palace itself, and even pondered whether 'Dostoevsky was thinking of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs when he wrote ‘The Crocodile’'.

Emile Zola's stay in Crystal Palace is covered in a previous Transpontine post.

1 comment:

JonathanM said...

Cracking post, thanks for that. And nice to see you.