8. The Last Book

Munich Crisis of September 1938

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood. I like to dwell on this period when things were taking shape because the order, if it were understood, must have been dazzling.
"We must get going. Tomorrow, tomorrow....
Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn[1]

Tropic of Capricorn stands at a crossroads in Miller's life and literary career. Seven years in the writing, in the end it almost went unpublished. On the eve of the Munich Crisis of September 1938, "anchored" at Villa Seurat to complete Tropic of Capricorn, Miller suddenly resolved to follow expatriate friends and associates in flight.[2] He consigned his manuscript to his publisher Jack Kahane, to "put in the vault of his bank" for safe keeping, and uncertain when, if ever, he might return to prepare Tropic of Capricorn for publication, Miller fled Paris in search of the first ship leaving France for Greece or America, taking only two valises, a typewriter, and a few notes for future works. He got no further than Bordeaux. By the time the funds for his fare caught up with him, there were no more berths to be had, and the trains to the ports of Le Harve and Cherbourg, passing back through Paris, were hopelessly congested with other eleventh-hour fugitives. Furious with himself for having hesitated too long, Miller ate a "good lunch, [...] as though it might be the last," and waited out Hitler's two o'clock deadline for settlement in a small park from which he could see "the big clock in the center of the street," expecting from minute to minute to hear the bombs begin to fall.[3]

The crisis past, Miller returned to Paris to revise, proof, and see Tropic of Capricorn through publication, but he did so with an understanding that it would mark the end of a phase of his life and work. The "experiment" of the "Lost Generation" in which he participated, the "Revolution of the Word" he sought to prolong, was over:

The war will not only change the map of the world but it will affect the destiny of every one I care about. Already, even before the war had broken out, we were scattered to the four winds, those of us who had no thought to do anything but what we were doing.[4]
I realize that I shall have to carry on somewhere else and in a manner wholly different from perhaps any that I may have anticipated. [....] With all my power and intelligence I intend to keep myself free to carry on the experiment elsewhere, if needs be. [....] I do not yet know what course of action to pursue, but I am meditating on it, and I have no doubt that the way will be revealed to me.[5]

Tropic of Capricorn went quietly to the Paris bookstores in early April 1939.[6] Miller wrote Lawrence Durrell, "People are not buying, nor living, just holding their breath for the expected catastrophe."[7] By the end of May there was little left to do but pack. Miller headed south for Nice, resolved never again to be caught as he had during the Munich Crisis. Six weeks later he sailed from Marseille to join Durrell in Corfu. In early December, after more than two months of "phony war" suspense following the fall of Poland, the American Minister to Greece ordered all American civilians out of the country, fearful that, short of invasion, the German Navy would soon make evacuation impossible. On December 27, 1939, the day after his forty-eighth birthday, Miller left Greece aboard a freighter bound for America.

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