Henry Miller & the hungry word

Posted on December 27, 2007


By Andrew Stevens

“It’s about two men, one a bald middle-aged writer, who repeatedly have sex with a 15 year old girl.” “Erm, I think I’ll give it a miss,” came the inevitable response. The 1970 adaptation (skip the 80s ones, please) of Henry Miller‘s Quiet Days in Clichy begins and the middle-aged writer, we’ll call him Joey (as does the film), is sat stooped behind a typewriter, the old manual sort you’d associate with a struggling writer in Paris. Oh, he is a struggling writer in Paris! The words he labours over begin to appear on the screen, one by one, in that old font:

“As I write, night is falling and people are going to dinner. It’s been a gray day, as one often sees in Paris.

I’m thinking about this period, when we have been living here in Clichy, Carl and I. It seems like a stretch in Paradise.

There has been only one real problem, and that is food. All other ills have been imaginary.”

He goes on: “It has been a period when cunt was in the air.” CUNT then appears for the opening credits, written over photographical representations of the French capital, its landmarks and its people. Another notable and inescapable aspect of the package is the soundtrack provided by 1960s protest singer Country Joe McDonald (think Jonathan Richman scoring Russ Meyer), who sings of Carl and Joey, “the girls they fucked and the women they laid / the story of the love they made,” which cost the artist dearly among the feminist contingent of the era (he also urges cinema patrons to “during the movie if you get the chance / Put your hand inside her pants.”)

The suburb of Clichy is now more associated with the riots of autumn 2005 than the ornate Godard-like cafe-lined thoroughfares of Joey and Carl’s sexual adventures (alluded to with the camera panning of good time girls plying their trade in front of eateries), but the inter-war ex-pat writer remains the over-riding motif of Situationist Jens Jorgen Thorsen‘s film.

The film itself is an unrelenting and highly charged erotic tale and I’d urge you to see it, if you already haven’t. The animated Gallic journalist Carl and the ex-pat Joey do it every which way and with seemingly anyone who falls under their enthusiastic radar (most ‘actors’ in the film were actually prostitutes), though not always as planned, as Country Joe attests:

“Then there was Jean from the Herald Tribune
Bringing bottles of wine up to their room.
They could squeeze her tits and rub her crack,
But the thought of fucking drove her quite mad.

At the thought of a cock inside her cunt
She would always begin to smash the place up.
She would weep and screech and scream and cry
And then come back for another try.”

Clichy undoubtedly stands out among Miller’s works but Jens Thorsen’s treatment and the Country Joe soundtrack adds depth that even Miller could never contemplate in the singular literary form. Inevitably, it fell foul of the post-war censorship regimes on both sides of the English Channel, from both the Gaullists who subjected the Olympia Press to no end of bureaucratic and legal hassle and the characteristically stiff British authorities (who’d moved on from vetting Donald McGill postcards but weren’t quite ready for penetration and licencious depravity without a bouncy wah-wah soundtrack). Though the liberal GLC in London deemed it just fine.

Jens Thorsen attempted to maintain the momentum of Clichy by travelling to England to film his next film, a depiction of Jesus as a sex maniac, which earned him a comprehensive travel ban across Europe (as well as the Danish Embassy being attacked with petrol bombs.) It’s almost as if our elders were doing us a favour with the censorship regime, by pointing out classics to make a bee-line for on sight.


Andrew Stevens is deputy editor of 3:AM Magazine and lives in East London. In 2006, he edited the magazine’s fifth anniversary anthology, The Edgier Waters.

Posted in: Essays