I first met Henry Miller three years ago while on assignment in California. Seeing him in a blue bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, maneuvering slowly with the aid of a walker, I was momentarily sorry I had set up the interview. It didn't seem possible that a chat with him could be in any way worthwhile.
Henry Miller surprised me, something he'd been doing to people his entire life. Once settled in his chair, he began talking, and his infirmities evaporated. He was lively, witty, whimsical and sharp, a vigorous link to a great time in literary history. He could still chuckle over George Orwell, whom he remembered as wanting to go off to fight in Spain wearing a natty tweed coat. "I told him, 'Change that coat, you're going to war, let me give you one of my old corduroys or something.'"
There was nothing affected about Henry Miller, nothing false. He was a taster of life, and he put it all, from the years in Brooklyn to the fine times in Paris to the joys of Greece, into his books. He wasn't a success until he was past 40, but then the writing came in a torrent. His most famous books were the two "Tropics," "Cancer" and "Capricorn," but his personal favorite was the one about Greece, "The Colossus of Marussi." It was typical of him that though he hadn't been back to the country in decades, the flavor of Greece stayed with him always.
Miller was so captivating that when I moved by chance into a nearby house I visited with him as often as possible. He couldn't talk for much more than an hour without tiring, but when I'd leave him after that hour, I would be exhilarated for the rest of the day.
Henry Miller's enormous good cheer, his informed enthusiasm for the human condition in all its forms, was as clear in his conversation as in his writing. Everything interested him, everything excited him in the best possible way. When he was enchanted with someone, as he was, for instance, with Pope John Paul II, his whole face would light up and he would say, "This new pope's quite a guy, don't you know!" He never worried over things that couldn't be helped, and he once said he always figured that even in the event of nuclear holocaust he would somehow survive and prosper.
Miller never had even the smallest doubt about the quality and worth of his work, considering himself one of the very best writers of the 20th century. Yet he didn't believe in getting himself pumped up and liked to relate how he chased a would-be biographer from his house, telling him, "Get out of here, you make me sick." In his last years he wanted to win the Nobel Prize for literature, but when his friend Isaac Bashevis Singer received the award, he was as pleased as if he'd gotten it himself. They had met at a banquet years before and, as Miller told the story, "I turned to him and said, 'Mr. Singer, have you ever read an author named Knute Hamsun?' He looked at me, and we both stood up and embraced" -- kindred spirits from the start.
There was no official wake for Henry Miller, who died Saturday at 88; he told his family he didn't want one. He believed strongly in the wonder and excitement of life, and he felt people should be out doing and living, not sitting around bothering about him. His own was the fullest of lives, and sharing in even the merest fraction of it was an unforgettable legacy.