Quiet Days in Clichyby Henry Miller
Henry Miller’s celebration of love, art, and the Bohemian life at a time when the world was simpler and slower.
This tender and nostalgic work dates from the same period as Tropic of Cancer (1934). It is a celebration of love, art, and the Bohemian life at a time when the world was simpler and slower, and Miller an obscure, penniless young writer in Paris. Whether discussing the early days of his long friendship with Alfred Perles or his escapades at the Club Melody brothel, in Quiet Days in Clichy Miller describes a period that would shape his entire life and oeuvre.
As I write, night is falling and people are going to dinner. It’s been a gray day, such as one often sees in Paris. Walking around the block to air my thoughts, I couldn’t help but think of the tremendous contrast between the two cities (New York and Paris). It is the same hour, the same sort of day, and yet even the word gray, which brought about the association, has little in common with that gris which, to the ears of a Frenchman, is capable of evoking a world of thought and feeling. Long ago, walking the streets of Paris, studying the watercolors on exhibit in the shop windows, I was aware of the singular absence of what is known as Payne’s gray. I mention it because Paris, as everyone knows, is pre-eminently a gray city. I mention it because, in the realm of watercolor, American painters use this made-to-order gray excessively and obsessively. In France the range of grays is seemingly infinite; here the very effect of gray is lost.
I was thinking of this immense world of gray which I knew in Paris because at this hour, when ordinarily I would be strolling towards the boulevards, I find myself eager to return home and write: a complete reversal of my normal habits. There my day would be over, and I would instinctively set out to mingle with the crowd. Here the crowd, empty of all color, all nuance, all distinction, drives me in on myself, drives me back to my room, to seek in my imagination those elements of a now missing life which, when blended and assimilated, may again produce the soft natural grays so necessary to the creation of a sustained, harmonious existence. Looking towards the Sacré Cœur from any point along the Rue Laffitte on a day like this, an hour like this, would be sufficient to put me in ecstasy. It has had that effect upon me even when I was hungry and had no place to sleep. Here, even if I had a thousand dollars in my pocket, I know of no sight which could arouse in me the feeling of ecstasy.
On a gray day in Paris I often found myself walking towards the Place Clichy in Montmartre. From Clichy to Aubervilliers there is a long string of cafés, restaurants, theaters, cinemas, haberdashers, hotels and bordels. It is the Broadway of Paris corresponding to that little stretch between 42nd and 53rd Streets. Broadway is fast, dizzying, dazzling, and no place to sit down. Montmartre is sluggish, lazy, indifferent, somewhat shabby and seedy-looking, not glamorous so much as seductive, not scintillating but glowing with a smoldering flame. Broadway looks exciting, even magical at times, but there is no fire, no heat—it is a brilliantly illuminated asbestos display, the paradise of advertising agents. Montmartre is worn, faded, derelict, nakedly vicious, mercenary, vulgar. It is, if anything, repellent rather than attractive, but insidiously repellent, like vice itself. There are little bars filled almost exclusively with whores, pimps, thugs and gamblers, which, no matter if you pass them up a thousand times, finally suck you in and claim you as a victim. There are hotels in the side streets leading off the boulevard whose ugliness is so sinister that you shudder at the thought of entering them, and yet it is inevitable that you will one day pass a night, perhaps a week or a month, in one of them. You may even become so attached to the place as to find one day that your whole life has been transformed and that what you once regarded as sordid, squalid, miserable, has now become charming, tender, beautiful. This insidious charm of Montmartre is due, in large part, I suspect, to the unconcealed traffic in sex. Sex is not romantic, particularly when it is commercialized, but it does create an aroma, pungent and nostalgic, which is far more glamorous and seductive than the most brilliantly illuminated Gay White Way. In fact it is obvious enough that the sexual life flourishes better in a dim, murky light: it is at home in the chiaroscuro and not in the glare of the neon light.
At one corner of the Place Clichy is the Café Wepler, which was for a long period my favorite haunt. I have sat there inside and out at all times of the day in all kinds of weather. I knew it like a book. The faces of the waiters, the managers, the cashiers, the whores, the clientele, even the attendants in the lavatory, are engraved in my memory as if they were illustrations in a book which I read every day. I remember the first day I entered the Café Wepler, in the year 1928, with my wife in tow; I remember the shock I experienced when I saw a whore fall dead drunk across one of the little tables on the terrace and nobody ran to her assistance. I was amazed and horrified by the stoical indifference of the French; I still am, despite all the good qualities in them which I have since come to know. “It’s nothing, it was just a whore . . . she was drunk.” I can still hear those words. Even today they make me shudder. But it is very French, this attitude, and, if you don’t learn to accept it, your stay in France won’t be very pleasant.
On the gray days, when it was chilly everywhere except in the big cafés, I looked forward with pleasure to spending an hour or two at the Café Wepler before going to dinner. The rosy glow which suffused the place emanated from the cluster of whores who usually congregated near the entrance. As they gradually distributed themselves among the clientele, the place became not only warm and rosy but fragrant. They fluttered about in the dimming light like perfumed fireflies. Those who had not been fortunate enough to find a customer would saunter slowly out to the street, usually to return in a little while and resume their old places. Others swaggered in, looking fresh and ready for the evening’s work. In the corner where they usually congregated it was like an exchange, the sex market, which has its ups and downs like other exchanges. A rainy day was usually a good day, it seemed to me. There are only two things you can do on a rainy day, as the saying goes, and the whores never wasted time playing cards.
It was in the late afternoon of a rainy day that I espied a newcomer at the Café Wepler. I had been out shopping, and my arms were loaded with books and phonograph records. I must have received an unexpected remittance from America that day because, despite the purchases I had made, I still had a few hundred francs in my pocket. I sat down near the place of exchange, surrounded by a bevy of hungry, itching whores whom I had no difficulty whatever in eluding because my eyes were fastened on this ravishing beauty who was sitting apart in a far corner of the café. I took her to be an attractive young woman who had made a rendezvous with her lover and who had come ahead of time perhaps. The apéritif which she had ordered had hardly been touched. At the men who passed her table she gave a full, steady glance, but that indicated nothing—a Frenchwoman doesn’t avert her glance as does the English or the American woman. She looked around quietly, appraisingly, but without obvious effort to attract attention. She was discreet and dignified, thoroughly poised and selfcontained. She was waiting. I too was waiting. I was curious to see whom she was waiting for. After a half hour, during which time I caught her eye a number of times and held it, I made up my mind that she was waiting for anyone who would make the proper overture. Ordinarily one has only to give a sign with the head or the hand and the girl will leave her table and join you—if she’s that kind of girl. I was not absolutely sure even yet. She looked too good to me, too sleek, too well—nurtured, I might say.
When the waiter came round again I pointed her out and asked him if he knew her. When he said no I suggested that he invite her to come over and join me. I watched her face as he delivered the message. It gave me quite a thrill to see her smile and look my way with a nod of recognition. I expected her to get up immediately and come over, but instead she remained seated and smiled again, more discreetly this time, whereupon she turned her head away and appeared to gaze out the window dreamily. I allowed a few moments to intervene and then, seeing that she had no intention of making a move, I rose and walked over to her table. She greeted me cordially enough, quite as if I were a friend indeed, but I noticed that she was a little flustered, almost embarrassed. I wasn’t sure whether she wanted me to sit down or not. but I sat down nevertheless and, after ordering drinks, quickly engaged her in conversation. Her voice was even more thrilling than her smile; it was well—pitched, rather low, and throaty. It was the voice of a woman who is glad to be alive, who indulges herself, who is careless and indigent, and who will do anything to preserve the modicum of freedom which she possesses. It was the voice of a giver, of a spender; its appeal went to the diaphragm rather than the heart.
I was surprised, I must confess, when she hastened to explain to me that I had made a faux pas in coming over to her table. “I thought you had understood,” she said, “that I would join you outside. That’s what I was trying to tell you telegraphically.” She intimated that she did not want to be known here as a professional. I apologized for the blunder and offered to withdraw, which she accepted as a delicate gesture to be ignored by a squeeze of the hand and a gracious smile.
“What are all these things?” she said, quickly changing the subject by pretending to be interested in the packages which I had placed on the table.
“Just books and records,” I said, implying that they would hardly interest her.
“Are they French authors?” she asked, suddenly injecting a note of genuine enthusiasm, it seemed to me.
“Yes,” I replied, “but they are rather dull, I fear. Proust, Céline, Elie Faure . . . You’d prefer Maurice Dekobra, no?”
“Let me see them, please. I want to see what kind of French books an American reads.”
I opened the package and handed her the Elie Faure. It was The Dance over Fire and Water. She riffled the pages, smiling, making little exclamations as she read here and there. Then she deliberately put the book down, closed it, and put her hand over it as if to keep it closed. “Enough, let us talk about something more interesting.” After a moment’s silence, she added: “Celui-là, est-il vraiment français?”
“Un vrai de vrai,” I replied, with a broad grin.
She seemed puzzled. “It’s excellent French,” she went on, as if to herself, “and yet it’s not French either . . . Comment dirais-je?”
I was about to say that I understood perfectly when she threw herself back against the cushion, took hold of my hand and, with a roguish smile which was meant to reinforce her candor, said: “Look, I am a thoroughly lazy creature. I haven’t the patience to read books. It’s too much for my feeble brain.”
“There are lots of other things to do in life,” I answered, returning her smile. So saying, I placed my hand on her leg and squeezed it warmly. In an instant her hand covered mine, removed it to the soft, fleshy part. Then, almost as quickly, she drew my hand away with an—“Assez, nous ne sommes pas seuls ici.”
We sipped our drinks and relaxed. I was in no hurry to rush her off. For one thing, I was too enchanted by her speech, which was distinctive and which told me that she was not a Parisian. It was a pure French she spoke, and for a foreigner like myself a joy to listen to. She pronounced every word distinctly, using almost no slang, no colloquialisms. The words came out of her mouth fully formed and with a retarded tempo, as if she had rolled them on her palate before surrendering them to the void wherein the sound and the meaning are so swiftly transformed. Her laziness, which was voluptuous, feathered the words with a soft down; they came floating to my ears like balls of fluff. Her body was heavy, earth-laden, but the sounds which issued from her throat were like the clear notes of a bell.
She was made for it, as the saying goes, but she did not impress me as an out-and-out whore. That she would go with me, and take money for it, I knew—but that doesn’t make a woman a whore.
She put a hand on me and, like a trained seal, my pecker rose jubilantly to her delicate caress.
“Contain yourself,” she murmured, “it’s bad to get excited too quickly.”
“Let’s get out of here,” said I, beckoning the waiter.
“Yes,” she said, “let’s go somewhere where we can talk at leisure.”
The less talking the better, I thought to myself, as I gathered my things and escorted her to the street. A wonderful piece of ass, I reflected, watching her sail through the revolving door. I already saw her dangling on the end of my cock, a fresh, hefty piece of meat waiting to be cured and trimmed.
As we were crossing the boulevard she remarked how pleased she was to have found someone like me. She knew no one in Paris, she was lonesome. Perhaps I would take her around, show her the city? It would be amusing to be guided about the city, the capital of one’s own country, by a stranger. Had I ever been to Amboise or Blois or Tours? Maybe we could take a trip together some day. “Ça vous plairait?”
We tripped along, chatting thus, until we came to a hotel which she seemed to know. “It’s clean and cozy here,” she said. “And if it’s a little chilly, we will warm each other in bed.” She squeezed my arm affectionately.
The room was as cozy as a nest. I waited a moment for soap and towels, tipped the maid, and locked the door. She had taken off her hat and fur piece, and stood waiting to embrace me at the window. What a warm, plantular piece of flesh! I thought she would burst into seed under my touch. In a few moments we started to undress. I sat down on the edge of the bed to unlace my shoes. She was standing beside me, pulling off her things. When I looked up she had nothing on but her stockings. She stood there, waiting for me to examine her more attentively. I got up and put my arms around her again, running my hands leisurely over the billowy folds of flesh. She pulled out of the embrace and, holding me at arm’s length inquired coyly if I were not somewhat deceived.
“Deceived?” I echoed. “How do you mean?”
“Am I not too fat?” she said, dropping her eyes and resting them on her navel.
“Too fat? Why, you’re marvelous. You’re like a Renoir.”
At this she blushed. “A Renoir?” she repeated, almost as if she had never heard the name.
“No, you’re joking.”
“Oh, never mind. Come here, let me stroke that pussy of yours.”
“Wait, I will first make my toilette.” As she moved towards the bidet she said: “You get into bed. Make it nice and toasty, yes?”
I undressed quickly, washed my cock out of politeness, and dove between the sheets. The bidet was right beside the bed. When she had finished her ablutions she began to dry herself with the thin, worn towel. I leaned over and grabbed her tousled bush, which was still a little dewy. She pushed me back into bed and, leaning over me, made a quick dive for it with her warm red mouth. I slipped a finger inside her to get the juice working. Then, pulling her on top of me, I sank it in up to the hilt. It was one of those cunts which fit like a glove. Her adroit muscular contractions soon had me gasping. All the while she licked my neck, my armpits, the lobes of my ears. With my two hands I lifted her up and down, rolling her pelvis round and round. Finally, with a groan, she bore down on me full weight; I rolled her over on her back, pulled her legs up over my shoulders, and went at her slam-bang. I thought I’d never stop coming; it came out in steady stream, as if from a garden hose. When I pulled away it seemed to me that I had an even bigger erection than when I plugged in.
“Ca c’est quelque chose,” she said, putting her hand around my cock and fingering it appraisingly. “You know how to do it, don’t you?”
We got up, washed, and crawled back into bed again. Reclining on an elbow, I ran my hand up and down her body. Her eyes were glowing as she lay back, thoroughly relaxed, her legs open, her flesh tingling. Nothing was said for several minutes. I lit a cigarette for her, put it in her mouth, and sank deep into the bed, staring contentedly at the ceiling.
“Are we going to see more of each other?” I asked after a time.
“That is up to you,” she said, taking a deep puff. She turned over to put her cigarette out and then, drawing close, gazing at me steadily, smiling, but serious, she said in her low, warbling voice: “Listen, I must talk to you seriously. There is a great favor I wish to ask of you . . . I am in trouble, great trouble. Would you help me, if I asked you to?”
“Of course,” I said, “but how?”
“I mean money,” she said, quietly and simply. “I need a great deal. . . I must have it. I won’t explain why. Just believe me, will you?”
I leaned over and yanked my pants off the chair. I fished out the bills and all the change that was in my pocket, and handed it to her.
“I’m giving you all I have,” I said. “That’s the best I can do.”
She laid the money on the night table beside her without looking at it and, bending over, she kissed my brow. “You’re a brick,” she said. She remained bent over me, looking into my eyes with mute, strangled gratitude, then kissed me on the mouth, not passionately, but slowly, lingeringly, as if to convey the affection which she couldn’t put into words and which she was too delicate to convey by offering her body.
“I can’t say anything now,” she said, falling back on the pillow. “Je suis émue, c’est tout.” Then, after a brief pause, she added: “It’s strange how one’s own people are never as good to one as a stranger. You Americans are very kind, very gentle. We have much to learn from you.”
It was such an old song to me, I almost felt ashamed of myself for having posed once again as the generous American. I explained to her that it was just an accident, my having so much money in my pocket. To this she replied that it was all the more wonderful, my gesture. “A Frenchman would hide it away,” she said. “He would never give it to the first girl he met just because she was in need of help. He wouldn’t believe her in the first place. ‘Je connais la chanson,’ he would say.”
I said nothing more. It was true and it wasn’t true. It takes all sorts to make a world and, though up to that time I had never met a generous Frenchman, I believed that they existed. If I had told her how ungenerous my own friends had been, my countrymen, she would never have believed me. And if I had added that it was not generosity which had prompted me, but self-pity, myself giving to myself (because nobody could be as generous to me as I myself), she would probably have thought me slightly cracked.
I snuggled up to her and buried my head in her bosom. I slid my head down and licked her navel. Then farther down, kissing the thick clump of hair. She drew my head up slowly and, pulling me on top of her, buried her tongue in my mouth. My cock stiffened instantly; it slid into her just as naturally as an engine going into a switch. I had one of those long, lingering hard-ons which drive a woman mad. I jibbed her about at will, now over, now under her, then sidewise, then drawing it out slowly, tantalizingly, massaging the lips of the vulva with the bristling tip of my cock. Finally I pulled it out altogether and twirled it around her breasts. She looked at it in astonishment. “Did you come?” she asked. “No,” I said. “We’re going to try something else now,” and I dragged her out of the bed and placed her in position for a proper, thorough back-scuttling. She reached up under her crotch and put it in for me, wiggling her ass around invitingly as she did so. Gripping her firmly around the waist, I shot it into her guts. “Oh, oh, that’s marvelous, that’s wonderful,” she grunted, rolling her ass with a frenzied swing. I pulled it out again to give it an airing, rubbing it playfully against her buttocks. “No, no,” she begged, “don’t do that. Stick it in, stick it all the way in . . . I can’t wait.” Again she reached under and placed it for me, bending her back still more now, and pushing upward as if to trap the chandelier. I could feel it coming again, from the middle of my spine; I bent my knees slightly and pushed it in another notch or two. Then bango! it burst like a sky rocket.
It was well into the dinner hour when we parted down the street in front of a urinal. I hadn’t made any definite appointment with her, nor had I inquired what her address might be. It was tacitly understood that the place to find her was at the café. Just as we were taking leave it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t even asked her what her name was. I called her back and asked her—not for her full name but for her first name. “N-Y-S,” she said, spelling it out. “Like the city, Nice.” I walked off, saying it over and over to myself. I had never heard of a girl being called by that name before. It sounded like the name of a precious stone.
When I reached the Place Clichy I realized that I was ravenously hungry. I stood in front of a fish restaurant on the Avenue de Clichy, studying the menu which was posted outside. I felt like having clams, lobsters, oysters, snails, a broiled bluefish, a tomato omelette, some tender asparagus tips, a savory cheese, a loaf of bread, a bottle of chilled wine, some figs and nuts. I felt in my pocket, as I always do before entering a restaurant, and found a tiny sou. “Shit,” I said to myself, “she might at least have spared me a few francs.”
I set out at a quick pace to see if there was anything in the larder at home. It was a good half hour’s walk to where we lived in Clichy, beyond the gates. Carl would already have had his dinner, but perhaps there would be a crust of bread and a little wine still standing on the table. I walked faster and faster, my hunger increasing with each step I took.
When I burst into the kitchen I saw at a glance that he hadn’t eaten. I searched everywhere but couldn’t find a crumb. Nor were there any empty bottles about, which I could cash. I became frantic. I rushed out, determined to ask for credit at the little restaurant near the Place Clichy, where I often ate. Just outside the restaurant I lost my nerve and turned away. I now took to strolling about aimlessly, hoping that by some miracle I would bump into someone I knew. I knocked about for an hour or so, until I grew so exhausted that I decided to return home and go to bed. On the way I thought of a friend, a Russian, who lived near the outer boulevard. It was ages since I had seen him last. How could I walk in on him, like that, and ask for a hand-out? Then a brilliant thought hit me: I would go home, fetch the records, and hand them to him as a little gift. In that way it would be easier, after a few preliminaries, to suggest a sandwich or a piece of cake. I quickened my pace, though dog-tired and lame in the shanks.
When I got back to the house I saw that it was near midnight. That completely crushed me. It was useless to do any further foraging; I would go to bed and hope for something to turn up in the morning. As I was undressing I got another idea, this time not such a brilliant one, but still. . . I went to the sink and opened the little closet where the garbage can stood. I removed the cover and looked inside. There were a few bones and a hard crust of bread lying at the bottom. I fished out the dry crust, carefully scraped off the contaminated parts so as to waste as little as possible, and soaked it under the faucet. Then I bit into it slowly, extracting the utmost from each crumb. As I gulped it down a smile spread over my face, a broader and broader one. Tomorrow, I thought to myself, I shall go back to the shop and offer the books at half price, or a third, or a fourth. Ditto for the records. Ought to fetch ten francs, at least. Would have a good hearty breakfast, and then . . . Well, after that anything might happen. We’d see . . . I smiled some more, as if to a well-fed stomach. I was beginning to feel in excellent humor. That Nys, she must have had a corking meal. Probably with her lover. I hadn’t the vaguest doubt but that she had a lover. Her great problem, her dilemma no doubt, had been how to feed him properly, how to buy him the clothes and other little things he craved. Well, it had been a royal fuck, even though I had fucked myself into the bargain. I could see her raising the napkin to her full ripe lips to wipe away the sauce from the tender chicken she had ordered. I wondered how her taste ran in wines. If we could only go to the Touraine country! But that would need a lot of jack. I’d never have that much money. Never. Just the same, no harm dreaming about it. I drank another glass of water. Putting the glass back, I espied a piece of Roquefort in a corner of the cupboard. If only there was just another crust of bread! To make sure I had overlooked nothing, I opened the garbage can again. A few bones lying in a scum of mildewed fat stared up at me.
I wanted another piece of bread, and I wanted it bad. Maybe I could borrow a hunk from a neighboring tenant. I opened the hall door and tiptoed out. There was a silence as of the grave. I put my ear to one of the doors and listened. A child coughed faintly. No use. Even if someone was awake it wasn’t done. Not in France. Who ever heard of a Frenchman knocking at his neighbor’s door in the dead of night to ask for a crust of bread? “Shit!” I muttered to myself, “to think of all the bread we’ve thrown into the garbage can!” I bit into the Roquefort grimly. It was old and sour; it crumbled to bits, like a piece of plaster that had been soaked in urine. That bitch, Nys! If only I knew her address I would go and beg a few francs of her. I must have been out of my mind not to hold out a little change. To give money to a whore is like throwing it down the sewer. Her great need! An extra chemise, most likely, or a pair of sheer silk hose glimpsed in passing a shop window.
I worked myself into a fine fury. All because there wasn’t an extra crust of bread in the house. Idiotic! Thoroughly idiotic! In my delirium I began to dwell on malted milk shakes, and how, in America, there was always an extra glassful waiting for you in the shaker. That extra glassful was tantalizing. In America there was always more than you needed, not less. As I peeled my things off I felt my ribs. They stuck out like the sides of an accordion. That plump little bitch, Nys—she certainly was not dying of malnutrition. Once again, shit!—and to bed.
I had scarcely pulled the covers over me when I began laughing again. This time it was terrifying. I got to laughing so hysterically that I couldn’t stop. It was like a thousand Roman candles going off at once. No matter what I thought of, and I tried to think of sad and even terrible things, the laughter continued. Because of a little crust of bread! That was the phrase which repeated itself intermittently, and which threw me into renewed fits of laughter.
I was only in bed about an hour when I heard Carl opening the door. He went straight to his room and closed his door. I was sorely tempted to ask him to go out and buy me a sandwich and a bottle of wine. Then I had a better idea. I would get up early, while he was still sound asleep and rifle his pockets. As I was tossing about, I heard him open the door of his room and go to the bathroom. He was giggling and whispering—to some floozy, most likely, whom he had picked up on the way home.