Thursday, February 26, 2004
The Guide de Routard—the popular French guide book for the hip and cool (a kind of French Lonely Planet)—devotes four full pages in its California guide to Big Sur. Three of the four pages talk about Henry Miller, the ascerbic writer who lived in Big Sur from 1944 until 1962, and describe the tiny library dedicated to his memory.
It is not uncommon, therefore, for a Frenchman to walk in through the rickety gate at the entrance to the Henry Miller Library, pass the massive redwood trunks, continue across the lawn to the simple porch, raise his head from his guidebook, and ask the man who will undoubtedly be sitting there, “Vous êtes le Suédois?” (“You are the Swede?”)
The “Swede” is Magnus Torén, director of the library for the past ten years. Born on the island of Lidingö, Sweden, a then-twentysomething Torén departed Stockholm in 1977. Armed with a skipper’s license, he made a living for the next seven years sailing other people’s boats.
The book he was reading as he set off on that journey was, by chance, Miller’s 1941 Colossus of Maroussi, a travel narrative on Greece, which Torén calls “wonderfully inspirational.” In that Miller, Toren says, Miller “shows the way…to open up your vistas.”
Torén did not exactly plan the path leading to his current position as library director. Nonetheless, his days of sailing created space for the young voyager to figure out a few pieces of his life puzzle.
There was the meditative aspect of being at sea for all that time. “I’ve sat with myself…definitely more than most people because of those years sailing,” Toren says. He decided he wanted a country life, a “hippie dream” he calls it, to live on the land and “pull a carrot out of the ground.”
A $200 gift from his grandmother gave him his first brief taste of Monterey in the spring of ‘78. In 1984 Torén again traded in his sea legs, and found himself waiting tables at the Ventana Inn. When his motorcycle wiped out hard one day just south of Fernwood, Torén woke up 40 feet from his bike with a woman holding his hand. That woman was Mary Lu; he married her, and the two have made a life together in Big Sur ever since.
For all the beauty of Big Sur, he is clear on his priorities. It is Mary Lu that anchors him to this area. “If she were in Modesto, I’d be in Modesto,” he maintains. “It’s a love story.”
Torén is the only paid employee of the nonprofit Henry Miller Library, a one-room (soon to be more) bookstore housing many titles (not just Miller)—a shrine, of sorts, to Miller’s life.
On the micro-level, Torén is serious about his role in promoting Miller’s work. “His art is probably not going to go away,” Toren insists. “His literature is going to survive, I think, forever.”
Interestingly, the rustic lodge of redwood, oak and cedar that now bears Miller’s name was never the writer’s house. It was the home of Miller’s personal secretary and dear friend, Emil White, who created the library to preserve Miller’s work and memory after he passed away in 1980.
Henry Miller was a prolific writer and artist. Though his writing was by no means exclusively sexual, he is often associated with provocative stories that challenged the social mores of their time—Tropic of Cancer, and Tropic of Capricorn were banned in this country for almost three decades.
While Torén is devoted to preserving Miller’s legacy as a writer and Bohemian intellectual, his greatest satisfaction is connecting with the people who walk through his front door. “I really enjoy meeting people,” he says. “I think I share passion for other people’s passion, just like Miller did. What I do best is to make people feel comfortable and inspired and just spark their interest in what’s going on in the moment.”
Toren is the consumate host. He’ll strike up conversations with anyone who drops by, like the French writer who stopped in one beautiful fall day. Toren speaks French, so the two started talking; then Toren picked up his guitar, shared out the wine, and the men sat on the lawn singing and drinking. The Frenchman was also a writer for the aforementioned Guide de Routard, and that’s how the library was tattooed into French guide book history.
Henry Miller’s popularity abroad brings many international visitors to the library; they often outnumber locals at library events specifically devoted to the writer and his work. Sometimes foreign visitors run into their neighbors from home when they show up at the library, which Toren shrugs off as “serendipity.”
What constitutes an “event” at the library? “Other than the place being open?” Toren asks rhetorically, “which I call an ‘event’ on a daily basis.”
There are the spontaneous readings and jam sessions that occur when a critical mass crowds the lawn in the summer—these impromptu performances are his favorite. If he were to have his way, Torén says he would like “cutting-edge or experimental kinds of things here primarily.” Although, he laments, “the word ‘experimental’—it’s difficult to get people to rally around it.”
It’s true that not everyone would appreciate, for example, the Experimental Music Festival, which draws artists like the Austrian who sits on stage with a Powerbook creating what Torén calls “an amazing array of colorful sounds,” or the group that performs symphonies on glass and Styrofoam.
There are also annual events such as concerts by Mobius Operandi, a San Francisco group that play handmade instruments that create beautifully eerie music sounding like part spy-flick soundtrack, part New-Age jungle. In July there’s the West Coast Poetry Slam Championship, a raucous spoken word competition that draws slam teams from Seattle to San Diego. A Children’s Writing Workshop last December brought participants from as far away as Brazil; it’s being followed up by a fiction writers’ workshop this March 12-14.
Though the winter brings fewer events, those that take place are charming, more intimate encounters—perhaps poetry readings with a small audience cozied inside the little house. Around New Year’s, Torén serves visitors a Swedish specialty called glögg, mulled wine with raisins and almonds.
Torén dreams of hiring an assistant who could free him to be more “deeply engaged in every single thing that we do” instead of feeling “like a janitor” in the summer, when he seems to be always cleaning up after one show to make ready for the next.
An assistant could only come with more money and, Toren admits, “financially, of course, it’s always a struggle.” The library survives on charitable donations, book sales, and small grants from groups such as the Cultural Council of Monterey County—itself going through upheaval and cutbacks.
Funding the library is particularly difficult, Toren feels, because of
Miller’s reputation (one Torén believes inaccurate) for sexism
and misogyny. Review boards often include someone who, according to
Torén, proclaim “over my dead body would we give money to
Although word about the library is spreading, many visitors still just happen by. “I treasure [that]…this place is still being discovered,” Toren says. “It’s a complete blessing to be able to be here. I come in and light my little fire and put on a kettle of tea and welcome the guests.”
Check out the library’s schedule and upcoming events at www.henrymiller.org (click on “April events” for a real laugh) or call 667-2574.