The Tropic of Cancer book review
Reading Henry Miller is like being cornered by a loud, overbearing drunk at a party who leans over you breathing whisky in your face while he insists on telling you every detail of his love life. You smile and squirm and desperately try to get away, knowing that any moment now he’s going to try to grab your ass or your breasts or, at the very least, offer to show you his “etchings”. As he drones on about all the girls he’s fucked, you finally say, “Really? Are you trying to convince me or yourself?” And then you go looking for the restroom.
Set in Paris in the early 1930s, Tropic of Cancer is part biography, part fiction, and part stream-of-conscious meditation on the human condition. And by human, we should read “male”. For someone who spent a lot of time bedding women, he didn’t like them very much. Kate Millet (Sexual Politics), while believing Miller to be an important and gifted writer, argued that he hated, even feared, women; certainly his descriptions of them leave something to be desired. In Miller’s world – and here you may stop reading if certain words offend you as much as they do me – men are men and women are “cunts”. Prostitutes are cunts, girlfriends are cunts, young women who come to Paris to study art are “rich American cunts with paint boxes slung over their shoulders”.
God forbid, though, that any of these “cunts” have a brain. Miller compares Germaine, a prostitute who knows her business, loves it, and doesn’t pretend to be anything but a whore, to Claude, who is more delicate: “Claude had a soul and a conscience; she had refinement, too, which is bad – in a whore … while it’s all very nice to know that a woman has a mind, literature coming from the cold corpse of a whore is the last thing to be served in bed”.
He makes love to a young woman named Elsa who has a gift for playing the piano. Afterwards he asks her to play for him, which she does, and begins weeping about her recent abortion. “Somehow,” he writes, “I feel sorry as hell for her and yet I don’t give a damn. A cunt who can play as she does ought to have better sense than to be tripped up by every guy with a big putz who happens to come along”.
Enough said. You get the point. Miller, the narrator, has no love, no real empathy, for anyone. Not for the women he fucks, the Jews he mocks, the friends and acquaintances he sponges off. He despises homosexuals, looks down on those poor slobs who work for a living, and resents those who refuse to part with their cash. “If there’s anything worse than being a fairy,” he tells us, “it’s being a miser”.
For a revolutionary thinker, which he was, Miller has some pretty primitive concepts of gender. He craves masculinity in all its aggressive, achievement-oriented forms, and believes the whole world conspires against this:
“If there were a man who dared to say all he thought of this world there would not be left him a square foot of ground to stand on. When a man appears the world bears down on him and breaks his back…. If at intervals of centuries there does appear a man with a desperate, hungry look in his eye, a man who would turn the world upside down in order to create a new race, the love that he brings to the world is turned to bile and he becomes a scourge”. And so forth.
If Miller were not the writer he is (or was, having died in 1980), it would be easy to write off his works as pornography. Certainly that’s what Tropic of Cancer was considered when it was first published in 1934 by the Obelisk Press in Paris. It was banned almost everywhere else until 1961 when Grove Press had the courage to publish it in the States. This led to a series of obscenity trials culminating with the 1964 ruling by the US Supreme Court that the book was not obscene. It then went on to take its rightful place in the literary canon.
I say “rightful” because, like James Joyce, William Faulkner, Simone de Beauvoir and others, he broke new ground. Two-thirds of the way through the book, Miller says he wants to “get off the gold standard of writing”. Tropic, however, set a brand new gold standard for explicit, merciless, and, at times, intoxicating writing. The Paris of Tropic is so far removed from The Sun Also Rises it might be set in another country. If you were to rely on Hemingway’s version you’d imagine a city of expats and socialites lounging about in cafés all day, drinking champagne and tossing off novels in their spare time. Miller gives us the expats and the champagne but he also portrays the filth, the bedbugs, the misery, and the downright poverty experienced by those who came to Paris to live the life of a Bohemian. Hemingway’s Paris is more attractive but Miller’s, I think, is closer to the truth.
Henry Miller was a gifted writer, an accomplished artist, and an amateur pianist. He wrote several important books and influenced a long list of writers, including one of my favourites, Erica Jong. I still wouldn’t want to get stuck next to him at a party.