Tropic of Cancer, Henry Miller (1934)
What it’s about: A freewheeling, cheerfully pornographic account of American writer Henry Miller’s life among the down-and-outers of 1930s Paris, recounting a nomadic existence of grinding poverty and hunger, a larger-than-life supporting cast of barflies, hustlers, prostitutes and no-hopers, and graphic accounts of loveless, often abusive sex with women. Miller’s narrative flows loosely between episodes of sex, drunkenness and petty crime, stream-of-consciousness reflections on mortality, disease, the nature of being and the decline of civilisation, and stirringly vivid descriptions of grimy bohemian Paris.
Why it’s a classic: “This is not a novel“, Miller proclaims in his opening pages – and for many years, history agreed with him. “Not a book”, grumbled Justice Michael Musmanno in a 1964 US Supreme Court trial. “It is a cesspool, an open sewer, a pit of putrefaction, a slimy gathering of all that is rotten in the debris of human depravity.” Despite these objections, the Court agreed by a 5:4 margin to reverse a ban on the American publication of Tropic of Cancer, sealing Miller’s reputation as a literary bad boy, and a vanguard in the long fight against censorship laws.
One of my curiosities in reading Miller was to discover if his work had any literary merit beyond its status as a Famous Banned Novel, or anything to offer a contemporary, post-MeToo readership. My view of him was also prejudiced by my reading, over 20 years ago now, of Kate Millett’s feminist polemic Sexual Politics, in which she does a hatchet job on Tropic of Cancer, condemning Miller for his sexual violence, misogyny, homophobia and anti-Semitism. Miller retaliated angrily in his own defence, and their argument was one of the more interesting literary spats of the 20th century – the Great White Male Libertine and hero of the Beat Generation, angrily being taken to task by a younger generation of politicised female readers, for whom his depiction of “cunt-struck” male predators and masochistic whores was no longer acceptable.
That said, I was rather looking forward to some unapologetic filth and a few four-letter words, especially after the exquisitely refined repression of Henry James. This Henry delivered on all accounts, and my sense is that he would have adored Justice Musmanno’s description. To say that Tropic of Cancer is pornography is both to state the obvious and miss the point. It’s a book begging to be disapproved of, and carefully calibrated to offend on as many fronts as possible. I counted no fewer than 92 uses of the word “cunt” and a good many descriptions of the female body parts in question. Women are stripped of all their humanity, portrayed at best as emblems of a life-giving sexual force, and at worse, as, well – cunts: deceitful sirens who lure men to their doom, or bottomless orifices that Miller and his “crazy cock” will never hope to penetrate or understand. The men don’t come off much better – apart from Miller, who reserves for himself the roles of prophet and poet, cheerfully describing his contempt for humanity, the male characters trudge wearily through the story, hungry, drunk, lice-ridden and in the grip of insatiable appetites they don’t fully understand. Miller’s world is one of decay – physical and moral – in which “the world is a cancer eating itself away“, civilisation is a yawning latrine, and where people operate at the basest animal level of eat-fuck-sleep.
What saves Tropic of Cancer from falling into the trashpile that it describes is Miller’s extraordinary facility with language, his scathing observations of human appetites, and his devil-may-care determination to piss on as many sacred cows as he can. Like many of his fellow Modernist writers, Miller sets out his manifesto for a new type of literature, abandoning grand narrative and noble themes. “There is only one thing which interests me vitally now,” he writes, “and that is the recording of all that which is omitted in books.” Later, he says that his idea is “to get off the gold standard of literature” and instead “present a resurrection of the emotions, to depict the conduct of a human bring in the stratosphere of ideas.”
If that sounds both dreary and deeply pretentious, well – you’d be right. It’s easy to imagine the young Jack Kerouac swooning over Miller, carefully underlining all the faux-Existentialist twaddle in his banned paperback copy with a pencil stub. And like many a Dead White Male with pretensions to originality, Miller is also heavily indebted to writers who’ve come before him – Proust, Flaubert, Maupassant, Whitman – who he can’t help but name-drop as a demonstration of his own cleverness.
At his best, though, Miller manages some passages of writing that are gaspingly beautiful, fully achieving his desire to transcend narrative and describe human consciousness as it’s lived in the moment. After a passage of violent sexual fantasising about his friend’s lover Tania (“I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces“), he crosses the Seine in the early morning:
“Indigo sky swept clear of fleecy clouds, gaunt trees infinitely extended, their black boughs gesticulating like a sleepwalker. Somber, spectral trees, their trunks pale as cigar ash. A silence supreme and altogether European. Shutters drawn, shops barred. A red glow here and there to mark a tryst…. For the moment I can think of nothing – except that I am a sentient being stabbed by the miracle of these waters that reflect a forgotten world. All along the banks the trees lean heavily over the tarnished mirror; when the wind rises and fills them with a rustling murmur they will shed a few tears and shiver as the water swirls by. I am suffocated by it.”
Writing like that belongs nowhere else but in a great work of literature – even though we have to bypass a bitten clitoris to get there.
Bouquet or brickbat: Of all the 170-odd books I’ve curated for this reading project, Tropic of Cancer feels like the most difficult of them all to assess for literary merit. It comes garlanded with the weight of social history, hailed as a major influence on post-World War II fiction, and with its own arsenal of built-in defences to anyone who attempts to dismiss it as muck. I can admire its go-for-broke contempt for convention and its beautifully written perversity – as if Proust woke up one night in a brothel instead of his cork-lined bedroom and decided to write about syphilis and pubic lice – while also feeling deeply uncomfortable about its sexual politics, and slightly bored with Miller’s relentless, desperate need to be transgressive. But I can’t deny the sheer power and energy of this book, and how bracingly modern it seems, even by today’s standards. For better or for worse, our world has come closer to Miller’s pornographic imaginings than ever before, and there are few modern writers who can pull off his combination of arrogant white male machismo, restless energy and cheery cynicism. It’s not an easy read – its formlessness and repetitive scenes of fucking and drinking makes it quite a hard slog – and I’m fully in support of anyone who has no time for this novel. Those who stick around will, like me, be dazzled as well as exasperated. So it’s a (heavily qualified) bouquet.
Quotable Quote: “This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty… what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse.”