Henry Miller was an American novelist and painter. He was known for breaking with existing literary forms and developing a new sort of ‘novel’ that is a mixture of novel, autobiography, social criticism, philosophical reflection, surrealist free association, and mysticism.
Miller developed an interest in life as he saw it; the people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Henry Miller’s controversial Tropic Of Cancer shocked the literary world when it was first published.
Well! Where do I begin with this? Set in Paris in the 1930s, this story follows an American expatriate as he struggles with being down and out and with finishing his first novel. It is, as it is largely known now, a fictionalised autobiography of Henry Miller’s own experiences during his time Paris. The narrator in the novel remains unnamed throughout except for one instance when he is called Henry.
Every man has his own destiny: the only imperative is to follow it, to accept it, no matter where it leads him.
In between the detailing of his attempts to fulfill his top three priorities of sex, food and well more sex, the narrator also tends to go off on a tangent and rant about philosophy of the world and life. There is also a display of torn devotion to the city of Paris, which the narrator clearly both adores and loathes, and New York, his home town. He admits to romanticising Paris, as do we all:
Paris is like a whore. From a distance she seems ravishing, you can’t wait until you have her in your arms. And five-minutes later you feel empty, disgusted with yourself. You feel tricked. – p. 211
Tropic of Cancer is a pretty intense read. It is also filled with contradictions. The narrator is, impossibly, simultaneously liked and hated. He is an ambiguous figure and remains detached and unemotional to everything, even his own poverty, except to his writing. The language is crude, and at times it may be considered misogynistic although we should remember that the book was a product of its time, but is constantly juxtaposed by comedic moments. Miller’s, or the narrator’s, crude and rough language is contrasted against some very beautiful and rather poetic prose.
And this is one of my most favourite passage in the book:
I have found God, but he is insufficient. I am only spiritually dead. Physically I am alive. Morally I am free. The world which I have departed is a menagerie.
If you wish to lose yourself in bohemian lifestyle and the Paris of a bygone age then Tropic of Cancer is one of the best introductions to the city and culture you will ever read.
Henry Miller arrived in Paris in 1930, leaving behind a disintegrating marriage and an unhappy career in America, he threw himself into the low-life of bohemian Paris with unwavering gusto. A fictional account of Miller’s adventures amongst the prostitutes and pimps, the penniless painters and writers of Montparnasse