Review: “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller [1934]

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.

The narrative is written in a stream of consciousness style as he recounts and takes us through his days. Broke and unemployed, he relies on the kindness (or stupidity) of his friends, acquaintances and strangers to stay sheltered and fed. It is quickly made known the narrator’s three top priorities – food, sex and writing. His days are filled with preoccupation of getting his next meal, his next lay and when he would finish his novel.

In between the detailing of his attempts to fulfill his top three priorities, 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 cities 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. There were numerous times on the train when I sniggered out loud. Miller’s, or the narrator’s, crude and rough language is contrasted against some very beautiful and rather poetic prose:

Imagine these bloody no-accounts going home from the concert with blood on their dickies!

Sleep is the keynote. No one is listening any more. Impossible to think and listen. Impossible to dream even when the music itself is nothing but a dream. – p. 84

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.- p. 104

I enjoyed the book but I can’t say that it was an easy read. There is not a lot of reason to Miller’s narration as it basically just flows from story to rant then back to story. The diversions were a bit more difficult to handle and, at times, I felt like throwing the book across the room because I had no idea what the point was and was getting frustrated and a little bored. Having said that, even after I’ve finished the book (and reviewed it too!) I still don’t have much of an idea of what the book was about besides sex, food and writing. This may be a book that needs to be re-read in the future to fall into place. This might completely horrify some people, or delight many, but at times it felt like I was reading a grown up and very sexed up Holden Caulfield. But if you can get through the book, it is ultimately a very rewarding read.

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16 comments

  1. Does it have to be about anything other than sex, food and writing? The problem with reading and reviewing a text (and especially studying, come to that) is that we have an urge to impose meaning upon it when sometimes it just … is.

    I haven’t read it so I can’t say whether I’m right for sure or that you’re right that it’s just sex, food and writing but it makes an interesting discussion. I do intend to read it one of these days and more of Anaïs Nin’s work; perhaps reading both Miller and Nin will reveal the hidden meaning or maybe that’s us -the readers- going and finding meaning where there is none again.

    Also, I love the first quote you shared!

    1. Claire – I agree that we, as readers, are always expecting that the texts we read should always have an underlying meaning. I was just saying to a friend a few weeks ago that sometimes perhaps the author simply wrote that line or paragraph, as it is, without any secret meaning to it simply because they felt like it.

      I had high expectations for this novel. I was introduced to it by a friend who shares similar tastes in books to me (and who I randomly sat next to one day while I was reading Anais Nin and she was reading Miller!) and it’s one of her favourite books so I felt a little let down. I was expecting more than long ramblings on sex, food and writing but, as I said, I might find a new perspective in the book when I re-read it in the future.

  2. Hi – this is a fascinating review. I cannot properly comment on this book but I have read a reasonable amount of the unexpurgated diary of Anais Nin – which is brilliant albeit rather difficult to get hold of. Nin’s writing is sometimes without apparent meaning – I think that she herself was a dreadfully tormented character and this really shows through in the text. I would definately like to read some Miller to see how it compares. Thanks very much for sharing, Hannah

    1. Hi Hannah, thanks for visiting my blog and for posting such a great comment. I haven’t read a lot of Anais Nin but, as as with Miller, I know more about their private lives than their work (for the moment). I’m slightly adverse to diaries but I will definitely read more Nin particularly ‘Henry and June’. Knowing that Miller was with Nin when this book was written and published, I’m not surprised if there are similarities. They both seem to share the same intensity and torment.

  3. Thanks for an insightful review. I have always have thoughts (and doubts) about this book. When I picked it up, skimming through the narratives, I had the impression that it’s either something I will like or hate. He seems to capture that struggle of someone who always worries about his living. Sex, books, and food—think about it for a second, embody (probably) deeper meanings. They might represent love/desire, dreams, sense of accomplishment, and existence. I think I have to be in a mood for this book, which now doesn’t seem as distant after reading your review.

    1. Thanks Matt. I agree that Miller aptly captures the struggles of somebody who is one stone’s throw away from complete desolation and poverty and I think it’s pretty admirable that the narrator still doesn’t seem to care! Living life with the only worries of sex, books and writing doesn’t seem all too bad a life.

    1. Thanks Stephanie. I only knew who Henry Miller mid last year so he’s a fairly new discovery for me. There are many other great quotes scattered through the book and I really love how some paragraphs can be so vulgar and crude but then something so profound and poetic appears in the next paragraph.

  4. I’ve been eying that book for a while now and I admit- I am intrigued enough by your review to put it on my TBR list. Since I just bought a bunch of books myself (for shame) I’ll have to wait a bit before tackling this one. However, it is added to my spreadsheet now. 🙂

    1. Thanks Kimberly. I borrowed mine because I wasn’t sure if I would like it enough to warrant buying it but it did prove to be a very interesting read. I have to start holding back my book buying too – I just bought several more!

  5. Great review! I enjoyed your thoughts on Tropic of Cancer. I have also read it and reviewed it here if you’re interested.

    I’m wondering if you’ve read Capricorn yet?

    1. Thanks Peachy. I haven’t read Capricorn yet. Cancer was pretty hard going – enjoyable but tough – so I’ll wait until I’m inspired to read more Miller.

  6. I don’t think most of you or the author of the post really gets the book. I doubt Henry Miller ever wanted his book to be viewed in terms of a classic. To be analyzed, to be thoroughly read and pondered; for readers to search for a narrative or point of the book because there isn’t one. It’s not a novel.
    The book is in my opinion half true and half dreamed not of fictional intent but the imaginative stretch of the eccentric mind. I believe all the events in the novel are more or less the true but the extent that he describes them are the meanderings of his mind, what he really want, he thinks, wherever that crazy mind takes him and he incorporates it. I really doubt Henry Miller had any plan of exactly what the book was how it began or where it would end. He wrote life as it occurred and embellished it with crazy mind.
    Henry Miller was a strange man, the strangest. In a spectrum where there are rebels, anti-heros, losers, skeptics and depressed malcontents forming the counter-culture he has no match. He is the ultimate individual because he has no attachment to society, no concern of right or wrong and complete disregard of norms. I think he just wanted to the world to see him, to shock them and revel in that delight.
    IF any of that makes sense, that’s my interpretation. Regardless I view the book as extremely important because in a way it liberated writers of all genres and types to write more freely. This lead to the beat generation and then what I view as the greatest period of literature; 60s-70s.

  7. I don’t think most of you or the author of the post really gets the book. I doubt Henry Miller ever wanted his book to be viewed in terms of a classic. To be analyzed, to be thoroughly read and pondered; for readers to search for a narrative or point of the book because there isn’t one. It’s not a novel.

    The book is in my opinion half true and half dreamed not of fictional intent but the imaginative stretch of the eccentric mind. I believe all the events in the novel are more or less the true but the extent that he describes them are the meanderings of his mind, what he really want, he thinks, wherever that crazy mind takes him and he incorporates it.

    I really doubt Henry Miller had any plan of exactly what the book was how it began or where it would end. He wrote life as it occurred and embellished it with crazy mind.

    Henry Miller was a strange man, the strangest. In a spectrum where there are rebels, anti-heros, losers, skeptics and depressed malcontents forming the counter-culture he has no match. He is the ultimate individual because he has no attachment to society, no concern of right or wrong and complete disregard of norms. I think he just wanted to the world to see him, to shock them and revel in that delight.

    IF any of that makes sense, that’s my interpretation. Regardless I view the book as extremely important because in a way it liberated writers of all genres and types to write more freely. This lead to the beat generation and then what I view as the greatest period of literature; 60s-70s.

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