Miller, Henry

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.