This morning, on our way to the Post Office, Barry and I talked of the book. It will be a new Bible for us – Tropic of Cancer (1934) by Henry Miller. It rejected the sensibilities of its age. It would not be published in Britain or America until the Sixties – not for a generation, at least. Heretofore we had been digging in the dark, looking for something to describe the bittersweet pith of life. Now we shall have this autobiographical tale of Miller’s experiences in Paris – a book to set off the world.
There is some episodic semblance of plot. Characters drift in and out and only the narrator’s desire to survive, eat, make love, and express himself remain constant. The effect is that of a tableau depicting this period of Miller’s life. Characters are vibrant and believable, but our deepest sympathies lie with the narrator and protagonist, Miller himself. He is likeable for his intelligence and humour, despite frequently devious and selfish behaviour.
Tropic of Cancer divides readers. It could be viewed as a misogynistic work. For example, Miller’s use of the word ‘cunt’ to describe women in general. It may also be said that Miller’s prose is rambling and repetitive. But in both respects Miller refuses to compromise. His attitude towards his male characters is no less cruel nor scathing than that towards his female characters, and if his prose wanders and repeats itself, it is because he is desperately trying to express himself. The book is perhaps most rewarding when read with the same exuberance and good-hearted humour with which it is written.
Tropic of Cancer is a colossal work of literature. Lauded by modernists, it represents one man’s attempt to throw a bomb up the asshole of creation and set it off.