Captivating is a word we have invented for something that grips one’s attention. In this instance I like to think of Harry, my friend Harry, and Tropic of Capricorn (1938) by Henry Miller. Harry was completely wrapped up in Tropic of Capricorn. It was the daily topic of conversation, and everything he said began from or led up to this book.
Tropic of Capricorn is the sequel to Tropic of Cancer. Like its predecessor it was published in Paris in the Thirties, but not in Britain or America until the Sixties. It describes Miller’s life in New York, in the years preceding the events of Tropic of Cancer. As the protagonist and narrator, Miller wanders the city, works for ‘The Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America’, and recounts childhood memories, all punctuated by copious amounts of sex.
In many ways Tropic of Capricorn bears a strong resemblance to its predecessor. It is exuberant, ribald, and relentless. Yet it differs significantly enough to make it worth reading in its own right. In some ways it’s a weaker book than Tropic of Cancer. There are more characters, but they are less developed. The prose is even more rambling than that of Tropic of Cancer. For example, there are a number of absurd lists:
“We talked about ghosts, about God, about the transmigration of souls, about Hell, about strange birds and fish, about the formation of precious stones, about rubber plantations, about methods of torture, about the Aztecs and the Incas, about marine life, about volcanoes and earthquakes, about burial rites and wedding ceremonies in various parts of the earth [...]“
Yet if the reader is prepared to overlook these flaws, Tropic of Capricorn is a more rewarding read than its predecessor. It’s the more personal of the two books. Miller describes in greater detail his philosophies of existence, creation, and death. His preoccupation with memory – particularly memories of growing up – also lend the book a somewhat melancholy tone that Tropic of Cancer lacks.
Ergo, read away! Harry used to think for hours about Tropic of Capricorn. He thought about those lists, about the humour, and about the unique strength of Miller’s voice. He was right, of course, though both Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn represent monumental achievements, books that cut straight to the joy that comes from the effort of living.