I thought this fictionalized memoir was highly overrated, and mostly tedious. It is a tale of ex-pat Henry Miller's time in Paris - the people he meets, the money he spends, the places he stays, the books he reads, and the sex, sex, and more sex in which he participates. The prose is an erratic and meandering stream of consciousness, and I have to sheepishly admit that if it weren't for the gratuitous erotic sections and profanity, I would have stopped reading out of boredom. In saying all of this, the book DOES have great value and I still believe it to be worth reading. After being released in France in the 1930's, the novel was finally published in the United States in 1961 and promptly led to an obscenity trial. America's laws on pornography were tested, paving the way for future authors to do what they do best. For this reason, it is a truly important and landmark piece of literature and should be experienced, but don't expect too much.Alex
Here a cunt, there a cunt, everywhere a cunt cunt"Art consists in going the full length. If you start with the drums you have to end with dynamite."But if you begin with masturbation, you don't necessarily end with sex. There are books you have to read at a certain age. There are others that are ageless, and those books are better. This should be read when you're young and stupid. Are you young and stupid now? Fantastic; read this and hate me. Are you older? Then read something else. maybe something for old people, like Henry James.Jason Pettus
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally. Sorry; the last paragraph today gets cut off a few sentences early!)The CCLaP 100: In which I read for the first time a hundred so-called "classics," then write reports on whether or not they deserve the labelBook #20: Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller (1934)The story in a nutshell:Like many of the other novels to first become commercial hits under the moniker of "Modernism" (see, for example, past CCLaP-100 title Mrs Dalloway from the same period), Henry Miller's infamously raunchy Tropic of Cancer from 1934 doesn't bother to concern itself much with traditional plot or a traditional three-act structure, but is rather an attempt to capture the details of a particular moment in history in as intense a way as possible, using not only humorous anecdotal tales but also the brand-new literary technique known as "stream of consciousness." And man, what a period of history to capture -- based on Miller's own experiences from half a decade before, the novel is set in Paris in the years after World War One, a time when most young people had turned permanently cynical and nihilistic, horrified as they rightly were over what exact carnage humans had proven themselves capable of, now that humans had added mechanized industry (trains, machine guns, biological weapons) to the business of war. Add to this that the US itself had still not established its own global-class artistic community (which wouldn't happen until New York's Greenwich Village after World War Two), and you're left with the situation Miller describes with such black humor here -- of entire Parisian neighborhoods become boisterous, drunken melting pots, packed to the gills with bohemians from around the world who no longer give a crap about anything, who embrace such things as casual sex and exotic drugs in a way no other generation had embraced them before, as they party their way to the apocalypse they were all sure was right around the corner. Multiply by 300 pages, and you basically have Miller's book.The argument for it being a classic:There are two basic arguments over why Tropic of Cancer should be considered a classic, starting with the book itself: It is, after all, a shining example of early Modernism, the exact kind of radical departure from the flowery Victorian style that so many young artists were embracing back then, here done in a mature and self-assured way that builds on the literary experiments of the previous twenty years, but that finally makes it palatable for the first time to the general reading audience (and by "palatable" I mean "not incomprehensible," thank you very MUCH James Freaking Joyce). As such, its fans say, the novel should be rightly celebrated for the literary masterpiece it is; one of those rare books that gets stream-of-consciousness exactly right, one of those rare books that perfectly shows the combination of arrogance and self-hatred that mixes in the warm dysfunctional heart of any true bohemian. Ah, but see, in this case there's an entirely different second reason why this should be considered a classic; because for those who don't know, thirty years after its initial publication in Europe, this was one of the landmark artistic projects of the 1960s to help finally lift the yoke of government censorship in America, one of the first projects used by the courts to help define was exactly is and isn't "obscene," adding immense fuel to the countercultural fire that was going on in this country at the same time. If it wasn't for Tropic of Cancer, fans say, we would still have the all-or-nothing paradigm of the Hays Code in the arts, instead of the "put out what you want and we'll give it a rating" paradigm of our present day; no matter what you think of the book itself, they argue, this alone is a reason to consider it a classic.The argument against:Like many of the titles in the CCLaP 100 series (see The Catcher in the Rye, for example), the main argument against Tropic of Cancer seems to be the "What Hath God Wrought" one; that is, the book itself may not be that bad, but it legitimized something that should've never been legitimized, in this case whiny confessional stream-of-consciousness rants from broke artists in their twenties living in big cities, complaining for 300 pages about how unfair life is and how all the prostitutes keep falling in love with them. Yep, it was Tropic of Cancer that started all that, critics claim; and anytime you come across yet another sad little blog about how the heart of the city beats in the weary soul of some overeducated, entitled slacker, that's one more time we should visit the grave of Miller and pee all over it, in retribution for him creating a situation where such blogs are encouraged in the first place. Again, it's not so much that people complain about the book being awful on its own (although some will definitely argue that stream-of-consciousness has always been a house of cards, difficult to make work well within a literary project); it's more that the book simply isn't great, and should've never gotten the accolades and attention it did, with Miller being damn lucky that he had as exciting a sex life as he did at the exact moment in history that he did, along with the shamelessness to write it all down.My verdict:So as will very rarely be the case here at the CCLaP 100, let me admit that this is one of the few books of the series I've actually read before; in fact, much more than that, it was one of the books I practically worshipped in my early twenties as a snotty, overeducated, oversexed artist myself, a book that had a bigger impact on both my artistic career and just how I lived my life in general back then than probably any other single project you could mention. So needless to say I was a bit biased going into this week's essay; I not only consider Tropic of Cancer a classic, but easily among the top-10 of all the books in this series, one of those books that any restless young person of any generation should immediately gravitate towards starting around their 18th or 19th birthday. And that's because Miller is so good here, so damn good, at perfectly capturing that restlessness that comes with any generation of young, dissatisfied creatives -- that sense that they want to do something important, that they should be doing something important, just that none of them know how to do that important thing, so instead let that passion seep out through their sex lives, their clothing choices, the bands they listen to, etc. Tropic of Cancer is all about yearning, all about grasping life to the fullest you possibly can, not for the sake of simply doing so but rather because this is the only way you'll ever find what you're truly seeking. Or as MIller himself puts it: "I can't get it out of my mind what a discrepancy there is between ideas and living."But that all said, let me just plainly warn you -- whoo man, is this a filthy book, with it unbelievably enough still just as able to shock and offend as when it first came out. And again, I see this as an asset and strength of Miller as an author; because ultimately it's not really the language itself that has gotten people so upset about this book over the decades (you'll hear worse in most Hollywood hard-R sex comedies), but rather that Miller embraces a prurient attitude throughout, one that plainly addresses the cold realities about sex which are not usually discussed in polite company. Just take, for example, the chapter where he compares for the reader the various young artsy prostitutes who live in his neighborhood; of how the best ones are the ones who have come to grips with the fact that they're whores and not wives or girlfriends, and therefore lustily embrace the exact disgusting acts that wives and girlfriends won't, the main reason men visit prostitutes in the first place. Yeah, not for delicate sensibilities, this one is; despite it being almost 75 years old now, you should still exercise caution before jumping into it feet-first.And then finally, re-reading it this week for the first time since college two decades ago, I've realized something else about this book; that it's not just the fun little stories of crazy sex and urban living that Miller gets right, but also the more somber reflections of perpetual poverty, of the almost existential dread that can develop when waking up in the morning and not knowing how you're going to eat that day. This is the flip-side of the crazy bohemian life, something plainly there in Tropic of Cancer but that most people don't see when first reading it, or when reading it at a young age; that to live a life rejecting middle-class conformity and embracing chaos is not just endless evenings of absinthe and oral sex, that there's a very real price to pay for rejecting all these things as well, the price of health and kids and normal relationships and any kind of slow building one could potentially do in their chosen career. Let's not ever forget that the things Miller talks about in Tropic of Cancer happened half a decade before his literary career ever really took off, years where basically none of them got anything accomplished at all except to definitively list all the kinds of books they didn't want to write; let's also never forget that Miller's life got dramatically more boring after his literary career took off, busy as he suddenly was with...you know, writing all those books. The artistic life can be...Janet
Funny, rude, shockprovoking, a terrific portrait of bohemian life in Paris in the 1930's--enough of a roman a clef that one, with a little research ('Henry Miller in Paris') identify all the characters... I feel like I lived in the Hotel Chaotica with all these people. On a trip to Paris I even walked down that street in Montparnasse and stood in front of the house. Alas, it has been all gentrified, but the park is still there, and one must just imagine the fleas and the bedbugs, the ever mooching Miller, the great scene of the turd in the bidet (not a spoiler, I don't think). I read it for titillation value as a teenager--to see 'cunt' in print!! Even knowing it was my dear Anais he was describing... But now, having lived a bit of that life myself, as have most artists of a certain age, it's just funny as hell.matt
Hank's a horny dude from nowhere Brooklyn who loves lowlifes and reads Proust.Hank's wife leaves him for a woman and he quits the country to go run around Paris as a freewheeling urchin.Hank writes dementedly eloquent insights as to the state of his Being.Hank writes a shocking, pornographic classic that is banned on arrival.Hank lives to see vindication.Go, Hank, go!Suzie
I don't know what was more embarassing - reading this book in public and wondering if anyone knew how vile it was, or seeing how many passages my mother had underlined in college. Naughty! (In her defense, she said she had no choice . . . )This was one of those titles I'd heard a handful of authors drop, and thought I needed to know why. I'm still not sure I completely understand the fascination (though I'll grant he HAS beefed up my quotes section), but at least I can say I've read Henry Miller, right? His Paris memoir kept reminding me of Herman Hesse's "Goldmund and Narcissus" and Jack Keroac's "Dharma Bums" - that tortured Bohemian lifestyle that artists subject themselves to for the sake of their craft, all in the name of life and art. It leaves a sort of empty, bitter feeling in the gut - not something I look for in a good piece of literature, but not without merit, either. I know, at least, that this is not the kind of artist I ever want to become - so disgusted with the world and its hypocrisy as to believe that truth and beauty can only be found in the darkest corners of the human experience - promiscuity, scatological discourse, vulgarity, masochism and misogyny. You're right, Mom. Henry Miller really was just a dirty old man. I had to learn that for myself, though.There were a few pearls of wisdom I gleaned from Mr. Miller - I think his better moments were the ramblings, rather than his actual experience (see quotes). I didn't agree with a lot of his nihilist diatribe, and I rather felt that he really didn't, either. Maybe it was the hunger speaking. I appreciate his honesty and (however subtle) admittance that he's just as unenlightened as the rest of us. 2 stars because I didn't hate it, but I can't say I liked it either. Which might be just what he was going for.Trenton Judson
This may be one of the best books in the American cannon, and also, unfortunately, one of the most underrated. I read a lot of the reviews on the book before writing this and I found not very many that were thought out. I recall one reviewer giving up on the book because the "frenetic style was tiresome." Usually when someone has feelings like that, it is because they don't understand the literature and so their mind wanders. Another review noted that Miller's supposed "shock tactics" were outdated. Miller never meant to shock people, that is in your head. If you read the opening quote by Emerson, it states something to the effect that telling a true story about yourself is something near to impossible, this is Miller's attempt at doing that. He pulls no punches on the everyday vernacular that he must have used and imagined. This makes the story not only authentic, but also compelling. Miller's mix of philosophy and the impressionistic portrait that he paints of Paris make for a challenging and gorgeous read. Like Whitman, Miller finds beauty in all things and despite atrocious circumstances, he finds the will and the hope to enjoy his freedom. His style cries Whitman with its use of many objects to describe a single scene or feeling, but he has a different touch than Whitman that allows for the darker underbelly of human life that we so often discard because we lack the ability to understand the parts of ourselves that we have been taught to be shamed by. A must read for those who have read Whitman and really love him. Great companions to this book are: Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and Charriere's "Papillon."Zorena
It' such as shame that this book has such wonderful prose and then seems to drop the C bomb about a hundred times just for the sake being able to do it. It became so tiresome I had to struggle to finish this and I just couldn't seem to be able to get past that enough to be able to enjoy the book.I think it will be awhile before I attempt any of his other books.Annette
One of my favorite passages:"At night when I look at Boris' goatee lying on the pillow I get hysterical. O Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out. Your Sylvester! Yes, he knows how to build a fire, but I know how to inflame a cunt. I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent. Your Sylvester is a little jealous now? He feels something, does he? He feels the remnants of my big prick. I have set the shores a little wider. I have ironed out the wrinkles. After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your navel. I am fucking you, Tania, so that you'll stay fucked. And if you are afraid of being fucked publicly I will fuck you privately. I will tear off a few hairs from your cunt and paste them on Boris' chin. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces...""The world is a cancer eating itself away"Shannon
This one was hard to rate. It is a worthy read for so many reasons: the tales of Paris in the window of time woven into the lives of intellectual bohemians spun so marvelously in both crass and captivating language. However, sensitive souls beware. It was a contributing factor (one of many) to a crisis of faith in my early twenties. The honest depravity of the male characters and the author himself confirmed all my worst suspicions of males being utterly inhuman and by far a lesser sex.Sketchbook
Henry Miller performs a cunning stunt. There is no odious P.C. here, which one must deplore. This faux-memoir isnt "sexy," but it is a vomit of hilarity. I long for the Baz Luhrmann musical version. Meantime, plunge in, whacckkk it, and then slurp a gonarrhea cocktail. Btw, don't eat the ham sandwich in the bidet.Ian Paganus
George Orwell wrote an essay about this book called, “Inside the Whale.” The title alludes to the Jonah story in the bible. In that story Jonah rejected his responsibility, ran, and was swallowed by a whale. He finally accepted his responsibility and returned to the world. In contrast, Orwell’s Miller doesn’t want to leave the whale. God’s punishment ironically is Miller’s safe and comfortable oasis. Miller can attempt to triumph over god in this way because he has chosen an ironic stance towards his life. God’s punishment is only a punishment for a serious person. A serious person makes the world’s values and causes his values, his causes. Such a person feels happy and safe in the world, has plans, wants to buy a condo in the suburbs, etc. The unserious person, on the other hand, is alienated by the world’s values and from its causes. Slavery, wars, poverty, racism, the rate race—inside a whale at the bottom of the ocean with a ton of blubber insulating you on every side is not such a bad way to ride out a nuclear winter. Clearly, Miller is not a Jonah. Jonah is a criminal guilty of a specific crime. For Miller, the world is guilty and the best a person can hope for is not to be an accomplice, etc. Orwell is really smart and his insight is really helpful. But, he makes it clear that he is not a Miller fan. I, on the other hand, am a fan.Taylor K.
I knew this would be raunchy, but what I didn't expect was how funny it would be. Maybe I've watched too many male-centric sex comedies, but that's how the "obscene" parts of this book played out to me. (Stop reading here if you are easily offended when it comes to sex.) There's a scene where he has sex with a woman in a bathroom and comes on her dress and she gets ticked off at him, another where he's watching a friend have sex and he keeps tickling the guy's ass, there's a gay sailor character, etc. There were parts where he lost me, though, for example, this moment where he's staring at a woman's vagina and is thinking about how it's like a tunnel or a black hole or something and goes on this weird abstract train of thought. I don't know if I'd personally call it a masterpiece, but it surprised me, in a good way.Elisa
E io gli risi in faccia.Henry Miller rideva spesso in faccia alle persone. Questa frase spunta fuori tante volte durante la narrazione. Non potei trattenermi, scoppiai a ridergli in faccia. Ho passato il tempo a immaginare la sua risata. Meglio, il momento esatto in cui il tentativo di trattenerla si trasformava in un misero fallimento. Volevo avere in testa il suo viso esatto ai tempi del racconto, e così l'ho cercato: http://img2.bdbphotos.com/images/orig... . Uno così ha un viso perfetto per ridere in faccia alla gente.È pulito e bonaccione. Davanti a un viso così, placido come un piccione albino, uno si accoccola sulla sedia e vomita in un colpo solo mal di vivere e aspirazioni. Henry Miller ascoltava tutte le sparate egotistiche dei conoscenti, e loro lo prendevano in simpatia. Dovunque andasse, qualche amico lo rimediava. Lui, zitto zitto, sorrideva, si faceva due risate dentro e sperava in qualche franco di ricompensa. I parassiti sono sempre quelli che ne sanno di più sul conto degli uomini. Volta per volta, ride in faccia a tutto. Cosa è il mondo se non un'accozzaglia di ossa morte (doppiamente morte), scheletri in trepidazione per un miraggio paradisiaco, fogne e vuoto? Tutto puzza, ma ci convinciamo di vivere immersi nel profumo di rose. Cosa siamo noi, se non meteore che bruciano rapidamente, destinate a scomparire del tutto, lasciando solo un nome, e forse nemmeno quello? Eppure pare che la vita debba avere valore solo se si arriva allo scalino più alto della scala sociale. E cosa impedisce di pensare che il paradiso non esista, che non abbia alcun senso vivere disperando nella speranza, quando si può prendere atto che il cielo è vuoto e afferrare ciò che la vita offre di piacevole? Miller sospetta che nel centro della terra, Dio o il Diavolo lavorino di continuo in camicia di forza a macinare per quel paradiso che non è che un venire in sogno . Bella fregatura, sarebbe, aver vissuto nella castità e nel rigore. La felicità è molto più simile a un orgasmo che al paradiso. Chi può additare un uomo che passa la vita di bordello in caffè, vivendo alla giornata, tra lavori saltuari e serate passate a spassarsela, conscio del fatto che anche questa, come l'idea del paradiso, è una delusione a cui si ricorre per andare avanti? Il mondo di Miller è senza speranza, ma non disperato. Tanto siamo già morti. Perché non ridere, allora?Se la vita deve essere vissuta, l'arte non deve essere da meno. Non di frottole deve essere fatta, di storie inventate e progettate da un dio capace di rappresentare il mondo che vorrebbe, ma verità, nuda e cruda. Miller è talmente unito al suo libro da essere la macchina da scrivere. L'arte deve essere un escremento umano, il risultato di un'assimilazione della realtà, in tutte le sue componenti (anche quelle socialmente inaccettabili), e deve puzzare di vita vera, non evaporare come una scoreggia secca. Che senso ha creare mondi armoniosi, se nella realtà si dà più importanza a un cesto di verdure al mercato che a un mendicante cencioso? Che senso ha vivere di idee, se la realtà sembra ridere loro in faccia? L'estetica dell'idea produce vasi di fiori e i vasi di fiori si mettono alla finestra. Ma se non c'è né pioggia né sole, a che serve mettere i fiori fuori dalla finestra?Miller non si poneva problemi a parlare di erezioni e triangoli, belle fiche e puttane. Ma il suo narrare porta la luce sugli aspetti disperati del sesso: spesso è meccanico, privo di passione, è come un urlo dell'uomo che cerca di far coincidere le sue aspettative e la realtà. Sono uomini e donne disorientati, delusi dalle promesse che avevano fatto a loro stessi, vanno incontro ad atti sessuali interrotti, ballerini in una danza in cui l'orgasmo arriva sempre nel momento sbagliato o non arriva affatto. Si va in cerca della fica ricca, del proprio orientamento sessuale, delle vergini, delle giovani, per poi accorgersi che l'ideale di completo appagamento si sposta sempre più in là. Non era questo, non era questo. Come quando fuori piove e malediciamo il tempo perché è tetro e, quando il sole risplende, continuiamo a maledirlo perché stavolta splende troppo. L'uomo si annichilisce, schiacciato dalla fanfara del futuro che pare debba essere sempre migliore, ma solo a parole. Sì, sicuramente lo sarà. Invece, è solo una promessa americana (ma l'America non esiste, spiega Miller: è solo un nome che si dà a un'idea astratta). La miseria, poi, è sempre dietro l'angolo, anche se il sole a volte scalda l'aria di Parigi e la rende così bella. Anche se oramai sono passati ottant'anni dalla pubblicazione, e quindi dovremmo avere smesso di guardare solo al contenuto sessuale come alla vuota rappresentazione di un accoppiamento, c'è sempre qualcuno che sfodera l'indice dell'ammonimento. Ho letto un commento in cui una lettrice trasformava la pagina bianca in un pio confessionale da social network. Sentiva il bisogno di specificare che lei il libro lo aveva letto solo fino a pagina 18 (quindi nessuna aggravante), e che sua zia, che glielo aveva prestato, lo aveva letto tutto solo perché costretta al liceo (forse per un docente in cui lo stesso Henry Miller si era reincarnato, tanto per potersi sentire ancora una volta un plenipotenziario degli spiriti liberi, e insegnare agli alunni come si accoppiano gli elefanti). In sostanza, Miller era solo uno sporcaccione. Lui le avrebbe riso in faccia fragorosamente, senza nemmeno pensare di trattenersi un secondo. Forse più per il riferimento allo sporco, che per la pudicizia. Avrebbe detto di lei ciò che pensò riguardo alla signora Wren: Uscendo dal vinaio, sento scrosciare il pisciatoio. Tutto è lubrico ed effuso. Vorrei che la signora Wren ascoltasse.