Book 55: Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller

Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller“Sex everywhere: it was slopping over, a neap tide that swept the props from under the city.” (204)

This quote sums up what is perhaps the most vulgar and misogynistic book I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something coming from someone with an MA in Gender, Sexuality and Queer Theory. Not only does Miller spend 9/10ths of the novel debasing women, but when he attempts to remedy this it comes across as trite and self-serving. I was slightly embarrassed reading the book on the metro and bus with the cover the way it is, but honestly once you’ve read Imperial Leather (among others) on public transportation, you just sort of get over it.

The novel is a debauchery of the senses, a crass introduction to 1930s Paris and the life of a struggling writer. From the graphic (and degrading) sex scenes and language, to the descriptions of the city’s inhabitants and Miller’s absolute disregard for any moral standards the novel reeks of egoism and hyperbole.

Although the subject matter is somewhat tetchy, there is no doubt to me that Miller is a good writer. His turns of phrase and descriptions are colorful and original, and they place the reader right into the action or the mindset of the characters. And the various anecdotes throughout make me wonder if he’s even wider read than expected, or if he (as many authors do) writes from what he’s read. As I was reading I saw where authors like JK Rowling and Howard Jacobson (among others) may have read Miller and borrowed his ideas. My only major complaint is the lack of focus, it seemed a ramshackle journey through Miller’s recent history and you jump in mid-conversation on page 1 and you’re left in mid-conversation on page 381.

A lot of reviews say that the book is no longer shocking with what happens in the world I disagree. I can see where it caused such an uproar in the 1930s, but I can also see where it remains just as inappropriate and anti-woman as before.

Recommendation: Read it, especially if you think it might offend or appall you. I think everyone needs to expand their knowledge and have their boundaries pushed and tested. I didn’t like the subject matter, but I still think it should be read.

Quotes from Tropic of Cancer
“Europe is saturated with art and her soil is full of dead bones and her museums are bursting with plundered treasures, but what Europe has never had is a free, healthy spirit, what you might call a MAN.” (viii, Karl Shapiro)

“I imagine that Miller has read as much as any man living but he does not have that religious solemnity about books which we are brought up in. Books, after all, are only mnemonic devices; and poets are always celebrating the burning of libraries. And as with libraries, so with monuments, and as with monuments, so with civilizations.” (xiii, Karl Shapiro)

“It’s hard to know, when you’re in such a jam, which is worse—not having a place to sleep or not having a place to work. One can sleep almost anywhere but one must have a place to work. Even if it’s not a masterpiece you’re doing. Even a bad novel requires a chair to sit on and a bit of privacy.” (32)

“It is not difficult to be alone if you are poor and a failure. An artist is always alone—if he is an artist. No, what the artist needs is loneliness.” (66)

“When I think of New York I have a very different feeling. New York makes even a rich man feel his unimportance. New York is cold, glittering, malign. The buildings dominate. There is a sort of atomic frenzy to the activity going on; the more furious the pace, the more diminished the spirit. A constant ferment, but it might just as well be going on in a test tube. Nobody knows what it’s all about. Nobody directs the energy. Stupendous. Bizarre, Baffling. A tremendous reactive urge, but absolutely uncoordinated.” (68)

“Over there you think of nothing but becoming President of the United States some day. Potentially every man is Presidential timber. Here it’s different. Here every man is potentially a zero. If you become something or somebody it is an accident, a miracle. The chances are a thousand to one that you will never leave your native village.” (150)

“That’s the first thing that strikes an American woman about Europe—that it’s unsanitary. Impossible for them to conceive a paradise without modern plumbing. If they find a bedbug they want to write a letter immediately to the chamber of commerce.” (152)

“Stumbling down the Rue Mouffetard, with these reflections stirring in my brain, I recalled another strange item out of the past, out of that guidebook whose leaves she had asked me to turn but which, because the covers were so heavy, I then found impossible to pry open.” (179)

“It’s best to keep America just like that, always in the background, a sort of picture post card which you look at in a week moment. Like that, you imagine it’s always there waiting for you, unchanged, unspoiled, a big patriotic open space with cows and sheep and tender-hearted men ready to bugger everything in sight, man, woman or beast. It doesn’t exist, America. It’s a name you give to an abstract idea…” (208)

“I believe that today more than ever a book should be sought after even if it has only one great page in it: we must search for fragments, splinters, toenails, anything that has ore in it, anything that is capable of resuscitating the body and soul.” (257)

“You can’t become a European overnight. There’s something in your blood that makes you different. It’s the climate—and everything. We see things with different eyes. We can’t make ourselves over, however much we admire the French. We ‘re Americans and we’ve got to remain Americans. Sure, I hate those puritanical buggers back home—I hate ’em with all my guts. But I’m one of them myself. I don’t belong here. I’m sick of it.” (307)


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