Not knowing quite what to expect, yet intrigued by the book’s controversial U.S. ban, I was still taken aback by its colorful language and vivid sexual descriptives. First published in France in 1934, it took 27 years and a court hearing to allow it into U.S. I’m sure the initial sales were through the roof!
Set in Paris in the 1930’s, Tropic of Cancer is Henry Miller’s sometimes fiction, sometimes autobiographical narrative of his life there as a (literally) starving artist. The story is explicit and unapologetic and extremely well written.
Miller relies on others for his food and shelter and somehow manages to ingratiate himself amongst various expatriates living in Paris. He seems to maintain some level of pride as he exists in this hand-to-mouth lifestyle, as he negotiates such arrangements without ever actually asking for help, but rather making regular visits at mealtimes to an assortment of acquaintances.
He takes us into bed with a bevy of women; some professional, some not and he doesn’t spare us the resulting bouts of lice and syphilis, nor the denigrating comments he and his compatriots spew onto the women immediately following their sexual romps.
So why would a book about a hard drinking, out-of-work, sexually promiscuous and indolent man find its way to the top of the list of the best novels of the 20th century? Perhaps its censorship makes it so alluring. Perhaps it is the graphic sexual content. Pass the Pernod and start flipping those pages because it just happens to be a rather amusing tale.
Henry Miller is, indubitably, the narrator of Tropic of Cancer. The books opens with him already living in Paris and shaving his friend, Boris, who is covered with lice from his armpits to points south. Miller has a wife in the U.S. who he stays in touch with only, it seems, with the hopes that she will send money his way. He just seems to be existing, rather than living, but complains only when he is very hungry or very cold. One would think this quite depressing, but he does not present it that way, but rather with an attitude of living day to day, some good, others not so good.
Ginette is enamored of Henry’s pal, Fillmore and we never quite understand if she is mad or just overly zealous in her feelings. She and Fillmore have a physically violent love/hate relationship that can come to no good end, yet they continue to assault each other until Miller intervenes.
VanNorden is a close pal of Miller’s whose sexploits make all others appear mild by comparison. He attempts to bed every woman he encounters without regard for age, race or intellect. His behavior becomes somewhat questionable and may possibly insinuate latent syphilis.
Were I to meet Mr. Miller, I’d love to hear more about his life in Paris and ask how much time and effort he put in to penning this work. We could enjoy a meal and some wine at a little cafe where I’d most certainly be picking up the tab.
What I didn’t care for were the stream-of consciousness interjections, but fortunately its use was limited throughout.
My rating for Tropic of Cancer is an 8 out of 10.
To see the entire list, visit Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels.
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