It’s a good thing I’d read some Henry Miller and already knew what a horny toad he was before attacking this novel, so the general crudeness, irreverence and cynicism didn’t exactly come as a shock. I do not know whether I could have appreciated this book had I read it at another time. It is bleak. It oozes sweat and blood and s**t. It forces us to face things we’d probably rather put aside, ignore, pass by without looking back. That Tropic of Cancer was banned and was the cause for an obscenity trial when it was originally published in the United States in 1961 is hardly surprising. Aside from all that, I was amused with Miller’s description of his first years in Paris as a struggling writer so poor, he never knew how he’d come by his next meal, yet somehow always had a little bit of change to have a go with whatever prostitute was at hand. Is it an autobiography? Not exactly. It it fiction? Sometimes. It is a stream of consciousness set free of any possible inhibition. It sometimes veers toward the big philosophical questions of man and the world we live in. Of more interest to me were the stories and anecdotes that ‘he’, or the writer who narrates the story, has experienced with various people he has come across. A few friends. Various employers. Countless prostitutes. Several generous hosts. There is nothing comforting to be found here. Women, which are often mentioned, are systematically referred to as c*nts. Our writer seems to have nothing but contempt for his friends and benefactors. But there is truth. Unvarnished, unadulterated, often very ugly, but absolute and complete candour of the kind that, even by today’s standards shakes us out of any kind of complacency. One of my favourite parts of the book comes at the very beginning, when he gives us a general idea about what kind of experience we, the readers, are in for:
“It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom. I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it. I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God. This then, this is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult. A gob of spit in the face of art. A kick in the pants to God, man, destiny, time, love, beauty. What you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off-key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak. I will dance over your dirty corpse.”*
There were times when I found Miller’s conceit absolutely hilarious. There were times when I couldn’t wait for him to move on to the next thing, or maybe do so myself. But I must say that what got me through it all was Campbell Scott’s excellent narration. He is impassive, neutral, with a gentle voice that helps smooth over some of the harshness. This was a most welcome quality in the parts where the filth of the places, people, faces, language, seemed to latch onto me too. I couldn’t say I exactly loved this book, but I certainly see why it’s considered such an important work of literature. Recommended? Yes. But you’ve been given fair warning.
* This excerpt transcribed from the audiobook version and likely contains many inaccuracies, especially in the punctuation.