Friday, May 20, 2011

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

After slogging through the first 150 pages of Henry Miller's Tropic of Camcer, I am now the ONLY person in my book club reading Tropic of Cancer. I guess this makes Miller 'pleasure reading' though the phrase doesn't feel appropriate.

Tropic of Cancer was first published in Paris in 1934. But it didn't make it to the US of A until 1961. It was banned as too obscene for American consumption for twenty-seven years. Finally, a scrappy Grove Press published the book. And they promptly became engaged in an obscenity trial. The verdict changed Americas censorship standards and paved the way for modern writers such as Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and (luckily! jk) Thomas Pynchon.
Henry Miller the original Wburg Hipster
I don't know what I expected exactly when cracking the spine, but it wasn't to be shocked. I pretty much figured that anything written in 1934 couldn't be any more scandalous than say the 'death by feces eating' in Gravity's Rainbow.

How wrong I was! This book has continually made me feel like all sorts of Victorian prude. Miller uses the C word as a moniker for women-kind on nearly every other page. Then there's that sex scene on pg 144 where Miller is watching Van Norden with a prostiute It's creepy and sad all at once. I'm not going to write it here. Too NSFW. Even the most innocuous landscape description, Miller finds a way to charge with bad language and sex analogies. It's almost farcical.** Here's a classic Miller simile on p. 172 "Paris takes hold of you, grabs you by the balls, you might say, like some lovesick bitch who'd rather die than let you get out of her hands." Okkaaay. Moving on...

I've been able to mostly get around the gross-out, eerie sex scenes. What I haven't been able to get over is how Miller managed to write this book, under financing from his lover, Anais Nin. It's incredible. Any sane writer would recognize that writing a book about sleeping with a trillion different prostitutes, contracting a case of the Clap, and getting seriously drunk every night when you're meant to be writing a book, is the epitome of 'biting the hand that feeds you'. No?

I've already bought my copy of Henry & June from Greenlight. H & J is a novelization of Anais Nin's diary during the time she was sleeping with Henry Miller. I can't wait to find out how totally twisted this relationship must have been.

**I thought maybe he was trying so hard to outdo Hemmingway's Moveable Feast he came out with this?

PS Also, another thing that's been incredibly disturbing for someone living in Manhattan in 2011 is all of the bedbug chatter. The characters are always hilariously leaving run-down hotels after having their evening fun with the you know what's and scratching themselves as they walk down the street. In another scene, Miller describes a dinner party where he had to angle for a position farthest from the bed, because he could see the bed 'crawling' ick. Don't worry, our protagonist stays of course. He's nothing if not game.


  1. lol. great post!!

    i've read henry and june. anais nin was pretty twisted herself. you shall see. she's kind of like a character in an ayn rand novel. into objectification? lol.

    the book sounds messed!

  2. Oh awesome! I cannot wait to discuss Henry and June with you. I'm looking forward to (predictably!?) really hating Anais..