Henry Miller, “Tropic of Cancer”
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A couple of months ago I read Youth by J.M. Coetzee about an aspiring South African writer who goes to London. I felt that there was something missing in the book (my review here). I couldn’t quite put a finger on the missing bit, so I thought I would read Tropic of Cancer, which is the story of an aspiring American writer living in Paris.
Since both are semi-autobiographical novels they invite comparison, though perhaps it isn’t doing justice to Miller to compare him with another writer, but it’s the theme that interests me, rather than the individual novels. They were written 30 years apart — Paris in the 1930s, London in the 1960s, and that in itself makes quite a big difference. It is hard to think that the 1960s are further away from us now than the 1930s were then. Perhaps it is because I was alive in the 1960s and thought that the 1930s were impossibly remote. Perhaps it is because WWII intervened, and we are living in a different world.
But with Henry Miller it doesn’t matter much that we are living in a different world, because his books in a sense are timeless. In reading Tropic of Cancer the main thing that seemed different and out of place was that males wore hats, and felt uncomfortable if they went out hatless.
The first book of Miller’s that I read was The Colossus of Maroussi, and it is still the one I like the best. One of the things I liked most about it was his descriptions of places, and there are some good descriptive passages in Tropic of Cancer too.
When it was first published Tropic of Cancer and its companion volume Tropic of Capricorn were banned in most English-speaking countries. Even when they were unbanned in the 1960s they were regarded by many as “dirty” books, because of the explicit sexual descriptions. In the 1980s, of course, no novel was complete without such things — what was forbidden in the 1930s became compulsory 50 years later, so Miller’s book no longer shocks.
People might find it distasteful for other reasons, though; it is sexist, and there is an undertone of racism as well. Some have said that the book is misogynist, but it is not so much mysoginist as sexist. Miller doesn’t hate women, he just doesn’t have much use for them, or rather he just has one use for them — as sexual objects, and that is how he describes them all the way through the book. They are not people, they are genitals with mouths and legs attached.
But most of his descriptions of males were also pretty dehumanising. Perhaps that’s why I like Miller best for his descriptions of places, rather than of people.