Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer

As a young, would-be writer back in the early 1960s, I read quite a bit of the once notorious Henry Miller -- his book on Greece, The Colossus of Maroussi; his study of Rimbaud, The Time of the Assassins; his essays in The Wisdom of the Heart; his book on America, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare; the collection of letters between him and Lawrence Durrell -- but his first book, the infamous Tropic of Cancer, first published in France in 1934 and, until 1961, banned from publication in the U.S., I'd somehow missed until this past winter in Mexico.

This despite that my copy of the book, a paperback edition of the original Grove Press hardback, was purchased in 1962, the year the paperback came out in the States.

Tropic of Cancer is a kind of memoir in the form of a kind of novel, I've now discovered -- an anarchist's rant, a cry of despair, a shout of rage and crazy hope. It's racist (particularly anti-Semitic), misogynist, profane, crudely sexual, provocative. It's deliberately raw in parts, lyrical in others. It's also funny, and contains whole swaths of brilliant, sometimes surreal, even profound writing. I'm reminded of a later writer's all-out, last-ditch expression of himself, Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes, published in 1968. Exley, despite his acute alcoholism, managed to write two more fictionalized memoirs before he died, early, of alcoholism. But with Notes he'd shot his wad. Miller, on the other hand, went on to write many more books, mostly of reminiscence, and was famous, rather than infamous, by the 1960s as a voice of free expression, sexual and otherwise. Playboy took him up! He lived to be 89, a kind of sage, before his death in 1980.

One wonders now why his first book was banned for so long as too sexually explicit. The sex in it is the least of its content.

Here is Miller stating his case at the beginning of Tropic of Cancer, after three warm-up paragraphs:

"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 . . . "