Tropic of Cancer is a notorious novel from 1934 by the American writer Henry Miller. Banned on grounds of obscenity, it was not published in the United States until 1961.
When I read the book, it made me think, ironically, of Netflix comedy Emily in Paris. Oddly for a country which makes such a big deal of freedom, America is in many ways a morally conservative, sometimes puritanical country. This gives humour to Emily’s situation, where a poised, self-possessed young woman from Chicago collides with louche Parisians. Tropic of Cancer is a similar idea, only taken to much more of an extreme. The American in this case is Henry Miller – yes the narrator has the same name as the author. He is vaguely a writer, sometimes a proof reader, occasionally a teacher of English, who leaves his marriage in America to try and find artistic freedom in the hedonistic environs of Montparnasse. Henry might not be self-controlled like Emily, but he is the product of a relatively repressed culture crashing into a society that is altogether more rakish.
How does this American do? Well it’s all pretty chaotic, and with a crazy book I think it helps to make sense of it in terms of other things. So moving on from Emily in Paris, I also found myself reminded of the Rocky Horror Picture Show where alien Frank N. Furter flees his home planet and comes to Earth, hoping to do whatever he likes. But after a while, even having fun becomes hard work. At one point a disillusioned Frank moans: “It’s not easy having a good time. Even smiling makes my face ache.” There is a lot of that in Tropic of Cancer.
Tropic of Cancer basically has two modes. There’s the relatively straight-forward and frequently hilarious approach of sections describing Henry’s dealings with friends and acquaintances. My favourite is the one where he meets a turbulent Russian princess trying to make it as a film star. Using my comparisons technique, these passages are like Withnail and I. The second Tropic of Cancer mode is a stream of consciousness style, where reflections and opinions tumble along wild tangents. These segments are by turns poetic, incomprehensible, and smug. There’s the feeling that if you are not suffering, or living in poverty, or having extreme relationship dramas, you are not really getting through to the truth of things. I admit I sometimes found this attitude tiresome and weirdly snobbish in an inverted sort of way – though I got the point that being too comfortable might not be the most creative way to be.
Giving a book like this a star rating is not easy. You can imagine what Henry Miller would think of star ratings: drink in hand he would declare five stars to be “a brilliant constellation, in a night hung close, dagger-pointed, drunk as a maniac, an infinitude of emptiness.” This is a book that wants to get away from easy categories of good and bad, worthwhile and worthless. So rather than passing judgement, I can only really go with my personal reaction, which is – very funny in parts, sometimes moving, often distasteful, and perhaps misguided in believing that if something is miserable, dirty and horrible then it must be true. Didn’t Keats say that beauty was truth? So that’s at least one person who thinks that a disgusting flat, filled with bed bugs and drunk people is not necessarily the last word in veracity. From a writing point of view the book is well crafted, which is part of the irony of Tropic of Cancer. It might seem as though the author is throwing down the first thing that comes into his head, in a mad burst of creative abandon; but our narrator Henry Miller also talks of revisions and drafts, which tells us that his writing freedom is hard won. Henry works as a proof reader, and you don’t get to be one of those without understanding that writing takes work. Fittingly, the free-form but crafted writing of Tropic of Cancer is just like many other ambivalent liberties explored in the book. As you escape, there is always a kind of equal and opposite reaction to bring you back again – which even in its frustrations, can be oddly reassuring. But you will have to look hard for the reassurance. Henry Miller’s instinct is to be miserable.