Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller – Do You Like Your Truth Ugly Or Beautiful?

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. 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.

A Gentleman In Moscow By Amor Towles – His Excellency Will Be Over To Take Your Order Shortly

This novel from 2016, tells the story of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat, who is arrested after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, on the charge of being a social parasite. While most people in his situation would have been shot, the Bolshevik government mistakenly believe Count Rostov to be the author of a revolutionary poem of which it approves. So a lesser sentence is imposed – permanent house arrest at his current place of residence, which happens to be the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. The hotel’s lifetime resident is obliged to move from his luxury suite to disused staff quarters in the attic.

The early stages of his house arrest see Count Rostov continuing in the role of hotel guest. But a telling scene, when Rostov witnesses poor service in the restaurant, foreshadows what lies ahead. A young couple, who are about to say significant things to each other, are interrupted by a thoughtless waiter wanting to take their order. And if that isn’t bad enough, this incompetent then goes on to recommend an inappropriate wine for their meal! The count cannot help but interject. You begin to see that an aristocrat is potentially a very good waiter, attuned to refined, respectful behaviour with a intimate knowledge of the etiquette of dining. And, fittingly, needing work to fill his days, a highly competent waiter is what the count becomes.

I enjoyed this aspect of the book, the nuanced way it explores social and political questions. The count, unfailingly open-hearted and charming, serves to demonstrate that an apparently divided society might not be as disconnected as it appears. Aristocrats and waiters are not necessarily class enemies, forever pitted against each other. They are in fact people who resemble each other closely. Similarly, there is also reference to the hidden parallels between Russia and America, two countries which believe themselves to be implacable adversaries. A senior Russian government minister calls regularly upon Rostov who, as a well travelled man, can provide the minister with an understanding of America and the West. During their conversations, they realise that America and revolutionary Russia share an essential defining characteristic – an unflinching willingness to brush the past aside. The book’s contradictions also extend to the philosophical, as the hotel, this place of restriction and punishment, becomes a sanctuary where the count lives through some of the most precious moments of his life with people he loves. And the final contrast lies in the way a gentleman, who spends his life showing consideration, refinement and empathy can also display grit and ruthlessness. But observing “reviewing etiquette” regarding spoilers, you will understand why I won’t reveal to you, sir, or to you, madam, any more information about the denouement at this time. I would not wish to spoil your reading enjoyment.

I will just say that A Gentleman In Moscow is charming, and warm. It appeals to the emotions, but also sets you thinking about divides and oppositions, which might actually offer opportunities for fellowship and common ground. This is a graceful, humane book, serving as an antidote for divided times.

The Queen’s Gambit – Playing The Perfect Game

Netflix drama, The Queen’s Gambit, tells the fictional tale of orphan Beth Harmon, who after a difficult start, goes on to become world chess champion. I loved it. As a bit of geeky fun, here is the story of The Queen’s Gambit told as though it were a chess game. Start the clock.

Beth begins as a pawn, the smallest and weakest piece in the game. She has lost her parents and lives in a 1950s Kentucky orphanage. Her fortunes begin to change when the janitor teaches her chess. After showing great promise, Beth plays boys at a local high school chess club. In chess, a king has a similar range of movement to a pawn, which means the most symbolically important piece is essentially a dressed up version of the least powerful. Beth, as yet only a pawn, soon reveals the high school boys as emperors with no clothes.

Now it’s time to move our knights, pieces which are often involved early in a game. Knights are men who owe their important social position to an accident of birth rather than merit. Is there a subtle nod towards the unfairness of life in the way these aristocratic knights come at their enemies in a sneaky L shaped movement, jumping over other pieces. Beth is not a knight. She was born with no advantages beyond her talent. You could say in playing the boys, many of whom have a sense of entitlement, she is playing against the knights.

So we’ve opened with our pawns and knights. Next, let’s get our castles involved. These pieces move in straight lines, vertically and horizontally. If chess is a model of life, then you could say that castles are all about the straight line virtues – rationality, common sense, technical expertise, and discipline. Beth is a castle in many ways. She is supremely competent, does her homework, and as potential boyfriends find to their cost, can be cold and unemotional. However, Beth is not all castle. Playing the Russian master, Vasily Borgov in Paris, she objects to his “bureaucratic” style. The dour Russian is very much a straight up and down castle. Beth is different, often plays intuitively, sometimes even chaotically, especially when she over indulges in alcohol and tranquillisers, which she feels enhance her instinctive play.

And that brings us to the next piece, the bishop. The enigmatic bishop moves not on the castle’s straight lines, but on diagonals. Beth has an intuitive, almost spiritual aspect to her play. She can enter a trance-like state and see chess pieces moving in beautiful patterns on the ceilings of dark rooms. If any of the pieces symbolise this aspect of Beth’s play, it must be the bishops with their oblique direction of travel. However, nothing is simple in chess, and as with castles, there is a downside with bishops. You could see a tendency to self interest in the fact that the two bishops cannot support each other as the two castles do, because they can never back each other up on the same diagonal. When Beth becomes co-American champion with former child prodigy Benny Watts, it is Benny who points out that the dour Russian champions are strong because they support each other. American players tend to be in it for themselves. Americans are bishops in that sense, isolated on their diagonals. They inhabit the same board, but live in different versions of it, closed off in their dark or light squares. This all seems reminiscent of the closed-minded religious group which tries to offer Beth money to attend a tournament in Moscow, on the understanding that she will present her victories as the triumph of Christian America over atheist Russia. Beth tells Christian Crusade to take their money and get out of her house.

As our game gathers pace, we now have to try and use all these pieces together, balancing their strengths and weaknesses. Beth has to do the same thing with her various personal attributes. She needs to bring castle discipline to the intuitive bishop aspect of herself. In this spirit of compromise, Beth eventually stops drinking, throws her pills away, and finds a way to use her instinctive powers without these props. She works with the castle and bishop sides of her, each one enhancing the qualities and minimising the downsides of the other. In bringing disparate elements together, she also finds a way to work with the knights, her former opponents, who show their best, gallant side in giving supportive advice during a recess in a climactic match against Borgov in Moscow. The turning point against Borgov is the moment when one of Beth’s pawns reaches her opponent’s back row, and is turned into the most powerful piece in chess, not the all-show-and-no-substance king, but the queen – the only piece which combines the straight and diagonal abilities of both castle and bishop. The game has come full circle, the most humble piece transformed into the most powerful. And Beth’s subsequent victory turns out to be everyone’s victory, because this is a triumph where different sides combine to win. Her final success against Borgov pleases no one more than the Russians themselves, who as chess enthusiasts can truly appreciate a game played out between two great competitors. Borgov and Beth join hands, both of them triumphantly holding aloft the defeated black king.

The Queen’s Gambit ends with all the diverse aspects of Beth’s life, her qualities and weaknesses, her friends and opponents all coming together in one beautiful game. That I suppose is what chess can be, and what it suggests life should be. A winner does not have to diminish a loser.

Norman Mailer’s The Naked And The Dead, An Accidental Classic

The Naked And The Dead is Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel, based on his experiences with the United States Army in the Philippines during World War Two.

Mailer was only 25 when he published this book. In the Introduction to Penguin’s Modern Classics edition, he describes his young self as an enthusiastic amateur writer, who uses too many obvious adjectives with his nouns. But that’s really only the start of it. There are other “school boy errors”. A typical piece of advice given to beginner writers is to be consistent with point of view. I’ve been pulled up on that one myself. The thing is, point of view is all over the place in this book. It can change from one line to another. Beginners will also tend to use all their material, including back-story, while more experienced writers will explore these notes privately to give themselves a hold on a character. Back-story in The Naked And The Dead is shoe-horned into sections awkwardly entitled “Time Machine”. Finally, there’s the fact that young Mailer is trying to emulate a successful writer, a typical stage a novice goes through whilst looking for their own voice. Most days, before setting to work on The Naked And The Dead, our starry-eyed author would read a few pages of his hero, Tolstoy, who clearly influences the book in the way events dominate people rather than the other way round. So you can imagine a keen, promising youngster, thinking he is the new Tolstoy, deciding to write his own War and Peace without too much experience to back up his grandiose ambitions.

But darn it, the 25 year old Norman Mailer largely gets away with it. Maybe he succeeded in writing a bestselling classic through a happy combination of circumstance. The Naked And The Dead was published a few years after the end of World War Two, and during those war years, soldiers were generally portrayed as national supermen. Afterwards, however, Tolstoy would be a useful influence in reassessing the war in a more realistic and human light. As in War and Peace, Mailer’s generals are as powerless as privates when it comes to shaping events. There are no heroes, just a group of people with sore feet, tummy problems, dodgy kidneys, and personality defects, tossed around on the tides of history.

As for Mailer’s point-of-view-hopping style, the army is a many headed monster with one body – so the variable view point just happens to be an effective way to explore the beast

There is a very telling episode towards the end of the book, when a less than competent officer, Major Dalleson, finds himself thrown into command while his general is away. Most men in The Naked And The Dead go through agonies of endurance for no reward, just as most writers toil on their manuscripts for years and never find a publisher. In contrast, Dalleson finds his cack-handed decisions just happen to work out successfully. In effect he finds himself defeating the Japanese by mistake over the course of an afternoon. In a similar way, you might say that the young Mailer, dashing through this 700 odd page book in just 15 months, wrote a classic by accident. It shouldn’t work but it does.

Despite reservations, I did end up admiring The Naked And The Dead. This was because I came to feel that the many soldiers, or writers, who don’t find success in an afternoon can find succour in its pages. The most powerful sections involve men making supreme efforts to achieve a goal, which turns out to be irrelevant. But hope appears unexpectedly, in the way a soldier will characteristically feel the full bitterness of wasted effort just as the sun is coming up. The lack of satisfactory destinations suggests continuity, the reassurance that things will go on no matter what happens. Kipling said we should treat triumph and disaster just the same, and if ever there was a disastrous book which somehow works as a variety of triumph, it’s The Naked And The Dead.