Friday, May 7, 2010

#10 - "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller

I've finished my tenth book of the list. seems like only six months ago that I started this epic quest. I"m on about a five year pace right now...and that's not bad.

When I started reading Tropic of Cancer, I was more familiar with the imaginary line that circles the globe at about 23 degrees North, than I was with the book. I knew it was supposed to be quite "racy" and I knew it had been banned in the United States for over twenty years. As for the story, I was in the dark.

The book is told in the first person, and basically reads as an autobiographical account of author Henry Miller's own experiences living in Paris as an expatriate, struggling writer. As many reviews have noted, Tropic of Cancer doesn't really seem to have any plot. Or at least there isn't a conclusion, nothing really happens, and well, at the end of the book, the main character is still in the same situation he was at the start.

Living in Paris, Henry is poor, doesn't have a job, and enjoys drinking and women. He spends most of his days trying to secure a free meal, free drinks, and many nights, a place to sleep. He floats from temp job to temp job, living out of his pocket, and living a life that seems normal in 1920's Paris but would be, for lack of a better word, immoral in the United States, which is probably the reason this book was banned in that country for so many years.

And that is basically the entire book; a few years in the life of this ex-pat, as he drifts from house to whore house to school to work, not seeming to have any point in his life other than to fulfill his most basic needs. This isn't to say that I didn't enjoy the book; far from it. It was an interesting read and a good read. It just doesn't contain many of the conventional elements of a novel. What I found interesting reading this book, much like I found with Naked Lunch, was the language used in the writing. Having been written in 1934, I find it so suprising to find words used that even today I wouldn't expect to see in many novels. (Most notably a plethora of C-sharps Miller uses to describe the hunt for women.)

When the book was originally published in Paris, in 1934, it was immediately listed as obscene in the States, and made illegal to publish or distribute. It wasn't until the late 1950's, when one publishing house decided to fight the existing obscenity laws, eventually leading to its release. The release of Tropic of Cancer would also lead to the release of many other "obscene" books, and eventually, after Naked Lunch was released a few years later, the end of any books being banned in the Untied States.

Many of the minor topics in Tropic of Cancer, which the characters frequently discuss, is the prudishness of America. One of the things they seem to enjoy so much about their life in Paris is the fact that they can go for a drink (The United States was still under prohibition at the time the novel takes place), or they can hire a prostitute to fill their sexual desires. When ever someone suggests returning to the States, they wonder if they would be able to adjust to returning to such a puritanical society after having lived a much more liberal life in France.

Despite being banned in the United States, the book was hailed by most critics as a great read. When first published, Ezra Pound pronounced it as "an unprintable book that is fit to read." I couldn't agree more with this statement. Like Naked Lunch it is laced with obscenities and "adult situations", but unlike Burroughs’s novel, these obscenities seem only to be used as a descriptive tool, and not to simply shock the audience. It sounds exactly how someone would describe many of the situations to their friends.

I guess to summarize, Tropic of Cancer is a novel about sex, but one that I enjoyed for other reasons. It has reinforced my enjoyment of working through this list as well, as it is yet another novel I probably wouldn't have read otherwise, but thoroughly enjoyed. Plus, I now understand why Jerry and George were so excited to get a copy of it in 1971. What teenager in the pre-internet era wouldn't get excited about graphic sexual description in print?

You can read the original Time Magazine review from November 21st, 1938 here:,9171,760361-2,00.html

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