Wednesday, May 29, 2013

tropic of cancer

According to Miller's brief autobiography, he began writing Tropic of Cancer while living in Louveciennes,  a western suburbs of Paris, where he met Anais Nin. He had left his second wife, June Edith Smith, at home during this time and lived on the streets of Paris, and slept, as he says, where he could. This was in 1931-2. During this time he worked at the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune as a proof reader, and taught English for a while in Lycee Carnot. Nin was his lover during this period and kept him housed, fed, and helped finance the first printing of this book. Nin also wrote a short preface, which she ends by saying that Miller digs beneath the roots, for subterranean springs.

By 1933, Miller had visited  Luxembourg with his Clichy roommate, Alfred Perles, and begun work on Black Spring, and also a book on Lawrence which he never finished. His wife came back to Europe briefly, but left again after asking for a divorce. In 1934, Tropic of Cancer was published after a number of re-writes, a a decisive moment, in Miller's words. That was nearly 80 years ago. Tropic of Cancer could have been written yesterday. But if it was, no one would care; it could have only have been written then.

Miller writes with seeming abandon, using language that is both coarse and foul, and beautifully poetic. His prose is in many ways prose poetry. He talks about the underbelly of society and what it is to be a thinking, eating, sexual animal which lives in this society we've made for ourselves. He looks up from his depression-era squalor to the fat cats with 50 cent corona cigars, dripping juice down their faces, but not with hatred as you might expect, but with a journalist's impartiality. If he feels anything about the state of man, as horrible and useless as it all is, you could say its glee. He seems to laugh as he looks on, constantly amused by what he sees, as if he looked on the antics of young children, or dogs frolicking.

Miller lauds the works of those he sees as shinning examples in his prose, he talks of Walt Whitman as a poet who understood what is is to be a man, but worried that Whitman's language was now (in 1931) almost incomprehensible to modern readers. He also went on about Matisse, saying that he was at the very hub of the wheel that was falling apart around us.

One of my favorite lines:

"The wallpaper with which the men of science have covered the world of reality is falling to tatters."

There has been so much written about Henry Miller, that you certainly don't need me to go on about it too. What I will say is: if you've read some beat or surrealism and it worked for you, you'll enjoy this. If you're interested in the birth of modern American writing, it seems to me that this is one of the stops. Is it a little odd? Sure. Is the language foul and the treatment of women appalling? You bet. Is it amazing to read such honest writing, from an era before my parents were born? Absolutely.

Read this book.

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