[Note: I am currently hard at work on a book about my great-grandfather and the people he knew while working as a journalist in Paris from 1818 to 1933. This has led me to reread many of those people’s books.]
I remember discussing Henry Miller one night while fishing on the island of Eleuthera with my writer friend Luis. He’s not really a writer, not seriously, but everyone calls him that and it bothers him, so I do too. The night was dark and the wind insistent and we were sitting out on a black rock ledge that extended into the darker waters where catching fish was easy as plucking pennies from a fountain. Soon we had enough tuna and grouper for dinner but kept yapping away and drinking cheap Bahamian beer together.
“I don’t know why everyone asks me if I’m a ‘writer’ or when I’m going to ‘write my book’ or have I ‘written anything yet’! I think I just give off a neurotic-Jew-who-drinks-too-much vibe!” he laughed.
“Well, yeah, that and all the stories,” I said. “You tell some great stories, usually accidentally,” which he does, starting off by relating some triviality that sets of a Homeric rambling prose poem like a cartoon magician unfurling a tablecloth unexpectedly containing a full banquet. This night, in fact, we were glumly avoiding a party on the island, where Luis lived and taught and went on archaeological digs, because a famous rock star who also lives on the island and his group of friends likely wanted to batter Luis for sleeping with an “ex-wife” of one of the friends who turned out not to be quite as divorced as she had claimed, a story that, as he told it included digressions about Iggy Pop, Phillip Roth, women, Sigmund Freud, and colonial India. Luis has a slender body like bamboo shoots and a model’s face and he has sex frequently and easily, not quite comprehending that this is not the same for everyone else. He will ask me things like, “What do you do when you’re in a bar and have narrowed it down to three women there who you could perhaps want to have sex with, but can’t quite pick one of them?” This is not a problem with which I am familiar. Nevertheless, Louis is very literate, animated, funny, and still believes that literature, good literature, really matters.
Which makes it perverse that he refuses to write, “just because everyone thinks I should.” One gets the feeling he won’t write simply because he is expected to. He really is that neurotic.
“You know Henry Miller heard the same thing from everyone, at least to hear his side of it,” I continued. “He was around forty when he finally wrote Tropic of Cancer. But pretty much everyone he encountered for years said he should write.
“Oh, god no! Not Henry Miller! You don’t find him ridiculous?!”
“How so? And who isn’t ridiculous?”
“All that sex!” he sputtered. “I mean, come on! Nobody fucks like that- so frequently and easily! It’s entirely ridiculous!”
I read Tropic of Cancer when I was perhaps eighteen and “all that sex” still seemed giddily illicit, a common but mistaken impression that gets reinforced by the novel’s legal history: first appearing in Paris in 1934, where obscene books could be published, provided they were in English, and then the subject of a suit by the Society for the Enforcement of Social and Public Morals in 1946, the book was finally printed in America in 1961, when Miller was nearly seventy years old, although scores of American G.I.s of roughly age eighteen had already smuggled over copies of the dirty book. The issue was the sex and one imagines that, if the act of whaling was considered obscene, Moby Dick might have had much the same history. Yet, Tropic of Cancer is not really about sex any more than Melville’s novel is really about whaling. The characters in the book- American newspapermen in Paris in the period between the wars, just as in The Sun Also Rises– sit around and discuss “screwing” an endless parade of prostitutes and others because they have almost nothing else. “Cunt” is their great white, or pink, whale- a quarry that could either absolve or, much more likely, amplify all of their failings as mortal men. There’s not so much actual sex in the story, but Miller is unstintingly accurate that men, many of them, sit around together and discuss, in the crudest possible terms, what they would do or have done, usually mendaciously, with women’s openings. Talk about unreliable narrators! But, in the novel, these discussions take place firmly within their desperation and fear of being obliterated in an anomic society and pitiless mechanical universe, and his own struggle against this obliteration forms the core of the story. Miller is one of a handful of writers (John Fante also comes to mind) who gleefully depicts himself in fictional form in the ugliest possible light, making him something of an antidote to Hemingway, who was never really convincing as a big game hunting he-man.
In fact, we could say that The Sun Also Rises and Tropic of Cancer nicely bookend the Lost Generation coming to terms with itself and waking up with a really bad hangover. Hemingway tells of the blissful, evanescent, but dissolute years when the dollar was strong, the franc was weak, and France had all the alcohol that was prohibited in the states, while Miller lays bare the lean years after 1929, when the writers lived in dingy, freezing rooms, got eaten alive by bedbugs, and gadded about the Latin Quarter wheedling meals out of strangers to avoid starving. George Orwell was right that, in the main, “it is a story of bed-ridden rooms in working-men’s hotels, of fights, drinking bouts, cheap brothels, Russian refugees, cadging, swindling, and temporary jobs.” The Hamsun of Hunger seems to be an influence, perhaps as much as Proust. Miller, of course, famously aspired to be a “working class Proust” and if À la Recherche du temps perdu is ultimately about how an aristocrat became a writer, Tropic of Cancer is about how a muckworm did the same.
Reading the book again as a man rolling down the hill to my own middle age via lifeless, hopeless jobs what sticks with me are details like Miller aggressively hiding his intelligence from a boss that sees brains as a detriment in a worker, or taking a writing job in which the compensation is getting fucked, or a teaching job with no pay attached at a school where the toilets freeze solid in winter, or wondering how in the hell a writer works without a chair, a desk, and a full stomach. These things are more relatable for me than yet another MFA writing about middle class “etiolated families” (thanks Jim Harrison). There is a sense with so many of the great writers of the century that, before they can speak, they have to demand we shut up and listen.
And then there’s the language! Orwell made a nice comment that Miller brought back adjectives after ten years. Hemingway’s trick is to write in a style so clean and direct that everyone thinks they can copy him before realizing they really can’t. With Miller, only a few try because the style is clearly so thornily individual. Throughout the book, lines like “They walk along like blind geese and the searchlights spray their faces with empty flecks of ecstasy” bob up with surprising regularity in a 300 page raging river of words. Miller can become tedious at times, but when he’s on a roll there’s an abundant and profane exuberance to his sentences, glimpsed little gobs of the garbage of life strung out in rollicking sentences like pearls on a string, arriving finally at music. He is one of those authors that young and aspiring writers should read just to see what can be done with prose when the writer “gets off the gold standard of literature” and shoots “a gob of spit in the face of Art…” Reading the novel twenty years later, its mad language remains freeing.
Finally, there’s the defiant stance of the novel in opposition to every value of the era, most of which were reruns from the nineteenth century and passed along, long dead, to our own ghost century. Miller goes on, after the famous line about Art, to give a “kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty… what you will?” In an era of creeping Taylorism, thoughtless “progress”, and the creeping grey mass, Miller demands to know where freedom lies for the individual, even and especially for the “zero”. Maybe the mass is no longer grey- rather uncolored somewhere between Ikea white and iPod white- but Miller’s appeal to “the imperfect ones” is no less insistent and stirring. Our attitudes about sex might have changed, but I suspect the reason the book still reads so well after eighty years, seeming to have been written yesterday, is that humanity is no less embattled.