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Thread: May' 15 Reading: Tropic of Cancer

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    Pièce de Résistance Scheherazade's Avatar
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    May' 15 Reading: Tropic of Cancer

    Please share your thoughts and comments in this thread.
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    "It is not that I am mad; it is only that my head is different from yours.”
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    Though first published in 1934, The Tropic of Cancer was not allowed entry into the U.S. until 1962. At that time I was a mere whippersnapper, but I can remember hearing titters about it. I imagined the curious sneaking a look and barely post-pubescent youths surreptitiously underlining all the juicy parts, as Ensign Pulver did with his dog-eared paperback of God’s Little Acre.

    Full disclosure: until the LitNet chose The Tropic of Cancer as its May selection, it had never occurred to me to read it. From everything I heard I thought the book would be one colossal bore.Au contraire! The powerful prose resonates with such a contemporary feel that it gives an impression that it could have been written just the other day.

    Granted, the so-called “controversy” over its erotic subject matter does seem dated, in light of the fact that latter-day Ensign Pulvers can indulge their prurient interests on any number of porno websites. Even so, just a few pages into the narrative there is an explicit shocker that rarely rears its ugly head even today: the 4-letter “c” word referring to the female anatomy. Taken at face value, the word is incendiary, still capable of firing up strident feminists railing against the treatment of women as objects. We have to remind ourselves, though, that the setting of the novel is Paris of 1930, not the Sarah Lawrence campus of 2015.

    Just as it is incorrect to consider a woman merely as the sum of her juicy parts, it’s misguided to think that sex is the only thing the book is about. The book’s narrator is neither a misogynist nor a fiend driven solely by his libido. My impression is that Henry Miller’s protagonist doesn’t hate women-- he loves them with a deep appreciation of their physicality, their ineffable “otherness”-- the same way John Updike’s characters do (a point missed by the otherwise astute David Foster Wallace who branded Updike a “narcissist.”)

    Henry Miller’s narrator is the opposite of a narcissist. His self-deprecating humor permeates the pages as he humiliates himself again and again. In one of many comic passages, he comes up with a scheme to hold starvation at bay by wrangling a weekly schedule of dinners invitations from his acquaintances, most of whose company he can barely stand. It has been noted that the book is a romans a clef, with characters based on actual members of Henry Miller’s circle. He is unstinting in his candid depiction of his fellow artistes, a typical one satirically and no doubt accurately described as so disengaged that all he does is sit around drinking and whining.

    The City of Lights is so vividly portrayed that it is, like Isherwood’s Berlin, a distinct character in her own right. Miller’s narrator shows us Paris in all her beauty, as in the watercolor-like play of sun on the Seine, her grotesque features, such as the gargoyles hanging ominously from the exterior of Notre Dame, and her nauseous underbelly, crawling with lice while bedbugs scuttle across blood-stained sheets.

    The refusal to whitewash the sordid aspects of degradation is fearless, as well as giving the work a sense of urgency. This effect is compounded by the use of the present tense- which became fashionably trendy decades later, but here it does not, as in lesser hands, seem awkward or pretentious. Taking in the phenomena and panorama of the world and its inhabitants and responding to experience in all of its glorious and vulgar totality is in a philosophical sense death-defying and life-affirming.

    From the first page on, what is most striking about Henry Miller is his lack of inhibition- not merely in his sensual subject matter but in the sensuous richness of his expression. Miller squeezes every drop of nectar out of a sentence in as many words as it requires. Don’t be deceived, though–the prose is neither crude nor raw. At first glance it may seem prolix, but Miller’s writing is disciplined and controlled. Now and then it may veer off on an intriguing tributary, but always comes back to the river (though not by any stretch “mainstream.”)

    Not every writer has the ability to make the strange familiar, which Miller definitely possesses. Not only that, he is a master of the more difficult Joycean aim of making the familiar sparkling new: seeing the ordinary with an extraordinary vision. The best piece of writing advice I ever came across originated with Henry Miller: Keep your ears and eyes open. To state the obvious, he practices what he preaches.

    Needless to say, I for one have found Henry Miller’s prose to be captivating, compelling,and courageous. Historically, artists worthy of that name have the effect of waking up the middle class. Very few works of merit will validate complacent sensibilities of that crowd. For that matter fans of The DaVinci Code or Downton Abbey will never willingly pick up The Tropic of Cancer. But maybe it would do them some good if they did.

  3. #3
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    Good review, AuntShecky. Making the strange familiar is an admirable goal. It depends on being able to see it in the first place.

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