Paris is like a whore. From a distance she seem ravishing, you can’t wait until you have her in your arms. And five minutes later you feel empty, disgusted with yourself. You feel tricked.
I’m not sure what those who love Paris would think of this statement, but Henry Miller had plenty to say about the City of Lights in his novel, Tropic of Cancer.
A bit of history: Tropic of Cancer was published in 1934 in Paris, France but was banned in the United States for 27 years. It wasn’t until the obscenity trials in the 1960’s that the Supreme Court ruled the novel not obscene. That ruling in 1964 made way for a new era of freedom in writing that we see now (although, some may say, a bit too far in the name of said freedom).
Miller’s novel is one I had never read previously. But since I’ve always longed to include banned books in my reviews, I wanted to see what the fuss was all about. It didn’t take long before I realized why this book was banned in the U.S. Miller is a writer who says what he wants in a way that is sure to embarrass or offend. Or, if you’re like me, you will think it is exceedingly funny. Miller is a HOOT! Take away the racist descriptions of Jews, Asians and African-Americans, as well as the many, many sexist ones of women (and you must if you plan to read this book), Tropic of Cancer is a lot to take in, but enjoyable all the same. Miller uses his words to describe his adventures in a way that made me think of Alice in Wonderland: fantastical, cooky, wild and a bit unreal. There were times that I felt like I was reading someone’s journal who was all the time aware but also high on something. Everything is expanded, stretched, other. Nothing is normal, but it is so abnormal that Miller’s world becomes normal.
There are a plethora of ways in which Miller talks about the people who came in and out of his life while in France. A perfect example is the couple who came to the Villa Borghese, where he was also staying, to rent space. Miller described Mr. Wren’s voice in a way that made me wish I could have heard it for myself. “His voice is raucous, scraping, booming, a heavy blunt weapon that wedges its way through flesh and bone and cartilage.” This description made me wonder what Mr. Wren would have looked like. Was he a big man or slight? Short or tall? Serene or full of nervous energy? I truly wanted to know.
Tropic of Cancer may seem like a crazy book of words, almost like Gertrude Stein’s work, but like her, Miller uses a mad sort of organization. A passage that really stuck with me was one in which he described a situation involving his friend Van Norden and a French prostitute. The two men take the woman to Van Norden’s room, although neither are truly desirous of her. But money has been promised and both feel obligated to go through with the transaction, but for different reasons. Miller compares the situation to that of a soldier’s during war time. “It’s exactly like a state of war—I can’t get it out of my head. The way she works over me, to blow a spark of passion into me, makes me think what a damned poor soldier I’d be if I was ever silly enough to be trapped like this and dragged to the front. I know for my part that I’d surrender everything, honor included, in order to get out of the mess. I haven’t any stomach for it, and that’s all there is to it.” Van Norden, however, is intrigued by the situation and goes in whole-hog. “It’s like a man in the trenches again: he doesn’t know any more why he should go on living, because if he escapes now he’ll only be caught later, but he goes on just the same, and even though he has the soul of a cockroach and has admitted as much to himself, give him a gun or a knife or even just his bare nails, and he’ll go on slaughtering and slaughtering, he’d slaughter a million men rather than stop and ask himself why.”
For women especially, this novel will be quite offensive. Women are described either as whores, shrews, c*nts, or my favorite, “rich c*nts.” Even in 2015, many of us ladies would be a bit put off by these terms. Our only reason for being in the novel is basically for sex: to give it, receive it, barter it, expect it or use it as some sort of weapon. Prostitutes reign supreme in Miller’s world and they seem to be everywhere. Even in the boring village of Dijon, “there were always a few whores about who, for a glass of beer or a cup of coffee, would sit and chew the fat with you.” Even knowing that Tropic of Cancer is part memoir and part fiction, I still wondered how much was fiction, particularly when it came to the almost never-ending stream of prostitutes.
Although Tropic of Cancer may be a hard book to get through because of Miller’s language and style of writing, I recommend you read it because when you get past those obstacles, it is a funny and imaginative novel, which I enjoyed immensely. I highly recommend it.
Be on the lookout for my next banned books review of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.