Tropic of Cancer
by Henry Miller
This is a Rabelaisian novel first and foremost. While rough around the edges, it is full of life. Henry Miller's once-banned memoir-like novel is better than any reality TV show (pardon me, that standard is too low to be meaningful). Using a picaresque style he tells of journeying through and around France while sharing experiences that seem as real as any dream, or nightmare, can be. Combining autobiography and fiction, some chapters follow a narrative of some kind and refer to Miller's actual friends, colleagues, and workplaces; others are written as stream-of-consciousness reflections that are occasionally epiphanic. The novel is written in the first person, as are many of Miller's other novels, and does not have a linear organization, but rather fluctuates frequently between the past and present.
Even better for me were the observations of the narrator on life and art, for example: describing an artist he wrote: "An artist is always alone - if he is an artist. No, what an artist needs is loneliness." There are other comments like this -- perhaps somewhat arrogant, but almost always funny, ironic, interesting or some combination of these.
Describing his perception of Paris during this time, Miller wrote:
"One can live in Paris—I discovered that!—on just grief and anguish. A bitter nourishment—perhaps the best there is for certain people. At any rate, I had not yet come to the end of my rope. I was only flirting with disaster. ... I understood then why it is that Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love. I understood why it is that here, at the very hub of the wheel, one can embrace the most fantastic, the most impossible theories, without finding them in the least strange; it is here that one reads again the books of his youth and the enigmas take on new meanings, one for every white hair. One walks the streets knowing that he is mad, possessed, because it is only too obvious that these cold, indifferent faces are the visages of one's keepers. Here all boundaries fade away and the world reveals itself for the mad slaughterhouse that it is. The treadmill stretches away to infinitude, the hatches are closed down tight, logic runs rampant, with bloody cleaver flashing."(pp 180-182)
Miller's style makes you think about what is happening and what is being said, whether you like it or not. Often viewing life from the under the under side it is a crazy wonderful book. Not for prudes - if there are any left in the twenty-first century.
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller. Modern Library, 1983 (1934)