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Tropic of Cancer – Andy is by turns fascinated, then bored, but never remotely steamy

January 2, 2014

Steamy. Tropic. Geddit?

Oh dear god.

tropicTropic of Cancer mostly doesn’t deserve its reputation. Henry Miller isn’t a great writer, in fact at times he’s pretty terrible – usually the very times he’s trying so very hard to be Great. I can see how scandalous this must’ve been at the time it was written, although it garnered praise from, among others, TS Eliot – a Papist Tory, for godsake. Today it’s occasionally eye opening, but this is usually more to do with the conditions these people lived in, not the fact they were shagging a lot. I didn’t think it was particularly misogynist, to be honest, given the time it was written, although obviously swaths of people disagree with me.

The time it was written is probably a clue to exactly how great this book isn’t. The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, To the Lighthouse – these books were written in the decade before Tropic of Cancer. To the Lighthouse is certainly the most difficult of the four, but as a work of literature it’s head and shoulders above Miller.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy Tropic of Cancer. I did. A lot of it, anyway. If Miller had limited himself to fictitiously depicting his life as an impoverished, unpublished expat writer in Paris in the first years of the Depression this would have been a much better book. Perhaps editors suggested this to him. Perhaps he ignored them. I don’t know. But those sections of the novel that describe his life as he lived it, life as others lived it around him – those sections are good, and some of them might even be great. Having read Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises, and Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and enjoyed them immensely, I have some interest in the city in that period – the early 20s to the mid 30s. Tropic of Cancer is the worst of the three, but that’s not to say it’s bad. It would’ve been a hell of a lot better if he’d stuck to what he was doing quite well, rather than allowing his monstrously inflated ego to get away with the fatuous, flatulent “philosophising” that fills out the rest of the book.

Although apparently he got worse after Tropic of Cancer, his first book. Tropic of Capricorn, its sequel, is set a few years earlier, back in the States, and apparently in that book his ego is even more ferociously unleashed. Jump forward to the 60s and Gore Vidal’s review of Miller’s Sexus after it was eventually published in the States – “it must be noted that only a total egotist could have written a book which has no subject other than Henry Miller in all his sweet monotony … At least half of Sexus consists of tributes to the wonder of Henry Miller … In nearly every scene of Sexus people beg Miller to give them The Answer, whisper the Secret, reveal The Cosmos … ”

Vidal ends his review with a surprisingly ungrudging acknowledgment of the role Miller had played over the previous 20 years in opening up avenues of writing about sex that had previously been unthinkable. And it should also be noted that, if I read Vidal’s memoirs correctly, he was schtupping Anais Nin behind Miller’s back while Nin was schtupping Miller. Miller can’t have appreciated being cuckolded by an avowed sodomite (Vidal believed we are all bisexual in essence, while also shamelessly embracing his own primary attraction to men). It’s probably worth keeping those facts in mind when thinking about what Vidal wrote about Miller a couple of decades after those things happened.

Although it’s also probably worth keeping in mind that Vidal was a much, much better writer. As was Hemingway and Orwell and Fitzgerald and even Nin, something I did not expect Netty to admit to and yet which she did admit, although, granted, over a bloody Mary.

Miller’s first book is worth a look. But it – and he – are not all that.

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