Sunday, September 22, 2019

the last book I read

Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller.

Our un-named narrator - let's call him "Henry Miller" - is a struggling American writer leading a nomadic existence in Paris in the 1930s, theoretically with the purpose of squeezing out a book (perhaps this book?) but in practice mainly involving a series of minor, temporary writing gigs interspersed with lengthy periods of poverty and squalor, hanging out with other bohemian types in a series of seedy digs, occasionally sponging off better-off acquaintances who have a more lavish supply of cheese and wine, and always with an eye to a bit of the old whoring on the side.

None of the motley crew of chancers and layabouts who comprise Miller's social circle are exactly what you'd call "a catch", but hoo boy the Parisian ladies love a louche literary type who might read them a bit of saucy transgressive poetry before attempting to get into their knickers, and Miller and friends appear to be beating them off with a shitty stick, despite the fairly rudimentary contraceptive options available, the constant threat of the clap (more serious in the pre-penicillin days of the mid-1930s) and, in Miller's case at least, the presence of a wife, Mona, back in the United States.

A bit like in On The Road, a lot of the male characters here (Miller included) seem stuck in a never-ending loop of relentlessly priapic pursuit followed almost immediately by post-coital dissatisfaction and wistful reminiscences of the wife back in New York presumably awaiting news of great literary success, fame and fortune rather than a virulent dose of the clap and a wicked red wine hangover.

It's largely superfluous to try and describe the plot here, since there isn't one: basically Miller drinks and whores around Paris for a bit, briefly gets a teaching post in Dijon which is stiflingly dull and quiet in comparison, relocates to Paris, gets back into the drinking and whoring and reflects wistfully on his wife and contemplates the possibility of a return to America. FIN.

The plot isn't really the point, here, of course, and Tropic Of Cancer wasn't banned in the USA and UK for the best part of thirty years (between its original French publication in 1934 and its first legal US publication in 1961) for "not having much of a plot", but instead for being "obscene", a quaintly anachronistic concept now but one which exercised legal minds quite a lot back in the day. And to be fair if you have some sort of bingo card of Forbidden Words then Tropic Of Cancer is going to score pretty highly on it - 85 years after its publication I could not off the top of my head name a book I've read which features the word "cunt" more often, for instance.

It's interesting to compare Tropic Of Cancer with another celebrated and groundbreaking work of fiction, Lady Chatterley's Lover, whose early history followed a similar course (published in groovy unshockable Europe in 1928, not published legally in the UK until 1960). That aside they're quite different books, though: for all its readily satirisable ey-oop-yer-ladyship-appen-I'm-gunna-fook-thee content the sexual stuff in Lady Chatterley reflects an actual human relationship and carries some genuine erotic charge, despite a bit too much post-coital philosophising. You don't at any point get the sense that the various protagonists in Tropic Of Cancer actually like women very much, which probably explains the fleeting and unsatisfactory nature of most of the sexual encounters. It's certainly unclear what the women get out of it, in general, apart of course from a raging dose of the clap. Tropic Of Cancer is also more inclined to use the word "cunt" in a way that modern readers might find problematic, i.e. as a derogatory slang term for a woman rather than as a biological descriptor for a part of the female anatomy.

But, you know, the purpose of transgressive fiction is to transgress, as joyously and spectacularly as possible, and this pretty much does what it says on the tin. Despite being essentially plotless and featuring a cast of characters who are generally unappealing and untrustworthy, and indeed despite barely being a novel at all in any real sense, being really just a loosely-fictionalised summary of Miller's own bohemian existence in Paris in the 1930s, it still bowls along with a reckless energy which sucks the reader in. It goes without saying that it features on most "best novels of the 20th century" list, including the TIME magazine one which has featured here many times before, but also this wider-ranging Guardian one from 2015. It was adapted into a film in 1970 starring Rip Torn as Miller, which appears to have updated the original 1930s setting somewhat. Probably more relevant to the modern moviegoer is 1990's Henry & June, which isn't exactly an adaptation of the book but recounts some of the real-life circumstances of its writing and publication, including Miller's infatuation with French writer Ana├»s Nin.

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