‘Tropic of Cancer’ was banned in the UK and the USA for almost 30 years. Re-reading it after several decades, I am not surprised – it contains what were for the times explicit descriptions of sexual activity that you cannot find in any other conventional text of the time. Miller’s own description of the novel explained:
“This is not a book in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of art”
George Orwell was an early defender of Miller, and in his 1940 essay ‘Inside the Whale’ wrote –
“I earnestly counsel anyone who has not done so to read …Tropic of Cancer. With a little ingenuity, or by paying a little over the published price, you can get hold of it, and even if parts of it disgust you, it will stick in your memory.”
He went on to say
“It is also an ‘important’ book, in a sense different from the sense in which that word is generally used. As a rule novels are spoken of as ‘important’ when they are either a ‘terrible indictment’ of something or other or when they introduce some technical innovation. Neither of these applies to Tropic of Cancer. Its importance is merely symptomatic. Here in my opinion is the only imaginative prose-writer of the slightest value who has appeared among the English-speaking races for some years past. Even if that is objected to as an overstatement, it will probably be admitted that Miller is a writer out of the ordinary, worth more than a single glance; and after all, he is a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses. Symptomatically, that is more significant than the mere fact that five thousand novels are published in England every year and four thousand nine hundred of them are tripe. It is a demonstration of the impossibility of any major literature until the world has shaken itself into its new shape.”
“Whitman among the corpses” – what a phrase! It’s impossible (for me) not to read those words and recognise Orwell’s extraordinary powerful way with words. It was on the basis of this recommendation that I originally read ‘Tropic of Cancer’. My recollection is that I found it much more erotic than on re-reading, so much so that I began to wonder whether the Grove Press (no, me neither) edition I was using was bowdlerised – but apparently not. Memory can play tricks of course, which I suppose is one reason why I am re-reading many of these novels in the first place.
Briefly, ‘Tropic’ is a portrait of the life of an American expatriate down and out in Paris in the 1930s. The character is virtually penniless (or francless) and has a series of adventures, sexual and otherwise, while writing a novel. At times there is a semblance of a narrative, particularly in the novel’s closing scenes when the narrator teaches at a school in Dijon, and subsequently helps a friend escape from a relationship and return to America. It is written in a free form, stream of consciousness style, and Miller holds nothing back – it is scatological and sexually explicit. At times the narrative breaks down almost completely, and the text becomes simply layers of phrases:
“Tania is a fever, too – bright neckties on the Boulevard Montparnasse, dark bathrooms, Porto Sec, Abdullah cigarettes, the adagio sonata Pathetique, aural amplifiers, anecdotal séances, burnt sienna breasts, heavy garters, what time is it, golden pheasants stuffed with chestnuts, taffeta fingers, vaporish twilights turning to ilex, acromelagy, cancer, and delirium…” (page 5)
The first person narrator holds women in contempt – he describes them all routinely using the c-word, and there isn’t a single female character in the novel that isn’t either a prostitute or a sexual victim of one kind or another. Women exist only as objects. He describes female genitals as “that dark, unstitched wound, that sink of abominations” (251) and as an “ugly gash, the wound that never heals” and “this great yawning gulf of nothingness which the creative spirits and mothers of the race carry between their legs” (253). Later in a scene towards the end of the novel, the narrator visits a friend, who has been sleeping with a young woman:
“He came to the door stark naked. It was his night off and there was a c*** in the bed as usual. “Don’t mind her” he says, “she’s asleep. If you need a lay you can take her on. She’s not bad”. He pulls the covers back to show me what she looks like.” (291). Freud would have a field day with this language and imagery – what psychological or sexual trauma led to Miller’s narrator feeling this way towards women?
Tempted as I am to dismiss this as misogynistic soft porn and move on, I can’t. For one thing, Miller can write;
“I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.”
He is also articulates the millennial nihilism that afflicted many in Europe as war threatened:
“For a hundred years or more the world, our world, has been dying. And not one man, in these last hundred years or so, has been crazy enough to put a bomb up the asshole of creation and set it off. The world is rotting away, dying piecemeal. But it needs the coup de grace, it needs to be blown to smithereens”
At times the tone is unsettlingly uneven – Miller moves from light comedy, such as the scene where a bidet is used inappropriately, to surrealist, fantastical descriptions, which are the parts of the novel I found the most challenging:
“Standing in the courtyard with a glass eye; only half the world is intelligible. The stones are wet and mossy and in the crevices are black toads. A big door bars the entrance to the cellar; the steps are slippery and soiled with bat dung. The door bulges and sags, the hinges are falling off, but there is an enamelled sign on it, in perfect condition, which says: “Be sure to close the door.” Why close the door? I can’t make it out. I look again at the sign but it is removed; in its place there is a pane of colored glass. I take out my artificial eye, spit on it and polish it with my handkerchief. A woman is sitting on a dais above an immense carven desk; she has a snake around her neck” (and so on – this goes on for a long time!)
Eighty years ago ‘Tropic of Cancer’ was banned because of its portrayal of sex – it is a sign of how we have moved on as a society that what is shocking about the novel today is its sexism, not its sex.